Protein Powder: The Hidden Scoop

Let's shake-up the science on whether or not you need protein powder and which types are best suited for your goals.

Scoop of protein powder

You’ve likely heard the benefits of using protein powders to enhance your strength training. Many smoothie shops, sports centers, or juice bars will offer protein powder as an additional ingredient to increase the effectiveness of the drink. While some protein powders are beneficial, many pose hidden disadvantages for your health. Let’s take a look at whether you need protein powder in your diet and which ones are the best for your goals.

What is protein? 

Protein is a macronutrient that’s essential for maintaining your body structure and many body functions. Protein is made up of amino acids: non-essential amino acids which can be created by your body and essential amino acids which have to come from the foods you eat.

Natural protein sources: fish, quinoa, meat, poultry, eggs, dairy (yogurt, milk, cheese), tofu, nuts, and seeds. 

Do you need protein powder?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that the average adult gets about 0.35 grams of protein per pound of body weight (0.8 grams per kilogram) for general health (1). This can easily be obtained by the natural protein foods you eat. 

Excess protein that you eat is used as energy. This can lead to weight gain, if you’re consuming extra calories over a period of time. Having excessive protein may also lead to stomach upset and be difficult for your body to digest and process (2). 

Protein needs increase with activity levels, age, and medical conditions such as illness or injury. If you’re not able to eat enough protein due to a reduced appetite, an unbalanced plant-based diet, or lack of access to protein-rich foods - you may want to consider including some protein powder in your diet. However, protein deficiency is very rare, if you are eating a varied diet you are most likely reaching your recommendation since some protein exists in most food groups. 

Is protein powder needed for sports nutrition?

For strength and endurance athletes, who want to increase muscle mass, protein requirements increase to 0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound (1.2 to 1.7 grams per kilogram) bodyweight per day (1). Which usually is reached if the recommended energy intake is adequate. 

Athletes may use protein powder for convenience purposes. If you’re training hard, you may find it difficult to prepare the increased amount of meals and snacks. But there are many simple and easy high protein snacks such as a yogurt bowl or an easy high protein smoothie. Eating “real” food also brings other benefits such as dietary fibers, vitamins and minerals. 

Hidden disadvantages of protein powder

Protein powders are considered to be processed foods. They typically contain added sugar, artificial sweeteners, flavorings, synthetic vitamins and minerals, colorings, and preservatives. Some of these ingredients may cause symptoms such as stomach upset.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate supplements including protein powders, meaning that what the products put on the labels can be inaccurate (3).

Harvard Health explains that we don’t know the long-term effects of protein powders since there are limited studies with inconclusive data. Recent research also found that some protein powders contain heavy metals and bisphenol-A (BPA) which can be toxic in high doses (3).

Types of protein powder

Protein powders are not all created equal. Some may be more advantageous depending on your diet preferences and goals.  

Whey protein

Whey protein is one of the most common protein powders. Whey is the liquid part that remains when milk is curdled and strained. It contains all of the essential amino acids (building blocks of protein). 

Since whey comes from cow’s dairy, it’s not recommended if you have a milk allergy or are avoiding animal products. 

Some studies suggest that whey protein may help with muscle building and recovery, but the evidence is not strong enough to make final recommendations in terms of how much and how long to take it (4).

Casein protein

Casein is similar to whey in the fact that it’s also manufactured from cow’s milk and contains all essential amino acids. Therefore it’s not the best option if you have an allergy or intolerance to milk, or are following a plant-based diet. 

Casein is digested more slowly than whey so it's a better option to use at night instead of directly before or after a workout. 

Soy protein

Soy is a complete protein, meaning it contains all of the essential amino acids. It also has medicinal-like nutrients called phytoestrogens. 

Some experts believe the processing of soy may cause allergies or gastric distress, while other studies suggest no harm (5). Since studies are conflicting when it comes to the benefits and disadvantages of soy, it’s best to find what suits you the best and to consume it in moderation.

Hemp protein

Hemp is also a complete source of plant-based amino acids, is easier to digest for most people, and is a good source of heart-healthy dietary fiber. 

Hemp is thought to contain an ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, making it helpful for regulating inflammation although some of the healthy oils are removed during processing (6).

Pea protein 

Pea protein tends to be hypoallergenic, meaning it’s less likely to cause allergies and inflammation in most people. It contains all essential amino acids but is low in the amino acid, methionine, which is found in brown rice. So if you were to find a product that contains pea protein and brown rice (or if you consume brown rice or any other food that has methionine during the day), you’d get the variety of amino acids you need. 

The final scoop

Protein powders vary according to how quickly they are absorbed, how your body responds to them, and their nutrient composition. If you do decide to use protein powder, look for the brands that are minimally processed and don’t include many (if any) artificial ingredients and added sugar. 

Remember that more protein isn’t necessarily better. Getting protein from natural food sources such as dairy, eggs, poultry, nuts, and seeds, is the most beneficial and healthiest way to boost your protein intake.  

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