You Likely Don’t Need Protein Powder. How to Pick One if You Do

Kristina Eich, MS RDN CD, Arivale Coach
Kristina Eich
MS RDN CD, Arivale Coach

Protein might just be the most popular macronutrient in the nutrition world. Necessary for muscle growth and repair, protein is also essential for creating the structure of our cells, regulating proper DNA synthesis, and building enzymes and antibodies.

But, protein has also become a buzzword – and the supplement industry knows it. Whether it’s a gym, wholesale warehouse, or grocery store, gallon drums of protein powder beckon consumers to the convenience of a shake and the promise of fulfilling unmet protein needs.

The fact is: If you’re a relatively healthy adult living in the United States, it’s likely your protein needs are already being met through your diet. American men and women consume an average of 16.1 percent and 15.6 percent of their total calories from protein, respectively1This more than covers the basic recommended daily allowance of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram per day. For example, a 150-pound person would require 54 grams of protein per day — which is roughly 11% of a 2,000-calorie diet. Even a more active individual, with higher protein needs for muscle repair, would likely have his or her needs met by a protein intake of 15 percent to 16 percent of their total daily calories.

Besides, getting protein from whole-food sources – such as fish, eggs, lean poultry and meats, tofu, beans, dairy, nuts, and seeds – rather than a powder has the added benefit of getting other important nutrients into your diet.

That being said, the occasional protein shake can definitely be a lesser-of-multiple-evils choice for some people. Travelers on the go, parents rushing out the door to get kids to school, or bodybuilders looking to meet higher protein needs might opt for the convenience of a powder.

But before you invest in a tub of protein powder that will take up residence on top of your fridge for the next year, read on to determine whether protein powder is the right choice for you and your life and get tips on picking the right one.

Types of Protein Powders

The most predominant protein on the market is whey, a protein from milk that’s been shown to promote lean body mass – compared to carbohydrate or soy supplementation – when used in conjunction with resistance training2. (However, it’s important to note a smaller randomized control trial has demonstrated that both soy and whey proteins promote lean body mass when used with resistance training3.)

Plant-based proteins – such as soy, hemp, and pea protein – are trending for their environmental sustainability, vegetarian and vegan-inclusive approach, and their own unique nutrient profiles that include benefits like isoflavones (soy) and omega-3 fatty acids (hemp).

Egg white protein is a lesser-marketed but still viable protein powder choice.

Your Reason for Taking It: Weight Loss

Protein is a satiating macronutrient4 that can potentially aid in short-term weight loss5, one of the most common reasons for drinking protein shakes.

During digestion, your body works hard to break down proteins into their individual amino acid components. However, your body doesn’t have to work nearly as hard to break down highly processed products – such as protein powders – and drinking nutrients rather than eating them also means a shorter digestion time, which in turn is less satiating and can be frustrating for those seeking to lose weight.

Choosing high-protein whole foods, such as those listed earlier in this blog, is likely to be the most supportive for successful weight loss. But if protein powder is still something you want to incorporate in your weight-loss plan, a nutritionist can help you choose one that’s best for your needs.  As a general rule, spread out your total protein intake – from both whole foods and powders – throughout the day to keep your blood sugars stable and hunger at bay.

Your Reason for Taking It: Muscle Gain

Interestingly, the very features that can make protein powder not so great for weight loss can actually be attractive for those looking to build more muscle. Quick digestion and absorption of muscle-growing protein means bigger muscles, right?

Sort of.

Keep in mind the act of strength training is a non-negotiable part of muscle growth and that consuming a protein supplement alone won’t spontaneously make you stronger. For the average body, muscle growth appears to be optimized when protein is kept around 25 grams to 35 grams per meal and meals are evenly distributed throughout the day6,7. So, chugging 40 grams of protein shake after a gym session isn’t going to be the best strategy for optimizing muscle growth.

On the other hand, spreading out 35 grams of protein in multiple shakes throughout the day displaces the chance to eat other nutrient-rich foods. You can mitigate this problem by filling up on whole foods first and using protein powder as a backup, rather than a daily staple.

And, while strength training and adequate protein can boost your muscle mass, they aren’t the whole story. Carbohydrates and glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrate found in muscles) are our major energy source during physical training and can impact workout intensity and potential muscle gains. Dietary fat may also have an influence over anabolic hormones that play a part in muscle growth, though further research is needed8.

Quality and Taste

Protein powders are considered dietary supplements and may be regulated under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. This means that, unlike with drugs, you as the consumer are responsible for knowing a supplement company’s practices and quality assurances since their product won’t be regulated as tightly by the government. Reputable companies that care about quality will most likely have a certification for Good Manufacturing Practices. Third-party testing and auditing are other signifiers a company values quality and tests regularly for contaminants. Many companies will post certifications on their website. If you can’t find them, send a quick email to the manufacturer and ask who performs their product testing.

Last, but not least, is taste. You shouldn’t have to grimace and plug your nose to get through your protein shake. Check the powder’s label for artificial sugars and fillers. Typically, it’s best to avoid powders that have added sugars. Stevia and monk fruit are two natural sweeteners that don’t add empty calories. Blending protein powder with a serving of fruit in a blender bottle or an actual blender can make your shake more palatable.

You should also be on the lookout for protein powders with added herbal or vitamin supplements, which aren’t necessary or recommended for every person. When it comes to protein supplement ingredients and additives, stick to the “less is more” adage.”

Remember not everyone needs – or does well with – protein powders. Ideally, they should be used only occasionally as a stopgap, not as a regular way to get protein into your day. We all lead busy lives and have different health goals, but feeding our bodies real, wholesome foods should be a priority.

References:

  1. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Health Statistics; Diet/Nutrition. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/diet.htm
  2. Naclerio F, Larumbe-Zabala E. Effects of Whey Protein Alone or as Part of a Multi-ingredient Formulation on Strength, Fat-Free Mass, or Lean Body Mass in Resistance-Trained Individuals: A Meta-analysis. Sports Med. 2016 Jan;46(1):125-37. doi: 10.1007/s40279-015-0403-y
  3. Brown EC, DiSilvestro RA, Babaknia A, Devor ST. Soy versus whey protein bars: Effects on exercise training impact on lean body mass and antioxidant status. Nutr J. 2004; 3: 22. Published online 2004 Dec 8. doi: 10.1186/1475-2891-3-22
  4. Dhillon J, et al. The Effects of Increased Protein Intake on Fullness: A Meta-Analysis and Its Limitations. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics , Volume 116 , Issue 6 , 968 – 983
  5. Leidy H, et al. The role of protein in weight loss and maintenance. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Volume 101, Issue 6, 1 June 2015, Pages 1320S–1329S, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.114.084038
  6. Schoenfeld BJ., Aragon AA., Krieger JW. The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2013 10:53 https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-10-53
  7. Schoenfeld BJ., Aragon AA. How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2018 15:10 https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-018-0215-1
  8. Helms ER, Aragon AA, Fitschen PJ. Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014; 11: 20. Published online 2014 May 12. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-11-20