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Is Protein Powder Healthy? Here’s What a Dietitian Says – EatingWell

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Protein is a mighty macronutrient famous for its help in muscle building. Amino acids are small parts that make up protein. Protein is essential and has special functions all over the body, including fluid balance, hormone regulation and sustaining good health.

The hair on your head, the skin that covers you and the muscles you move each day are just a few parts of you supported by protein.

Many health-conscious people have concerns about getting enough protein. Taking protein supplements is a popular way to stay on top of getting enough protein. According to Statistica, in 2018, there were $4.14 billion in sales of protein powders.

But is protein powder healthy? Should you be using it? Keep reading to find out.

What Is Protein Powder?

Protein powder is popular among athletes and fitness gurus for helping build muscle and boost physical performance. But protein powder isn’t only for exercise and sports. Many rely on protein powder to help meet daily protein needs, gain or lose weight or recover from injury or surgery. Protein powder is a dietary supplement made by extracting protein from animal and plant foods.

Animal-Based Protein

One of the most common types of protein powder is whey protein, which is water-soluble and makes up 20% of the proteins found in cow’s milk. Whey protein is rich in the essential amino acid leucine and is easily digestible.

Other animal-based protein powders come from eggs, collagen and casein. Casein makes up the other 80% of cow’s milk protein.

Plant-Based Protein

The ever-increasing trend of plant-based food products has created a demand for plant-based protein powders. You can find many plant-based protein supplements today, including pea, hemp, pumpkin seed, soy, algae and rice protein powders. These products are great for those with dairy allergies.

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Pros of Protein Powder

Weight Management

When working with clients, I recommend that they include a source of protein with all meals to help with fullness and satiety. This can be challenging at breakfast time for some but can greatly impact how you feel and eat for the rest of the day. Protein can help you get to a healthy weight or keep a healthy weight by making you more satisfied after eating.

A 2020 review in Clinical Nutrition ESPEN found reductions in body weight and fat mass in adults taking whey protein supplements. And while high-protein diets are hotly debated, a 2020 review in the Journal of Obesity & Metabolic Syndrome found evidence that eating more protein than the recommended dietary allowance induces weight loss and improves body composition, regardless of total caloric intake.

Perhaps ironically, if you’re underweight, adding protein powder to your diet might be able to help you gain weight. Excess protein intake can lead to weight gain as the protein our body can’t use goes to fat stores. And if you’re strength training, the protein will help you build muscle, which will also add to your overall weight.

Muscle Growth

Weight lifters widely use protein shakes and supplements to help with muscle gain. Protein powder stimulates muscle growth in active individuals. In a 2018 review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, weight-training adults who took protein supplements experienced significant increases in strength and muscle size in just six weeks.

Prevention of Muscle Loss

Older adults have increased protein needs. Because of aging, older adults may experience reduced intake of foods, reduced physical activity and muscle loss. Muscle loss can increase the risk of injury, partly due to creating an increased risk of falling. A 2020 review in Experimental Gerontology suggests whey protein prevents fall risks and muscle loss in the elderly.

Convenience

Protein powder is available in many flavors, from fruity to chocolaty to flavorless, making it versatile and easy to mix into a myriad of foods. It goes well in smoothies, soups, beverages, cookies, granola bars, hot cereals and pancake batter.

The most popular way to use protein powder is to blend it in a shake or a smoothie. This makes it easy to eat on the go.

Versatile

The numerous special diets and food allergies today have increased the demand for diet-friendly foods. You might follow a vegan lifestyle and need a vegan protein powder. You could be wanting to control your carbohydrate intake and need a low-carbohydrate protein powder. Do you want to enhance your skin health? Maybe a collagen protein powder is for you. Whether you follow a low-carb, plant-based or gluten-free diet, there is a protein powder available to help you reach your health goals.

Cons of Protein Powder

Potential Contaminants

A nonprofit organization called the Clean Label Project investigated the contents of 134 high-selling protein powders. The results showed that 75% of the protein powders they tested contained some level of lead, and 55% tested positive for BPA. The study also detected levels of mercury, arsenic and cadmium.

Possibility of Excessive Protein Intake

Eating high amounts of protein for extended periods can precipitate several potential health consequences. For example, eating too much protein can put undue stress on your kidneys, creating an acidic environment. This, in turn, can increase your need to pee; it might also cause problems in your bones and liver.

When people increase their protein intake, they also often decrease their intake of carbohydrates. This can leave you feeling lethargic and unable to focus. It can also leave you constipated as fewer carbs mean fewer whole grains and nutrients, including fiber. And fiber is necessary to keep things moving through your gut.

Expense

High-quality protein powders may be more expensive to purchase compared to whole-food proteins. For example, you could pay anywhere between $0.42-$2.90 per ounce for protein powder. But you can find protein-rich tofu at a grocery store for about $0.18 per ounce.

What to Look for in Protein Powder

Third-Party Tested

While it may come as a surprise, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t analyze the content of protein powders. But according to a 2019 study in Current Sports Medicine Reports, some organizations do third-party testing of products.

The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) is one of these organizations. The NSF provides third-party testing for dietary supplements like protein powders to ensure their safety, quality and contents are up to a certain level of standards.

It’s best to choose protein powders that have gone through third-party testing to ensure the product is what the manufacturer says it is. You can figure out if a protein powder is NSF-certified by looking for the blue and white NSF logo on the product packaging.

Type of Protein

To choose the best type of protein, consider your goals. If you’re trying to add muscle mass and strength, you may want to try whey protein. Or if you’re looking to add fiber to your diet, you could consider using hemp protein powder.

Type of Sweetener

You can find protein powders made with a variety of ingredients used to sweeten their flavor. Some are sweetened with sugar alcohols or artificial sweeteners.

It’s best to choose a protein powder with little or no added sugar and no added artificial sweeteners. Consider ones that use natural sweeteners like stevia or monk fruit. If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), steer clear of ones sweetened with sugar alcohols, as they can wreak havoc on your gut.

Other Ingredients

Do your research to help you choose safe options and avoid harmful additives in protein powders. Check out studies, like the 2020 review in Toxicology Reports that explains both the Clean Label Project study, as well as research from Consumer Reports that also tested protein powders for their contents—including heavy metals.

High-Protein Foods List

For healthy individuals age 19 and up, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 46 grams of protein for women and 56 g for men. Protein recommendations may change based on activity level, health goals and aging. Depending on your individual needs and health goals, protein powder supplements may or may not benefit you.

The first-line approach to nutrition is to attain optimal health through whole foods. Many high-protein foods can help you meet your protein needs. Here are the numbers of grams of protein in several foods, according to the USDA:

The Bottom Line

So, is protein powder healthy? Yes, if it is a good quality, third-party-tested product with minimal sugar and void of harmful additives. Protein powders can fit into most eating patterns and help you meet your health goals. Just remember—protein powder is a dietary supplement. This means it enhances your diet. Be sure to be eating whole food proteins as part of a healthy diet first.

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