Is Protein Powder Good for You?

It sounds healthy, but there's one concern people have been worried about.

Protein powder isn't just for bodybuilders. These days, you'll find a variety of protein powders at mainstream supermarkets. You can use them in recipes far beyond your typical smoothie.

Many people have questions about protein powders, including whether they're healthy, which type is best, and how to use them. These pros, potential cons, and bottom-line tips cover all the bases regarding protein powders.

Dietary supplements are minimally regulated by the FDA and may or may not be suitable for you. The effects of supplements vary from person to person and depend on many variables, including type, dosage, frequency of use, and interactions with current medications. Please speak with your healthcare provider or pharmacist before starting any supplements.


What Is Protein Powder?

There's no one standard formulation for protein powders. Generally, they're made from one or more types of protein, isolated from food, and concentrated into a dried, finely powdered form.

A protein powder can be made from either an animal source, including eggs and dairy-derived whey or casein protein, or various plant sources. Plant-sourced protein can come from split peas, soy, brown rice, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, and hemp.

The Nutritional Breakdown of Protein Powder

One serving of protein powder is about a quarter cup, which is typically a few scoops worth of the scooper that's usually provided inside the package. That one serving can easily pack 20-25 grams of protein. Most of the powders are low in fat and carbs. To determine how a portion of powder fits into your daily protein needs, first assess your overall target for this key macronutrient.

Recommended Dietary Allowance

The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein for a healthy adult with a minimal physical activity level is currently 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (or 2.2 pounds) of body weight per day. For a 150-pound adult, that's about 55 grams of protein per day.

However, protein needs may increase based on your activity level and age. For example, research shows 1.4 to 2 grams per 2.2 pounds of body weight may be needed for building muscle mass due to strength training.

The older you get, the less protein you may need. Research indicates that 1 to 1.2 grams per 2.2 pounds of body weight are recommended for those over 65.

If your daily protein requirement is, say, 60 grams per day, one serving of protein powder can meet a solid one-third of your everyday goal. That's pretty significant.

How Protein Powder Compares With Other Foods

Another way to assess the nutritional value of protein powder is to compare the amount of protein it provides to that of other protein-rich foods. One serving of most protein powders contains about the same amount of protein as a 3-ounce skinless chicken breast and a few grams more than a cup of cooked lentils.

With this in mind, there are two excellent ways to use a protein powder. First, it can be used as an alternative to other protein-containing foods. Second, it is also a way to boost the protein content of a dish that's typically low in protein.

For example, a smoothie made with veggies and fruit lacks protein. Even a few tablespoons of almond butter only add about 6 grams. Blending in a powder can easily up the protein content to a more significant percentage of your daily needs, which transforms the drink into a meal replacement.

Types of Protein Powder

Protein is found in plants and animals. Animal sources tend to have a higher amount of leucine. Leucine is an essential amino acid that aids in insulin regulation and building skeletal muscles.

Animal-Based Protein Powder

Protein from animal sources are generally easier to digest and have the highest content of the amino acids your body needs to get from food.

  • Whey protein: As the watery part of milk, whey is rich in lactose, vitamins, and minerals. Whey protein is also associated with better endurance and upper-body power.
  • Casein protein: Casein is a milk protein. When taken 30 minutes before going to sleep, this protein has been shown to increase the amount of muscle proteins you build and to break down fats and fatty acids, which could help with muscle recovery and overall metabolism.
  • Egg protein: Egg protein is packed with important amino acids that your body needs and contains other nutrients like riboflavin, selenium, and vitamin K.

Plant-Based Protein Powder

These protein powders are ideal if you're following a plant-based diet. Plant-based proteins may not outshine animal-based proteins in nutritional quality, but they still offer health benefits in regard to blood glucose, insulin, and hormones that regulate your appetite.

  • Pea protein: Protein obtained from peas has been shown to have similar effects as whey protein on body composition, muscle thickness, force production, workout performance, and strength following high-intensity training.
  • Brown rice protein: Protein from brown rice may also be another good alternative to whey. One study found that compared to whey protein, rice protein may be just as effective when it comes to gaining strength and muscle thickness.
  • Hemp protein: Hemp protein has been shown to increase strength and muscle thickness in females, compared to soy products. The same effect was not seen in males, however.
  • Mixed plant proteins: Mixed plant protein can come from any of the plants above in addition to alfalfa, chia seeds, flax seeds, artichoke, pumpkin seeds, and quinoa. These mixed powders allow you to get various health benefits from multiple protein sources.

Is Protein Powder Healthy?

The goal isn't to add protein to everything you eat. Rather, it's to meet (and not exceed) your daily protein needs. As for whether protein powders are a healthy way to do that, a simple-ingredient, plant-based option certainly can be—especially if it's been tested for contaminants.

Of course, whole, naturally nutrient-rich foods should always be the default. In these unprocessed foods, protein is bundled with fiber and a wide range of other nutrients and bioactive compounds.

When combined with other whole foods, a protein powder can offer a simple and convenient way to help you meet your daily protein target. These products may also help you reduce meat and dairy and enjoy more balanced plant-based meals.

Heavy Metals in Protein Powder

A couple of tests over the years analyzed whether contaminants, such as heavy metals, are found in protein powder. The Clean Label Project tested 134 of the top-selling protein powders and found them to contain high levels of heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury, as well as BPA, which made its way into the powder from the packaging.

This and other study findings appeared concerning, so a 2020 study looked into the potential health effects that may be tied to consuming protein powders. The researchers found that up to three daily servings of protein powder were not associated with an increased risk of noncancerous health effects due to heavy metal exposure.

If you are concerned about heavy metal exposure, you can certainly opt not to use protein powder. However, there are also better brands to choose, such as puori, Gorilla Formula 23, OZiva, and KompleX Nutrition. You could also contact any brand to ask about testing or request a particular product's analysis if you want more information.

What To Look for in Protein Powder

Generally, it's recommended to opt for plain, unflavored, unsweetened protein powders. These products allow you to add your own sweetener, if needed, and flavor the powder yourself with all-natural seasonings.

Plain powders are also more versatile because they can be used in sweet and savory dishes. Plus, they're typically free from unwanted additives, like artificial flavors and sweeteners.

Check ingredient lists and look for brands where the only ingredient is the protein itself, such as "pea protein isolate" or "sprouted brown rice protein." That said, some plain powders do add probiotic or enzyme blends. While not necessary, these additions may be beneficial, particularly if you don't consume them from other sources.

If you avoid dairy or are trying to consume a more plant-based diet, plant protein powders are a great option. Research found that a higher intake of plant protein, as compared to animal protein, is linked to a lower risk of death from all causes, particularly heart disease. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in both men and women in the United States.

How To Use Protein Powder

Protein powder is more versatile than you might think. It blends well into smoothies, but you can add it to oatmeal or overnight oats, pancakes, breakfast cookies, energy balls, and bars. A protein powder can also be blended into soups—like vegan butternut squash soup—hummus, plant burger patties, and pizza crust.

If your meal is a bit light on protein, you may want to pump up the protein content of your dessert. Incorporate protein powder into chia pudding, homemade ice cream or frozen pops, brownies, and DIY peanut butter cups.

A Quick Review

Your main source of protein should come from primarily whole, nutrient-rich foods. When you're not getting enough protein from food, protein powders are a great way to help you meet your daily protein needs.

Protein powders can come from animal or plant sources. Each have their own health benefits. However, some powders can contain heavy metals and other additives. Read the ingredients to see what's in the powder before you buy it.

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