What Is Protein Powder?

Here's what it is, why you need it, and how to use it effectively.

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A young man using protein powder in the kitchen

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Protein powder is an easy way to get more protein daily. You can blend it into a shake or smoothie, sprinkle it into your oatmeal or add it to baked goods like bread or muffins. Extra protein, combined with regular exercise, can help you gain muscle, change your body composition, or meet your daily protein needs.

There are things to know before you use it every day, though. Some powders, whether plant-based or animal-product-based, have lots of added sugars or artificial ingredients. Others might have harmful chemicals.

Here’s what to know about using protein powders to supplement your protein needs.

When To Use Protein Powder

Protein powder comes in a lot of different forms, from whey protein to plant-based varieties, and from unflavored to highly flavored.

You might want to add protein powder to your diet for several reasons. Protein powder can be a practical way to get enough protein to meet your goals, especially if you need more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA).

People who may need more protein than the RDA include those who:

  • Exercise intensely
  • Are over 40
  • Are building muscle mass
  • Are trying to maintain muscle mass while losing fat mass
  • Are healing from wounds or surgery
  • Are trying to lose weight

What's the RDA?

How much protein you need in a day (the RDA) varies by person. Healthy, sedentary adults generally need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight per day. For a 170-pound person, that’s about 62 grams.

People who exercise a lot and are trying to build muscle mass need between 1.4 and 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily.

Weight-trained people trying to retain lean muscle mass while taking in fewer calories than they need (such as when “cutting” to remove body fat) need more than that. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends 2.3-3.1 grams per kilogram.

If You Are Overweight or Have Obesity

Whey protein powder may also help some people who are overweight or have obesity reach a healthier body weight, according to a 2017 analysis of nine randomized control trials. In the analysis, people who supplemented their diets with whey protein improved their total body weight, fat mass, and some markers of cardiovascular disease.

A 2020 review of studies found that high-protein diets, in general, help people lose weight while preserving lean mass. The review found that high-protein diets don't have harmful health effects. Still, more study is needed, especially on the long-term effects of high-protein diets.

How To Use Protein Powder

Protein powder is versatile. It comes in an array of tastes and textures, from unflavored to chocolate, vanilla, or splashier choices like red velvet cake and snickerdoodle.

You can choose plant-based powders made with hemp, soy, nuts, or peas. You can also select powders with whey or egg protein.

Each protein powder has a nutrition label with a suggested serving size. In general, a serving is one to two scoops with the scoop that comes with the powder. It supplies 20-40 grams of protein.

Here are some ways to use protein powder:

  • Blend it into your coffee.
  • Shake it with water, dairy milk, or plant-based milk for a simple protein shake.
  • Put it in a blender with a frozen banana, ice, or fruit to make a smoothie.
  • Add it to your pancake batter or oatmeal.
  • Make homemade protein bars.
  • Bake it into muffins, cookies, or bread.

Is Protein Powder Safe?

For most people, protein powder is safe in moderation. People who are pregnant or nursing should avoid it because there isn't enough evidence showing it's safe for babies.

Here are some things to consider before consuming too much of it.

It’s a Dietary Supplement

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers protein powder a dietary supplement. The FDA doesn’t regulate supplements like other products, such as drugs or medical treatments. The FDA doesn’t ensure what’s in the container is the same as what’s on the label or that health claims are accurate.

Choose a reputable manufacturer and research a product before you buy.

It May Have a lot of Sugars or Additives

The nutritional content of protein powder varies significantly between brands. Some have hardly any sugar, artificial sweeteners, or other additives. Others have more. If you’re concerned about your sugar intake or are allergic to ingredients like food coloring, whey, or sugar alcohol, read the label before you buy. You can find out how much sugar is in a serving by looking at the added sugars on the label.

Too Much Can Be Harmful

There is also such a thing as too much protein. Taking in more than 2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day over a long period is associated with vascular, digestive, and kidney problems.

Taking too much over a long period can also hurt your kidneys or liver and possibly aggravate acne, especially if you are sedentary.

It May Contain Harmful Chemicals

In 2018, researchers at the Clean Label Project tested 134 of the best-selling protein powders and found:

  • 70% had detectable lead levels.
  • 74% had detectable levels of cadmium, a known carcinogen.
  • 55% had detectable levels of BPA, a carcinogen known also to cause developmental problems.
  • Organic powders had, on average, twice the level of heavy metals.
  • Organic powders had 40% less BPA.
  • Egg-based products were the ‘cleanest.’

However, a 2020 review of the literature found that the reported levels weren’t enough to be hazardous to health by themselves. The study authors also found that the reported levels were based on several servings a day of protein powder.

It May Interact With Some Drugs

Whey protein may interfere with the effectiveness of some medications.

They include:

  • Sinemet (Levodopa, L-dopa), a medication for Parkinson's disease
  • Bisphosphonates, used to treat bone density problems such as osteoporosis
  • Antibiotics
  • Tetracycline antibiotics

If you're taking any of them, talk with your healthcare provider about whether to continue using whey protein powder with your medication.

Is Protein Powder Effective?

Consuming protein powder post-workout helps you recover and repair muscle if you get enough calories and macronutrients.

Protein powder supplementation can:

  • Improve recovery after exercise, especially weight training
  • Increase muscle mass when combined with consistent weight training
  • Help overall health and boost immunity while endurance training
  • Help people with overweight or obesity reduce fat mass and cardiovascular risk
  • Improve muscle mass and help prevent muscle tissue loss in older adults
  • Help wound healing, including after trauma, burns, or surgery

What Are the Benefits of Protein Powder?

It’s best to meet your protein needs through whole foods if possible, but sometimes that’s easier said than done.

Protein powder offers several benefits:

  • It’s portable.
  • It’s an easy way to meet your protein requirements if you have a hard time meeting them with food alone.
  • It’s versatile, so you can enjoy it in many different ways.
  • It’s cheaper per serving than other protein sources, such as meat.
  • You may digest it faster, aiding in muscle repair.
  • Some powders offer additional vitamins, minerals, and nutrients.

A Quick Review

Some people naturally have higher protein needs, and getting all you need from only food sources may be challenging. Protein powder can help you bridge the gap, but it’s essential to use it in moderation. Too much protein can harm your health, and some protein powders contain heavy metals or other contaminants that can be harmful at high doses.

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18 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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