Protein powder supplements are a controversial topic in the wellness world these days. Many argue that protein powder can be an effective way to compliment an active lifestyle, contributing to faster recovery, building muscle or simply ensuring adequate intake (many studies also support this). However, criticizers say that the average American gets more than enough protein in their diet alone. Some studies even suggest that consuming too much protein can cause stress on our liver and kidneys. Then again, there are also studies that discredit those findings. Long story short, we don’t really know at this point.
So what are we supposed to believe?
One thing we do know is that the body cannot survive without protein. Protein is a critical building block to our health. In my opinion, based on what we know today, supplementing in moderation with the right protein powder can be beneficial for some people.
This raises the following questions-
- Who should supplement with protein powder?
- How much should they take?
- Which kind should they buy?
Who should supplement with protein powder?
A couple of things come into play here- your activity level, fitness goals and diet. The more you exercise or strain your muscles, the more protein your body will need. If you are consciously trying to build up muscle or you decide to increase your activity level supplementing with protein can be a good idea. For example, if your workouts are graduating from mild to strenuous or if you decide to train for a marathon or triathlon. If you are someone who exercises less frequently and enjoys mild workouts, you are likely getting plenty of protein through your diet alone. However, this does depend on your diet. Do you have certain dietary restrictions or preferences that prevent you from consuming enough protein? Then supplementing may benefit you. If you’re not sure if you’re getting enough protein, try starting a food journal for a week or two and document approximate protein amounts in each of your meals. The Recommended Dietary Allowance of protein is currently .8g protein per 1kg of body weight per day. This converts to approximately .4g of protein per 1lb. This means a minimally active person, weighing 150 pounds, should consume approximately 60g of protein a day. Here are a few nutritional references from the USDA to help put this number in perspective:
- 6oz salmon filet – 45g protein
- 1 egg – 6g protein
- 1 cup of almonds – 30g protein
- 1 cup of quinoa – 8g of protein
- 1 cup cauliflower – 2g of protein
How much protein should you take?
In order to determine this, take into consideration your current protein intake from whole foods and the recommended amount for very active adults. Then, supplement the difference. The recommended protein intake for very active adults depends on which scientific journal or study you reference, however 0.7-0.9g per 1lb of body weight per day seems to be a common range. This means a very active woman, weighing 130 pounds, could aim for 91-117g of protein per day. Personally, I would lean towards the more conservative number of 0.7g per 1lb. This means if you consume on average 80g of protein a day in your whole foods diet, you could supplement with 10-20g of protein a day. Serving sizes of most supplements are often around 20g which means you’re probably safe to stick with one serving of your protein powder a day.
Which kind of protein powder should you buy?
There are a few things to take into consideration when buying protein powder- your dietary preferences or restrictions, the amino acid profile, quality, and ingredients.
Protein powders are either animal or plant based. Are you sensitive to dairy? Are you vegan or vegetarian? You’ll want to go with a plant based protein. If not, a high-quality animal protein like whey could be a good option.
All protein is made up of amino acids. There are twenty total amino acids. Nine of the twenty are considered “essential” amino acids. This means our bodies cannot make them on its own and we must depend on our diet in order to get them. Different kinds of protein powders have different amino acid profiles and amounts of each. When selecting a protein powder, be sure to pay attention to the number of essential amino acids included as well as the daily value provided in each serving. This can help make sure you’re getting the biggest bang for your buck. You may also see an acronym on labels, “BCAA.” This stands for “branched chain amino acids.” BCAAs are each essential amino acids that include branched chains in their molecular structure. These amino acids are thought to be the most critical in muscle recovery and synthesis.
Lastly, remember that not all protein powders are created equal. Opt for one that has minimal ingredients. Look for an organic option. If you’re buying an animal based protein make sure it’s grass fed. This ensures that the nutrient value is of the highest potency. Stay away from added sugar. Avoid artificial sweeteners and opt for unsweetened or all natural sweeteners like stevia or monk fruit.
Below are a few of my favorite protein options! You can click on the image to shop.
Best for those not sensitive to dairy.
Best for those with sensitivity to dairy or plant based diets.
*NOTE* the Rootz option does contain egg white protein, but is otherwise primarily plant based.
COLLAGEN (animal based)
A league of its own! I need to write a whole post on collagen alone. The benefits of this protein span muscles, joints, hair, nails, skin, digestion, immunity and metabolism.
All this being said, real, whole, foods are still and will always be your most valuable source of protein. A diet rich in grass fed meats, wild caught fish and clean vegetables can never be trumped by a protein powder. Be sure that your primary source of protein is coming from a whole foods diet, then determine if supplementing with protein could be the right move for you!
- Hoffman, J. R., & Falvo, M. J. (2004). Protein – Which is Best? Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 3(3), 118–130.
- Pasiakos, S. M., McLellan, T. M., & Lieberman, H. R. (2015). The effects of protein supplements on muscle mass, strength, and aerobic and anaerobic power in healthy adults: a systematic review. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 45(1), 111–131. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-014-0242-2
- Poortmans, J. R., & Dellalieux, O. (2000). Do regular high protein diets have potential health risks on kidney function in athletes? International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 10(1), 28–38.
- Williams, M. (2005). Dietary Supplements and Sports Performance: Amino Acids. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2(2), 63–67. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-2-2-63
- Wu, G. (2016). Dietary protein intake and human health. Food & Function, 7(3), 1251–1265. https://doi.org/10.1039/c5fo01530h