Protein powder is the holy grail of the weight loss industry, touted by many fitness professionals as the catch-all solution for weight loss, six-pack abs and an irresistible body.  Sales of protein supplementation are expected to exceed $20 billion by 2020, and the spike in popularity comes as no surprise.  Protein supplements are easily packaged, convenient, and above all else, so very marketable.

Protein powder can help promote weight loss, aid in muscle recovery after exercise, and is easy to incorporate in your daily routine. And while there are many benefits of protein powder, it isn’t without its risks.  Protein powder is considered a dietary supplement, and as such, is not closely monitored by the FDA.  So know your body’s needs, and what to look for as you head down that ever growing protein supplement aisle.

How much protein do I need? 

Protein is one of three macronutrients needed in a healthy diet along with fats and carbohydrates.  It is vital in providing the body with the amino acids and the building blocks needed for muscle growth, healthy skin, and strong bones.

How much protein we need is a highly debatable subject, confusing even among nutrition professionals.  The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA), is a modest .36g per pound of body weight.  Arguably, this isn’t much for an active adult.   As a general rule within the fitness community, if you are exercising and looking to increase muscle mass, .60-1 g of protein per pound of your healthy body weight is usually recommended.  So if you weigh 135 pounds, you will need between 81-135g of protein daily.  If you are overweight, use your recommended bodyweight for the calculation (Example: if you are 200 pounds, but your healthy BMI weight is 150, use 150 to calculate protein needs).

There IS absolutely such a thing as “too much of a good thing” when it comes to protein supplementation.  Excess protein is not utilized by the body and instead is filtered through the kidneys, which can be taxing on your system, and frankly,  just a waste of money.

When is supplementing beneficial?

You should get the majority of your protein from whole food sources like meat, beans, dairy, nuts, etc.  Nutritionally, most protein shakes simply don’t have the macronutrients and nutritional profile of a complete meal. Also, shakes do not contain the same level of antioxidants and other phytonutrients as whole fruits and vegetables.

In simple terms, eat mostly unprocessed whole foods, and know that eating a protein shake isn’t going to mitigate the donut you had for breakfast.

There are certainly some benefits to a well-timed protein shake.  Protein powder is easily digestible, and when used shortly after a workout, can aid in recovery.  Sure, you can eat a chicken breast and sweet potato for some good post-workout protein and carbs, but sometimes you aren’t headed straight home.  And sometimes you feel like you are going to poop your pants after an intense workout and don’t want solids.  In this case, a protein powder is a great solution until you can get in a real meal.  It is best to eat a proper meal within an hour of your workout, as your body is primed to refill its glycogen stores and you are more sensitive to insulin.

Even if you aren’t an avid exerciser, you can still benefit from the occasional protein supplement.  Protein shakes can help reduce snacking and help you make better food choices on the go.  One study conducted by researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Human Nutrition Research Center, found that people eating two whey protein shakes a day lost more weight and maintained more muscle.  Granted, the study was partially funded by the dairy industry.

Added protein can help you maintain muscle mass when dieting, and that is important, as muscle is our metabolism’s furnace.  It can also be a helpful pre-bed snack to prevent muscle breakdown as you fast overnight.

So what’s the downside protein powder?

Protein supplementation can be expensive and for most, protein powder isn’t necessary.   It is quite easy to meet your protein needs by eating whole foods. For example, a chicken breast contains roughly 30 grams of protein, about the same protein content as a shake.  And, protein powder will not give you the complete nutrition profile of a meal.

Also, protein powder isn’t well-regulated, and as a result, your protein powder can have some sketchy ingredients. Federal law does not require dietary supplements to be proven safe to FDA’s satisfaction before they are marketed.

One Consumer Report investigation found metal and arsenic in its sampling.

Read reviews, do your research and read the label closely before buying.  Check out this article by Mind Body Green on  nine things you definitely DON’T want in your protein powder. Among the top offenders to avoid in your protein powder are: artificial sweeteners, dextrin/glucose, thickeners and gums, fillers and soy.

Which type of protein powder should I choose?

There is a wide range of options.  Hemp and pea protein are great options for vegans.  If you aren’t opposed to dairy, whey is the best option for those who exercise.  Whey protein is not only a complete protein, but it also has the highest protein digestibility corrected amino acid score (PDCAA).  In simple terms, your body can easily process it and use the amino acids to more quickly recover from muscle break down in a workout.

My two cents: 

Protein shakes have a lot of positives, including convenience, easily digestible nutrients to aid in workout recovery, and portability.  That said, they also have plenty of downsides, such as an incomplete nutritional profile and high cost, as well as more serious side effects from questionable ingredients to ill effects caused from over consumption. If you want to add more protein into your diet, first examine how you can improve your diet through whole foods. If you decide protein supplementation is right for you, be selective and do your research.  I personally use Vital Proteins Pasture-Raised, Grass-Fed Collagen Peptides (20 oz) in my coffee in the morning.  It is a whole food (much like bone broth), easily soluble, tasteless, and there are no added ingredients.  It is simply collagen, and collagen is good for your gut health, hair, skin, tendons, and joints.  On occasion, I also use a whey protein shake like tera’s: Active Nutrition Gluten-Free Certified Recovery Protein Blend, Fair Trade Certified Dark Chocolate, 12.7 ounces shortly after an intense workout.