Among muscle men, protein powders have been held in high regard for several decades. But now, protein powders are being marketed to more than bodybuilders and frat boys turning it into a multi-billion dollar industry.
The products are popular for a wide variety of reasons: Many users like that they are a convenient, dependable and portable source of protein to fit into busy lifestyles. Athletic individuals believe they can improve muscle recovery and growth after workouts. And vegetarians might feel like their diets are lacking in this particular macronutrient otherwise. The powders’ increase in popularity also coincides with the recent push towards eating higher protein diets to help spur weight loss—satiating protein may help waylay hunger to keep overall calorie intake in check.
The Basics. Protein powders are essentially made by isolating the protein in a food item such as milk or yellow split peas and then dehydrating it into a powder. They’re typically mixed with water or other ingredients in blended smoothies, but the powders can also be stirred into items like oatmeal, yogurt and pancake batter. So do you need one? It’s recommended that at a minimum we get 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. That translates to about 51 grams of protein for a 140-pound woman. Certainly, this level can be achieved by eating protein-rich food, but many nutrition experts suggest we’re better served by consuming more protein than this conservative level and some people find that adding a scoop or two of protein powder to their daily menu is an insurance policy worth taking out to make sure they’re getting enough. (Each serving of a protein powder generally provides at least 15 grams of protein.) Diets should be analyzed on an individual basis to suss out whether a protein powder is helpful to meet dietary needs or if they will simply contribute an extra expense. A dietitian can be a great resource to help with this decision.
The Good News. The good news is that a new generation of protein powders on the market has improved what is available, with consumers now finding more options that are less heavily sweetened and gritty tasting. You can even now find whey protein sourced from grass-fed cows and powders enriched with vitamins, antioxidants and probiotics. The emergence of “complete” plant-based protein powders, meaning they cover all the necessary amino acids, has made it easier than ever for vegetarians and vegans to get what they need. Just be sure to read product labels carefully so you understand what you’re buying and be wary of fanciful marketing claims.
The Bottom Line. The bottom line is that while using a scoop of protein powder to boost your morning smoothie likely won’t hurt, these powders should be looked upon as supplements not food. You should still be getting most of your protein from foods like yogurt, beans and fish that provide a nutritional mix no powder can match.
—Matthew Kadey, MS, RD