Pick up any health, fitness, or weight loss magazine and you will undoubtedly see articles and advertisements touting the health benefits of protein powder. From whey to hemp to soy, protein powders promise to be the solution to weight loss and a lean physique, and an essential part of a healthy diet, but is protein powder healthy?
What is Protein Powder?
I know this may seem like a silly question, but many people don’t actually know what protein powder is, how it is made or where it comes from. Protein powder is a dietary supplement made from powdered forms of protein sources such as dairy, eggs, rice, or peas. Protein powders are made by extracting the protein component of the food, through a variety of processing methods, to create a powdered form that can then be added to liquid for consumption. There are many types of protein powder available, including whey, eggs, beef, soy, rice, hemp, and pea, and depending on the exact formula being created, manufacturers may add a combination of vitamins, minerals, fats, and (sometimes) carbohydrates to the powder itself.
Protein Powder is Processed Food
Although protein powders come directly from whole food sources, it is important to understand that they are not whole foods themselves. Protein powders are not naturally occurring, there is no protein powder tree, plant, or bush, rather, protein powders are dietary supplements made from powdered forms of whole foods. Protein powders are created in laboratories, not kitchens, and although some versions are certainly better than others, all forms of protein powder are processed food in some way. In many cases, not only is the actual protein source processed, but protein powders often include artificial sweeteners, flavors, thickeners, and stabilizers to help make them more palatable and give them a better texture. (I mean think about it, powdered dairy, soy, hemp, or pea do not taste great on their own!) This is problematic not only because additives such as artificial sweeteners are detrimental to gut health and blood sugar, but the synthetic nutrients found in protein powder are not as easily absorbed by the body as whole food.
Yes, we need protein, but do we need powder?
Protein is needed for building and repairing muscles and tissues, and plays a very important role in red blood cells, hair, and fingernails and synthesizing hormones. With the average diet containing more and more processed and refined carbohydrates, the need for protein has increased and thus protein powders have grown in popularity with marketing and multi-level-marketing businesses launching protein powder lines all over the place. The average person requires roughly 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day, and although protein powder may be helpful for some to reach this number, protein powders don’t work exactly the same way whole food sources do. It is important to understand that just because a protein powder may contain X grams of protein and X milligrams of vitamins and minerals does not mean that your body will be able to digest, absorb and assimilate them as listed. When it comes to macro and micronutrients, the body is much better equipped to utilize them in their natural format as opposed to processed or synthetic versions of them. For example, the utilization of protein requires vitamin A, however many protein powders do not contain vitamin A, and vitamin A is depleted by high intakes of protein, which can defeat the purpose of taking protein powder in the first place. Moreover, many of the fat-soluble vitamins added to protein powders, including vitamins A, D, and E, are only absorbed in the presence of fat, which most protein powders do not contain. Yes, protein powder may contain protein, but that does not mean that drinking it will allow it to work exactly like whole food versions of it.
The Problem with Protein Powders
That is not to say that all forms of protein powder are bad, but when it comes to protein powder there are some important factors to consider in order to determine if it is actually a healthy option or not:
Ingredients: Like anything you buy in the grocery store, it is vital to read the ingredients. Failing to read the ingredient list on your protein powder is like failing to read an ingredient list on anything else, and ignorance is not bliss when it comes to food. Because protein powders are a form of processed food (that does not taste great on its own), they often include items such as artificial sweeteners, vegetable oils, and additives making them less than ideal. The best protein powders contain simple ingredients; a source of protein, perhaps some flavoring, maybe a natural sweetener, and that is about it.
Source: Protein powders can come from many sources, however, not all sources are made the same way or work for people the same way. There is no one “best” protein powder source that will work for everyone; everyone is different and everyone digests food differently. Although one person may do well on whey protein, another may feel better on rice protein, while another will feel best on hemp protein. If you want to use a protein powder, it is vital that you pay attention to how it makes you feel; if you feel bloated and gassy every time you use it, it is a good sign that it is not the best source for you.
Quality: The same way potatoes are not the same as potato chips, and real cheese is not the same as Kraft Singles, not all protein powders are created equal. Different brands have different standards, and use different sources and different ingredients, making the spectrum of protein powder quality very wide. By choosing a “cheap” protein powder you are likely getting more fillers and additives and a lower-quality protein source. If you want to use a protein powder, it is important that you do your homework; read the ingredients, pay attention to what you are buying, and understand how it was made, and what it was made of. Because manufacturers are looking to make a profit, they have been known to cut corners at the expense of consumers, in fact, recently, some very well-known brands have been found to contain low to moderate levels of lead, arsenic, and mercury which are certainly less than ideal.
Quantity: Protein powders are supplements and they need to be treated as such. Even too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, and too much protein powder is not good for optimal health. Protein powders should be treated as an addition to a healthy diet, not a replacement for one. Although there is no exact amount of protein powder that is “too much”, if you are using multiple scoops per day or even a scoop every single day, you may want to re-evaluate your dietary and meal choices and focus more on creating balanced meals that support your health goals as opposed to using protein powder to make up for them.
So, Is Protein Powder Healthy?
The answer to this question is; it depends. Although there are some brands of healthy protein powder, not all brands are created equal, so if you want to use protein powder it is vital that you learn how to choose the best protein powder for you.
When looking for a quality protein powder, read the ingredients, and test different sources. Protein powder is called a supplement because it is just that: a supplement to a healthy diet. If you struggle to include protein in your diet, a protein powder can be a good short-term aid, but should not be looked at as a long-term solution.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to protein, you are always better off opting for whole foods in their whole format. If you want to add more protein to your diet, that’s great, but before you rush out and buy a tub of cheap protein powder look at how you can add more protein to your diet from whole food sources such as eggs, dairy, poultry, meat, or plant-based sources like beans and lentils. Yes, protein is essential for health, but opting for whole foods over supplements will always be the best choice.