In college, I loved taking protein powder as a way to add in nutrients and calories without having to take the time to eat a full meal in the morning (spoken like a true type-A). I also loved making an iced latte with protein powder for breakfast.
Obviously, protein powder is a super healthy choice, because I was always in excellent health in college… oh, wait…
Are Protein Powders Healthy?
As I learned more and started eating a whole food diet, I started to question my decision to use protein powder on such a regular basis, and I began to research the ingredients they were made from. I found a few things that surprised me:
- Pretty much every “health guru” and network marketing/MLM company out there has their own brand of protein powder, which they all claim to be the greatest thing since sliced bread.
- There is a lot of mis-information when it comes to protein powder marketing and that many aren’t as healthy as they claim to be.
- With a few notable exceptions, most protein powders aren’t worth their cost.
The Role of Protein
To clarify, protein is a very important part of a healthy diet, but the processed powdered forms are not necessarily the best option.
As Authority Nutrition explains:
“Proteins are the building blocks of life and every living cell uses them for both structural and functional purposes.
They are long chains of amino acids linked together like beads on a string, then folded into complex shapes.
There are 9 essential amino acids that we must get from the diet and 12 that are non-essential, which the body can produce out of other organic molecules.
The quality of a protein source depends on its amino acid profile. The best sources of protein in the diet contain all the essential amino acids in ratios that are appropriate for humans.
In this regard, animal proteins are better than plant proteins, which makes perfect sense given that the muscle tissues of animals are very similar to our own tissues.
The health authorities recommend an intake of 56 grams per day for men and 46 grams per day for women, varying between individuals based on age, body weight, activity levels and some other factors.
While this meager intake may be enough to prevent downright deficiency, it is not in any way sufficient to optimize health and body composition. People who are physically active or lift weights are going to need a lot more than that.”
He goes on to explain how protein can even help with weight loss, even if all other factors remain the same:
“But probably the most important contribution of protein to weight loss, is its ability to reduce appetite and cause a spontaneous reduction in calorie intake. Protein is much more satiating than both fat and carbs.
In a study in obese men, protein at 25% of calories increased feelings of fullness, reduced the desire for late-night snacking by half and reduced obsessive thoughts about food by 60%.
In another study, women who increased protein intake to 30% of calories ended up eating 441 fewer calories per day. They also lost 11 pounds in 12 weeks, just by adding more protein to their diet.
But protein doesn’t just help you lose… it can also help prevent you from gaining weight in the first place.
In one study, just a modest increase in protein from 15% of calories to 18% of calories reduced the amount of fat people regained after weight loss by 50%.”
Protein Source Matters
With any food, especially proteins, source matters a lot. For instance:
“According to some sources, grass fed meat can have 2-4 times the Omega-3 fatty acids as grain fed beef. (source) Another study found that the increased Omega-3s in grass fed meat made a noticeable difference in the Omega-3 levels of those who had consumed the beef. (source) This study also found that the animal’s diet in the last few weeks was extremely important, and that for full benefit, beef must be grass finished as well as grass fed.
Grass fed beef also has a different saturated fat profile than conventional beef. This article explains:
“While I’m not particularly concerned about saturated fat of any kind, it’s worth noting the differences in SFA composition of grain-fed vs. grass-fed meat. There are three main types of saturated fat found in red meat: stearic acid, palmitic acid, and myristic acid. (4) Grass-fed beef consistently contains a higher proportion of stearic acid, which even the mainstream scientific community acknowledges does not raise blood cholesterol levels. (5) This higher proportion of stearic acid means that grass-fed beef also contains lower proportions of palmitic and myristic acid, which are more likely to raise cholesterol.”
Protein Powder Problems
Source matters and any protein powder should definitely be from an organic (and grass-fed if dairy based) source, but there are additional concerns as well.
A Consumer Reports investigation found low to moderate levels of lead, arsenic, and mercury in many well-known protein powders.
Many other protein powders contain processed soy, artificial sweeteners, sugars, artificial flavors and colors, and synthetic nutrients that are not easily absorbed by the body.
In a sense, protein powders can be thought of like a supplement. High quality ones can be beneficial in some cases, but they are never a replacement for a well-balanced, whole food diet.
Finding Good Protein Sources
I find that whole food sources of protein like meats and vegetables are always best if possible. The lure of protein powders is that they offer a quick, convenient protein source that doesn’t require defrosting, cooking, etc, and I definitely understand the appeal.
Those who tolerate dairy can use a whey based protein powder, though it can be difficult to find a grass-fed, organic and non-GMO one (here is one good brand I’ve found).
Plant based protein powders like hemp, pea, rice, etc. are not typically complete sources of protein. Again, there are exceptions, but most, especially single source plant proteins, do not contain the entire range of essential amino acids. Some individuals will have reactions to these types of protein and they can increase gut permeability (this can also be an issue with whey protein in sensitive individuals).
What I Use:
Our family focuses on whole protein sources like grass fed and pastured meats and fish whenever possible. I also make bone broth to get amino acids like proline and glycine that are not found in high concentrations in muscle meats.
When I’m making sure to consume enough protein from these sources but still need to add more protein, I use an unusual “protein powder” called collagen hydrolysate (which I also put in my tea or coffee).
Collagen Hydrolysate is a mostly tasteless non-gelling form of gelatin that can be easily blended into hot or cold beverages. It is typically more easily digestible which is important for people (like me) who have autoimmune disease or gut issues.
As I explained before:
Hydrolyzed Collagen is unique in its amino acid structure because of its high amounts of glycine, lysine and proline, which are found in lower amounts in other protein food supplements. These particular amino acids are found to generate cell growth much quicker because the natural ability to produce supporting amounts of connective tissue diminishes after the age of 25. Hydrolyzed Collagen is more easily digested because of its low molecular weight and is absorbed within 30 minutes. All of the amino acids collectively are beneficial to cell reproduction, but it is the distinctive spectrum of this product that impacts the metabolic pathways to healthy tissue.
Hydrolyzed Collagen is beneficial in replacing the synovial fluids between the joints and secondly, to repair and build cartilage weakened by overuse through impact and stress. Our bodies are made up of 30% collagen of which 70% of these proteins are connective tissue made of collagen.
Hydrolyzed Collagen is the missing link in supplying amino acids like glycine, proline and lysine that are required by the body to build connective tissue to regulate cell growth. It will benefit hair, skin tissue, muscle, cartilage, ligaments and blood cell growth. Some doctors are referring to this product as the new anti-aging product of the century.
I’ve found that it is absolutely perfect for blending healthy fats into a hot drink since it gives a delicious froth and creaminess. Various forms of butter coffee (especially Bulletproof Coffee) have become increasingly popular lately, and I prefer to add gelatin in collagen hydrolysate form for extra protein to these recipes. I’ve also tried similar recipes by adding grass fed butter, coconut oil, and grass fed collagen hydrolysate to herbal teas like dandelion root tea with similar results.
Gelatin and collagen hydrolysate are also sources of protein, with 6-7 grams per tablespoon.
I’ve found that everyone in our family seems to digest the collagen hydrolysate form more easily, so we use that most of the time. I also still use regular grass fed gelatin in anything we need to “gel” and both of these options are good for an easy source of extra protein.
What I Do
I aim to consume a few tablespoons a day of collagen powder (this is the one I use) or gelatin powder, and also to drink bone broth regularly.
I worked up slowly to consuming that much gelatin, but have found that my skin is smoother and heals much more quickly since I started this routine. Also, along with my autoimmune diet, I’ve noticed great results in managing my autoimmune disease.
TO use collagen hydrolysate, I mix in cool or hot drinks. Most often, I blend into organic coffee or herbal tea in the morning along with some grass fed butter and coconut oil.
Do you use protein powder? What kind do you use? Tell me below!