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 (spoken like a true type-A). I also loved making an iced latte with protein powder for breakfast. However, is protein powder healthy?
Obviously, it had to be a super healthy choice, because I was always in excellent health in college… oh, wait…
Is Protein Powder Healthy?
As I learned more and started eating a whole-food diet, I questioned my decision to use protein powder regularly. I began to research the ingredients they were made from. And 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’s a lot of misinformation when it comes to protein powder marketing. Many aren’t as healthy as they claim to be.
- With a few notable exceptions, many protein powders aren’t worth their cost.
So let’s dig into what protein is, why we need it, and what the best sources are:
The Role of Protein
To clarify, protein is a very important part of a healthy diet. It has essential amino acids our bodies can’t make on their own. Unlike carbs which we could live without, we can’t survive without protein. We need it for muscle growth and to maintain healthy muscle mass. Protein’s health benefits don’t stop at healthy muscles though. We have proteins in our muscles, bones, skin, and almost every body part and tissue.
Our protein intake needs vary depending on age, activity level, biological gender, etc. Someone focusing on muscle building and heavy workouts has higher protein needs. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is often cited as the optimal amount of protein we should have.
Some nutritionists and other health experts have a different take. As Chris Kresser explains, the RDA was established for the average sedentary adult. The older methods used to determine daily protein intake aren’t as accurate as newer techniques. If we go by more current research, it shows the average adult needs about 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of weight. Older adults need a little more at 1.2 to 1.5 grams per kilogram of weight at a minimum.
Personally, I aim for at least 35 grams of protein per meal. I’m doing a lot of bodyweight workouts and resistance training to build muscle so my protein needs are a little higher than some. Increasing skeletal muscle is linked with longevity and strength training is a great way to support that. I also take creatine to help with my exercise performance and energy.
High Protein for Weight Loss
We also need protein for optimal body composition. Several clinical studies have linked eating more than the RDA of protein with less body fat. And unlike regular or low-calorie diets with less protein, this better preserves necessary muscle. Getting enough protein also helps prevent weight gain after weight loss in long-term studies.
Protein also helps us stay fuller longer. This is another way it helps with a healthy weight. Studies show protein increases hormone levels that signal we’re full. Higher protein doesn’t have side effects when it comes to things like bone density or kidney health.
While we need protein, protein supplements aren’t necessarily the best option.
Protein Source Matters
With any food, especially proteins, the source matters a lot. Protein-rich foods can be complete or incomplete sources. Incomplete sources include plant-based proteins, like lentils, brown rice, and pea protein. These have only some of the essential amino acids we need. Complete proteins have all of our necessary aminos. These include whey protein powder, quinoa, soy protein, and animal-based foods.
Just because a protein is complete doesn’t automatically make it the best source. Pound for pound grass-fed beef has way more protein than the same amount of quinoa. This doesn’t mean plant-based sources are all bad, but it helps to know how much protein intake we’re actually getting.
I’m not a fan of soy protein or lots of legumes though. Instead, I opt for pasture-raised and wild-caught animal sources with whole plant foods mixed in. The same goes for the types of protein powders I use.
Toxins in Protein Powder
Source matters and any protein powder should definitely be from an organic source. Plus grass-fed if we’re talking about dairy (whey protein or casein protein). Where it’s sourced isn’t the only thing to look out for with protein shakes.
A Consumer Reports investigation found heavy metals in some popular protein powders. They had low to moderate levels of lead, arsenic, and mercury. In 2018, the Clean Label Project tested over 100 protein powders and found other contaminants. Pesticides, mycotoxins, and BPA were a few of the issues they found.
Because protein powders fall under the dietary supplement category, the FDA doesn’t require safety testing. This leaves it up to the individual company and consumers to determine quality. NSF is one group that does third-party testing and certification for brands.
A 2020 report looked at the overall levels of hazardous ingredients in protein powders. The ones with the most toxins were “mass gain” type protein supplements. The cleanest brands were whey protein powders. Vegan protein powders are popular with vegetarians but have their own concerns. These rely on plants that are more likely to be grown in contaminated soil.
You’d expect protein to be the majority of the product on the ingredient list. Many protein powders use artificial sweeteners, added sugars, and artificial flavors and colors. Some also rely on synthetic nutrients that aren’t easily absorbed by the body. Then there are the processed soy and filler ingredients.
In a sense, protein powders can be thought of as a supplement. High quality ones can be beneficial, but they’re never a replacement for a well-balanced, whole-food diet.
The Best Protein Sources
I find that whole food protein sources like meats and vegetables are always best if possible. The lure of protein powders is that they offer a quick, convenient protein source. They don’t require defrosting, cooking, etc., and I understand the appeal.
Those who tolerate dairy can use a whey-based protein powder. Whey protein isolate has virtually no lactose. So it’s usually well tolerated by those with lactose intolerance. If you experience bloating and other digestive issues with whey, then there are other options. Thanks to consumer demand, it’s getting easier to find grass-fed, organic, and non-GMO whey protein.
What I use: Here are my favorite clean whey protein powders. They’re filling, taste amazing, and are gluten-free.
- Kion Chocolate/Vanilla protein shake powder
- Kion Unflavored whey protein powder
- Iconic Chocolate/Vanilla protein powder
Plant-Based Protein Powder
Plant-based proteins (like peas and rice) aren’t typically complete sources of protein. Single-sourced plant proteins often don’t have all the essential amino acids we need. These plant-based sources need to be strategically combined to get the full spectrum of aminos. Hemp-based protein powder however is a complete protein.
Some people react to these types of proteins and they can increase gut permeability. This can also be an issue with whey protein in sensitive individuals. One plant-based protein I’ve used and recommend is from Four Sigmatic. I like their peanut butter flavor!
What I use:
- Four Sigmatic Plant-based protein (with adaptogens and medicinal mushrooms)
I also like to use collagen powder for added protein. Since it’s flavorless in food, I add it to tea, smoothies, or coffee. It’s typically better digested which is important for those with autoimmune or gut issues. Not only is it gentle on the gut, but it can help repair it. Thanks to its unique amino acid structure it helps generate cells more quickly. In fact. our bodies are made up of 30% collagen!
Collagen Powder won’t gel like regular gelatin. However, it dissolves easily in cold drinks (like smoothies) and hot drinks (like coffee). It’s also perfect for blending healthy fats into hot drinks, like butter coffee. The collagen turns them into a delicious, frothy, creamy drink! It works well with herbal teas (like dandelion root) as well.
Both gelatin and collagen hydrolysate are good sources of protein, with 6-7 grams per tablespoon. Everyone in our family seems to digest collagen hydrolysate more easily, so we use that most of the time. I also still use regular grass-fed gelatin in anything we need to gel.
I aim to get a few tablespoons a day of collagen or gelatin powder and drink bone broth regularly. I slowly worked up to eating that much gelatin. My skin is smoother and heals faster since I started this routine. Also, along with my autoimmune diet and inner healing, my autoimmune disease is now in complete remission.
What I use:
- Bulletproof collagen
- Vital Proteins collagen
- Marine collagen (for those who don’t want a beef source)
- Vital Proteins Gelatin
What I Do For Protein
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 aren’t found in high concentrations in muscle meats.
Is Protein Powder Healthy?
The bottom line is it can be when used in the right way and from the right source. I try to get enough protein from whole foods, but I supplement it with protein powders. I get a lot of questions about protein, so I put together this short podcast episode.
Do you use protein powder? What kind do you use? Tell me below!