Do you really need protein powder?

January 25, 2020 Providence Nutrition Team

Adding protein powder to a shake or smoothie is a popular post-workout routine, but is it necessary?  

  • Protein is an essential nutrient that breaks down into amino acids that can help create energy for the mind and body.
  • It’s best to get protein from food, such as lean meats, whole grains or plant-based proteins.
  • Protein powder may be helpful if you have certain medical conditions.

[4 MIN READ]

Ask any fitness fanatic about the proper post-workout routine and you’ll likely get a list of varied responses. But one of the classic habits of the fit crowd is mixing some protein powder into a post-workout smoothie or shake. Protein can repair your muscles and prevent damage after exertion and many turn to protein powder as a quick alternative that can be consumed on the go instead of sitting down for a meal.

Many vegans and vegetarians also take advantage of protein powder to help supplement a diet that doesn’t include foods with protein, such as meat, eggs or dairy.

But is protein powder the best way to consume this essential nutrient? Whether you’re a weightlifter or a vegetarian, there may be better ways to get your protein. Read on to learn more about this popular ingredient and when and how to use it.

What is protein powder?

Protein powder is an easy way to consume protein, a nutrient that builds and repairs cells. It can be made from milk (also called whey or casein protein), eggs or plants (such as soybeans and peas). Most people mix it into a smoothie or shake.

When you eat protein, your body breaks it down into different amino acids that can help create energy for your mind and body.

When you eat protein, your body breaks it down into different amino acids that can help create energy for your mind and body. In the case of exercise, that post-workout protein shake can help repair and grow muscles and speed up your recovery.

The amount of protein in protein powder varies across brands, but typically rests somewhere between 10 and 30 grams per serving. Most adults should get 10 to 35 percent of their total calories from protein.

Is it safe?

Here’s the hitch: While protein powder may be helpful for some people, it can also contain other ingredients that may not be so good for you. Some powders have added sugars and artificial flavoring that you may not want to mix into your healthy routine, so it’s important to read each label carefully.

Some powders have added sugars and artificial flavoring that you may not want to mix into your healthy routine, so it’s important to read each label carefully.

Some organizations have also shown concern about potential toxins in protein powders. The Clean Label Project released a report in 2018 stating that some protein powders contain harmful heavy metals, chemicals and pesticides—particularly arsenic, cadmium and lead—that may increase risk for cancer and other health conditions.

Unfortunately, there’s a lack of scientific evidence showing whether protein powder is safe or harmful, and more research is needed to truly understand any long-term side effects of protein supplements.

Is protein powder a good option for me?

When it comes to getting essential vitamins and nutrients like protein, always look to food first. Lean meats, whole grains, beans and vegetables not only supply protein, they also provide other vitamins and minerals, and better overall nutrition.

However, there may be certain circumstances where protein powder can be a helpful supplement to your diet. Some medical treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy, can lessen your appetite or make it difficult to eat. In this case, a clean protein powder may be able to provide important nutrients you’re not getting from solid food.

Because protein can help spur cell and muscle growth, some people may also need protein powder to help their body heal after a serious injury, such as a burn or major surgery.

If you think you may need protein powder to supplement your diet, it’s crucial to talk with your doctor or a nutritionist first. They will be able to help you determine whether it’s necessary in your diet and how much you should take.

What are some healthy sources of protein?

If you’ve decided to pass on the protein powder, there are plenty of healthy ways to incorporate protein into your diet.

Animal products (such as meat, eggs and dairy) are typically the best source of protein, as they include all the essential amino acids your body needs. Some healthy animal protein options include:

  • Skinless chicken or turkey
  • Lean cuts of beef or pork
  • Fish or shellfish
  • Low-fat dairy products

If animal protein doesn’t fit your diet, you can get plenty of protein from plant-based foods, such as whole grains, vegetables and legumes.

If animal protein doesn’t fit your diet, you can get plenty of protein from plant-based foods, such as whole grains, vegetables and legumes. However, it’s important that you eat a variety of plant-based foods to ensure you’re getting all the essential amino acids that protein provides. Some healthy options include:

  • Soy protein products like tofu or tempeh
  • Beans (pinto, black, garbanzo)
  • Lentils
  • Nuts and seeds, such as almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds or hemp seeds
  • Spelt grains and quinoa
  • Nutritional yeast

You can also try these delicious vegetarian or vegan recipes that pack plenty of flavor and protein.

Find a doctor

Like any vitamin or supplement, protein powder is something you should discuss with your doctor before making it a part of your diet. You can find a Providence nutritionist using our provider directory. Or, you can search for a primary care doctor in your area.

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Do you really need that post-workout protein shake? Learn all about the #nutrition of protein powder and who should be using it. @psjh

Related Resources

Have you solved the protein puzzle: meat or plants?

How to cook for vegans (when you’re not one)

Milk alternatives: More satisfying choices than ever

White meat vs. red meat - the truth about cholesterol

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

We are all about food! The Providence Nutrition Team loves to talk about and share our expertise on how to help you find the right diet, food types and maintenance tactics to help you live life to the fullest...while also enjoying the best foods that mother nature has to offer.

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