Protein powder is a nutritional supplement that can help people achieve specific goals, such as muscle gain or weight loss. It also has potential benefits for those with unique dietary needs who may not get enough protein from solid, whole foods due to illness or progressive age-related muscle loss. Howeer, most people can meet their dietary needs by following the principles of healthy eating and don’t need protein supplements in powder form.
Protein powders aren’t either inherently good or bad. They vary in healthiness. Some brands are OK, while others aren’t. For example, protein powders with too much sugar or heavy metal contaminants are unhealthy and should be avoided. But in some situations, getting more protein with a low-sugar, heavy-metal-free protein powder can be healthier than not using these supplements.
Getting your daily recommended allowance of protein from whole foods such as meat, chicken, fish, beans, lentils, and dairy products—in their original, unprocessed form—will ultimately be healthier than using an ultra-processed powder made by extracting protein from eggs , milk byproducts (whey powder), soybeans, or other plant-based sources.
This article discusses what you need to know about protein powder’s health benefits and potential downsides. Read on to learn four good reasons to use protein powder supplements, potentially bad protein powder ingredients, how to take it safely every day, and more.
Four Reasons to Use a Protein Powder Supplement
Four reasons people use protein powder as a nutritional supplement are:
muscle gain: People with specific goals, such as increasing lean muscle mass, can benefit from using a protein powder supplement to complement their whole-food diet. One of the primary reasons to use a protein powder is to build muscle, which improves metabolism (basal metabolic rate) and burns calories, even at rest. To reap these benefits, you should lift weights or do resistance-training exercises a few times a week.
weightloss: Another reason to use a protein powder supplement is to promote weight loss. Some research suggests that protein powders are a quick fix that can help control appetite. However, protein-rich snacks, like yogurt, may have a similar effect, according to other research. Protein powders shouldn’t be used as a meal replacement but can complement a healthy whole-food diet.
Sarcopenia: After age 30, adults can lose about 3% to 5% of their skeletal muscle mass with each passing decade. Age-related muscle loss is called sarcopenia. Older adults who aren’t getting enough protein through their regular diet may benefit from a muscle-building combination of protein powder supplementation and full-body strength training workouts at least twice a week.
Cachexia: Protein powder supplementation can slow muscle loss in people at an increased risk of muscle-wasting syndrome (cachexia) due to illness.
What Makes Protein Powder Good?
In a perfect world, everybody could get all the protein their bodies need from real foods. However, in the real world, eating enough high-protein foods to meet your body’s protein requirements isn’t always possible.
If you can’t get enough daily protein from food, using a supplemental powder that’s high in protein is a good thing. For example, getting enough protein is important for women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).In a pinch, protein powder supplements can help achieve daily requirements.
One practical thing that makes protein powder good: It’s a simple add-water-and-stir nutritional supplement that can easily be blended into smoothies or shakes and added to recipes for pancakes or baked goods. When used as a supplement in moderation, protein powders are like an insurance policy that ensures your body has enough of all its essential amino acids, the building blocks of life.
Is Protein Powder a Substitute for Real Food?
Protein powder is not a substitute for real food. It is a nutritional supplement and shouldn’t be used as a substitute for eating real, unprocessed high-protein food throughout the day.
What Makes Protein Powder Bad?
Protein powder loaded with sugar is unhealthy. Avoid protein powders with more than 5 grams of total sugars. Calorically dense protein powders with more than 200 calories per serving that are packed with tons of added sugars are not healthy.
Also, some protein powders contain heavy metals. In 2018, the Clean Label Project reported that many of the top-selling protein powders contain heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead.Some scientists have questioned the scientific validity of this study and report.
In 2020, a Toxicology Reports risk assessment of heavy metal ingestion among consumers of protein powder supplements concluded that typical intake of protein powder in recommended doses probably wouldn’t result in adverse health effects due to heavy metals.Nevertheless, avoiding heavy metals in your diet is always a good idea.
Verdict on Safely Taking Protein Powder Every Day
To safely take protein powder every day, you should use it as a supplement to help meet (but not massively exceed) your daily protein requirements.
How much protein do most adults need? According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion guidelines published in their Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) report, adults who aren’t working out a lot need a minimum of 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
How Much Protein Do I Need Each Day?
To calculate your minimum protein requirements based on ODPHP guidelines, enter your stats into this personalized DRI calculator. Based on this calculator, someone weighing 150 pounds who isn’t very active needs at least 54 grams of protein each day.
You might need more protein depending on your personal goals and activity level. For muscle building, some research suggests that weightlifters may require 0.73 grams of protein per pound of body weight to gain lean muscle mass. This would be about 110 grams of protein per day for a 150-pound person.
For people trying to gain muscle mass who work out regularly, consuming 25 to 30 grams of protein from a powder before or after a workout is safe as long as daily intakes don’t go above roughly a gram of protein per pound of body weight in 24 hours.
Although the upper limit of safe protein intake isn’t clearly established, an easy-to-calculate rule of thumb is not to exceed 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight each day. For someone weighing 150 pounds, this would be 150 grams of protein.
To safely use protein powder supplements daily, make sure you aren’t chronically consuming excessive amounts of protein compared to other macronutrients. Excessive protein powder intake may cause digestive problems or adversely affect kidney function in some people. For healthy adults without chronic kidney disease, eating a high-protein diet shouldn’t cause renal problems.
How to Vet a Protein Powder
The Clean Label Project recommends that people buying protein powder should be skeptical consumers. When vetting a protein powder, they recommend researching if the manufacturer screens for heavy metals.
People with lactose intolerance should avoid protein powders made with whey, which comes from milk. Those who eat a vegan or vegetarian diet should vet a potential protein powder to confirm it isn’t made from animal products.
Added sugar can make protein powder unhealthy. Check that your protein powder doesn’t have more than 5 grams of total sugar per serving. Some protein powder supplements have almost 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of sugar per scoop.
Is protein powder bad for you? Not necessarily. Although it’s better to get your daily protein requirement from real food, if your protein needs aren’t met through your whole-food diet, supplementing with protein powder can be healthy and good for you. Avoid protein powders loaded with added sugar (more than 5 grams per serving), and be on the lookout for hidden heavy metals.
Eating about 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight is enough for most people, but some people need more. Protein powder can help meet daily nutrition needs but don’t use it excessively or as a substitute for real food. Too much can upset your stomach and may affect kidney health in some people.