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food for thought

Do you really need a protein powder?

With people recognizing the benefits of eating enough protein to help with weight loss, muscle strength and immune health, protein powders have increasingly entered the mainstream.

They’re certainly a convenient way to get a hit of protein, especially if current grocery shopping challenges leave you running low on your usual protein staples (and if meat-processing plants remain shuttered, powders may be a possible alternative).

Before you find a permanent place for a tub of protein powder in your pantry though, you need to determine if you really need it.

How much protein?

Protein-rich foods and supplements provide the body with amino acids – building blocks used to make muscle, cartilage, bone, skin, hormones, enzymes, immune compounds and more. How much protein you need each day depends on factors such as age, activity level, calorie intake and health.

Sedentary adults require 0.8 grams of protein for each kilogram of body weight each day (0.36 g a pound). That means a 140-pound person needs 51 g of protein, while someone who weighs 200 pounds needs 73 g.

It’s easy to get this protein from food: Consider that a four-ounce serving of chicken has 37 g, one cup of Greek yogurt has 24 g, one cup of lentils has 18 g and two eggs supply 12 g.

Protein powders may be useful, however, for individuals who have difficulty eating or a decreased appetite. They may also benefit people who have increased protein needs and find it challenging to get all of it from foods alone.

Active people, competitive athletes, older adults and people recovering from injury or surgery need extra protein. And if you’re trying to build muscle while losing body fat, getting some of your protein from a supplement helps keep daily calories down.

Animal vs. plant protein powder

To make protein powder, protein is extracted from foods such as cow’s milk, eggs, collagen, soybeans, brown rice, split peas and hemp seeds, leaving behind carbohydrates, fats, fibre and minerals. Protein powders usually contain 15 to 30 g of protein each 30 g serving, depending on the type.

Whey and casein protein powders are derived from dairy and contain all nine essential amino acids needed to build and maintain muscle. Essential amino acids must come from your diet because your body can’t synthesize them on its own.

Whey protein is quickly digested and may have a slight edge over other protein powders when it comes to muscle protein synthesis. Casein is digested more slowly and is often recommended to body builders before bed to prevent muscle breakdown during sleep.

Many plant protein powders are blends of brown rice, other grains (millet, quinoa, amaranth), split peas, pulses (lentils, chickpeas) and seeds (flax, chia, hemp, pumpkin, sunflower). Some have added fruit and vegetable powders, herbs, spices and sweeteners.

You’ll also find plant-based powders made from single proteins. Soy protein powder, made from defatted soy flour, contains all nine essential amino acids.

Hemp protein also contains all essential amino acids along with fibre, B vitamins and iron. Brown rice and pea protein powders are hypoallergenic.

Potential downsides

Protein powders are highly processed products and may contain ingredients you don’t want.

Avoid products that contain added sugars, artificial sweeteners and artificial flavours and colourings. If you eat a varied diet and/or take a multivitamin supplement, you probably don’t need a powder with added vitamins and minerals.

Ingredients such as inulin, a type of fibre, and sugar alcohols can cause digestive upset in some people.

A 2018 study of 134 animal and plant protein powders, conducted by a U.S. based nonprofit group called the Clean Label Project, found that many contained heavy metals (e.g., lead, arsenic, cadmium), pesticides and other contaminants. Organic and plant-based products were generally more contaminated.

Bottom line

If you use protein powder, read labels to make sure you’re getting the amount of protein you need without unwanted ingredients. Consider rotating between different types of protein powders over time to limit exposure to contaminants.

Consume most of your daily protein from real foods, which also supply vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fibre.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is Director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.

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