Protein powders are popular, but are they healthy? We look into the pros and cons, as well as the science.

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Protein is a mighty macronutrient famous for its help in muscle building. Amino acids are small parts that make up protein. Protein is essential and has special functions all over the body, including fluid balance, hormone regulation, and sustaining good health.

The hair on your head, the skin that covers you, and the muscles you move each day are just a few parts of you supported by protein.

Many health-conscious people have concerns about getting enough protein. The most popular way to stay on top of getting enough protein is by taking protein supplements. In 2018, there were $4.14 billion in sales of protein powders.

Is protein powder healthy? Keep reading to find out.

What is protein powder?

Protein powder is popular amongst athletes and fitness gurus for helping build muscle and boost physical performance. But, protein powder isn't only for exercise and sports. Many rely on protein powder to help meet daily protein needs, gain or lose weight, or recover from injury or surgery. Protein powder is a dietary supplement made from extracting animal and plant foods.

Animal-based protein

The most common type of protein powder is whey protein which is water-soluble and makes up 20% of the proteins found in cow's milk. Whey protein is rich in essential amino acids, leucine, and quickly digestible. Other animal-based protein powders come from casein, making up 80% of cow's milk protein, egg, and collagen.

Plant-based protein

The ever-increasing trend of plant-based food products has created a demand for plant-based protein powders. You can find many plant-based protein supplements today, including pea, hemp, pumpkin soy, algae, and rice protein powders. These products are great for those with dairy allergies.

A hand holding a container full of protein powder ready to go into a protein shake. in the background is a shake bottle and a woman in workout clothes
Credit: Getty Images / nortonrsx

Pros of protein powders

It helps with weight management

When working with clients, I recommend clients including a source of protein with all meals to help with fullness. This can be challenging at breakfast time but can greatly impact how you feel and eat for the rest of the day. Protein can help you get to a healthy weight or keep a healthy weight by making you more satisfied after eating.

A review of research studies found reductions in body weight and fat mass in adults taking whey protein supplements. Some studies recommend having 30 grams of protein at meals to help with appetite control, fullness, and weight management. A 2018 study of 24 college students regularly taking 48 grams of protein powder increased their muscle mass and decreased fat mass.

Protein powder also plays a role in weight gain. You can boost calorie intake by adding protein powder to foods that may help you to put on some extra pounds if you are underweight. Excess protein intake can lead to weight gain as the protein our body can't use goes to fat stores.

It promotes muscle growth

Weight lifters widely use protein shakes and supplements to help with muscle gaining. Protein powder stimulates muscle growth in active individuals. In a review of 49 studies, 1863 weight training adults took protein supplements and experienced significant increases in strength and muscle size in just six weeks.

Prevents muscle loss in older adults

Older adults have increased protein needs. Because of aging, older adults may experience reduced intake of foods, reduced physical activity, and muscle loss. Muscle loss can create risks of injury. A review of 35 research studies suggests whey protein prevents fall risks and muscle loss in the elderly.

It's convenient

Protein powder is available in many flavors, from fruity to flavorless, making it versatile and easy to mix into a myriad of foods. It goes well in smoothies, soups, beverages, cookies, granola bars, hot cereals, and pancake batter.

The most popular way to use protein powder is to blend it in a shake or a smoothie. This makes it easy to eat on the go.

It's fit for every health goal

The numerous special diets and food allergies today have increased the demand for diet-friendly foods. You might follow a vegan lifestyle and need a vegan protein powder. You could be wanting to control your carbohydrate intake and need a low-carbohydrate protein powder. Do you need to enhance your skin health? Maybe a collagen protein powder is for you. Whether you follow a low-carb, plant-based or gluten-free diet, there is a protein powder available to help you reach your health goals.

The cons of protein powder

It could have potential contaminants

A non-profit organization called The Clean Label Project investigated the contents of 134 high-selling protein powders. The results showed that 75% of protein powders had lead levels, and 55% tested for BPA. The study also detected levels of mercury, arsenic, and cadmium.

It could lead to excessive protein intake

Eating high amounts of protein for extended periods greater than 2grams per kg body weight can lead to digestion issues, liver dysfunction, poor bone health, and kidney problems. For someone weighing 175lbs, that is consuming 159 grams of protein or more daily long-term.

It is expensive

High-quality protein powders may be more expensive to purchase compared to whole-food proteins. You could pay anywhere between $0.42-$2.90 per ounce for protein powder. You can find protein-rich tofu at a grocery store for $0.18 per ounce.

What to look for in protein powder

Third-party tested

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't analyze the content of protein powders.

It's best to choose protein powders that have gone through third-party testing to ensure the product is what the manufacturer says it is.

Choose protein powders that are National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) certified. The NSF is an organization that provides third-party testing for dietary supplements like protein powders to ensure their safety, quality, and contents are up to a certain level of standards.

You can figure out if a protein powder is NSF certified by looking for the logo on the product packaging.

Type of protein

To choose the best type of protein, consider your goals. You may want whey protein because you're looking to bulk up at the gym. You could be interested in hemp protein powder because you need something that also has a lot of fiber.

Type of sweetener

You can find protein powders made with a variety of ingredients used to sweeten their flavor. Some are sweetened with sugar alcohols or artificial sweeteners.

It's best to choose a protein powder with no added sugar or one that uses a natural sweetener like stevia or monk fruit.

Other ingredients

Do your research to avoid harmful additives in protein powders. Check out consumer reports and websites like the Clean Label project to help you choose safe options.

High-Protein Foods List

For healthy individuals ages 19 and up, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 46 grams of protein for women and 56 grams for men. Protein recommendations may change based on activity level, health goals, and aging. Depending on your individual needs and health goals, you may or may not need protein powder supplements.

The first-line approach to good nutrition is to attain optimal health through whole foods. Many high-protein foods can help you meet your protein needs. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the following foods have this much protein in each serving:

  • 3 oz Chicken: 24 grams
  • 3 oz pork tenderloin: 23 grams
  • 3 oz canned tuna in water: 16 grams
  • 1 cup black beans: 15 grams
  • 1 cup lentils: 16 grams
  • 1 cup split peas: 15 grams
  • 1 cup edamame: 19 grams
  • ½ cup plain greek yogurt: 12.5 grams
  • 4 tablespoons hemp seeds: 12 grams
  • 1/2 cup almonds: 16 grams

Bottom Line

So, is protein powder healthy? Yes, if it is a good quality third-party tested product with minimal sugar and void of harmful additives. Protein powders can fit into most eating patterns and help you meet your health goals. Remember, protein powder is a dietary supplement. This means it enhances your diet. Be sure to be eating whole food proteins as a part of a healthy diet first.