If you’re looking for a quick way to get more protein in your diet, you may have considered adding a scoop of protein powder to your milk or chugging down a blended protein shake.
Protein powders are intended to help build muscle, speed up recovery after a hard workout and even lose weight. Go to any health food store and you’re bound to find jugs of it lining shelves. I mean, if it’s good for gym rats and pro athletes, it can’t hurt you either, right?
The truth is, however, most of us average Joes and Janes are already getting plenty of protein.
“Most Americans actually eat twice the amount of recommended daily protein, likely due to the hype surrounding protein intakes today,” said Jennifer Oikarinen, a registered dietitian at Banner - University Medical Center Phoenix. “Protein shakes aren’t necessary in the everyday diet, but they may be beneficial to those who struggle to get enough protein-based foods.”
Protein shakes may be a handy way to ensure you hit your daily requirements. They’re probably also easier to get down than a plate of chicken or eggs.
But with so many protein shake and powder options available nowadays, finding the right product for the right situation can be confusing.
As a dietitian, Oikarinen is often asked about protein powders. She shares four things to think about when considering a protein powder or protein shake.
1. Understand the main types of protein powders
Protein powder is a dietary supplement that usually comes from different protein sources such as whey, soy, hemp, pea and rice—just to name a few. But not all protein powders are created equal as they can have different processing methods, nutritional content, consistency, texture and flavor.
“Most protein powders are highly processed products and are often fortified with vitamins, minerals and fillers such as carbohydrates for flavor,” Oikarinen said. “As well, different processing methods will result in different forms of protein which will determine the percentage and quality of the protein in the final product.”
Whey protein, for example, comes in three forms: concentrate, isolate and hydrolyzed. Concentrate is relatively lower in price due to its short processing time. Whereas hydrolysate protein is put through the longest and most intricate process and therefore is usually pricier.
Here’s a quick breakdown of some different types of protein powder:
- Whey protein: This is one of the most commonly used and popular protein powders. It’s a byproduct of milk and is packed with essential amino acids and easily soluble in liquids such as water and milk, which makes it ideal for shakes.
- Soy protein: Soy is a popular plant-based option and is great for those who are vegan or vegetarian. It contains all the amino acids, and the body can easily absorb all its nutrients. Soy protein is great for those who have milk allergies.
- Other plant-based proteins: Protein powders like hemp and pea are fantastic for vegans, vegetarians and anyone who may have egg, milk or soy allergies or sensitivities. These are low in calories, provide essential amino acids and other heart-healthy nutrients.
2. Match your protein powder to your needs
When considering a protein powder, it’s important to consider your goals. Are you looking to increase muscle mass or simply consume your recommended number of daily servings? This will help guide your product choice:
- Build muscle: Whey protein is by far the most popular protein because it has been shown to promote muscle growth, strength and overall performance. It’s also helpful at keeping you feeling fuller for longer, which can aid in preventing mindless eating.
- Weight loss: While protein shakes can be great meal replacements, they aren’t without calories and added sugars, which can lead to weight gain. Organic protein powders lack artificial sweeteners and flavoring and are usually less processed.
- Extra fiber: If you’re looking to increase protein while also reaping the benefits of additional fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, hemp protein may be your best choice.
- Good for the heart: Pea protein is an excellent source of protein that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol but is also easily digestible and not rough on your stomach.
3. Watch for unwanted side effects
From muscle gain to weight loss, protein shakes can potentially benefit your body, but they can also have some negative consequences.
- Allergic reactions: If you’re sensitive to milk or dairy, you may not be able to properly digest proteins like whey, which could have you running to the bathroom. While gas, diarrhea and cramping can be quite painful, there are other allergic reactions from drinking whey protein to watch out for include sneezing, throat swelling, chest tightness and shortness of breath. It’s also a good call to check the product label and the source of the protein.
- Weight gain: Liquid calories from protein shakes can be high, especially from added sugars. So, make sure you watch the calories and added sugars.
- Kidney stones: If you have a kidney disease, you can’t tolerate a lot of protein all at once. If you have a kidney disease or are susceptible to kidney stones, check with your health care provider to ensure adding protein is safe for your kidneys.
- An empty wallet: Like many other things in life, you get what you pay for. Higher quality protein powders will likely come with a higher price tag compared to whole-food protein options like chicken or tofu. Lower-priced powders will likely have higher amounts of fillers not removed during processing.
“To save money, buy tubs of protein powder instead of ready-to-drink shakes as these are less expensive and you can control what you put in your shake,” Oikarinen said. “Be sure to always read ingredient labels to make sure there are also no additives.”
4. Look for a seal of approval
Like other dietary supplements, protein powder is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 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.
“Third-party certification programs aim to protect consumers by testing for harmful levels of contaminants and certifying that supplements contain the ingredient listed on the label and nothing else,” Oikarinen said. “Choose protein powders that are certified by the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) and the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF).
You can figure out if a protein powder is certified by looking for the organization’s logo on the product packaging.
Is protein powder worth all the hype? Yes, if it’s good quality, low in sugar and additives, has the seal of approval from a third-party certification program and is used as intended.
Whether you’re trying to gain muscle or lose weight, there are plenty of healthy ways to integrate protein shakes into your diet. Just make sure you’re also getting plenty of whole food proteins as well! Visit bannerhealth.com to learn more about nutrition or speak to a dietitian.
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