Let's Talk Pro, bro
As as Registered Dietitian and athlete of the most frequent questions I am asked by my clients, gym-mates, friends, family and strangers is, “Should I be using protein powder, if so which one?!”. Just kidding strangers don’t actually ask me this... because that would be weird. But everyone else does. My short answer is, “Maybe.” As always, there is more to unpack when answering a seemingly simple question. So here is my long answer in a big nutshell.
But first, what is protein?
Good question! Before I can recommend a protein powder, or not, we have to understand what protein actually is and does. Protein is a macronutrient (along with carbohydrates and fat) that is made of amino acids. It maintains and rebuilds all tissues in our body. Again, ALL cells, not just muscle tissue. It is important for the structure, function and regulation of all of our tissues and organs. Protein is also ESSENTIAL for immunity. When you don’t have adequate protein, you are more likely to be susceptible to illness, and you will recover more slowly. We need protein to rebuild our bodies because when we are getting training hard and getting swole — or just living a stressful, busy life — we are breaking down tissue that needs rebuilding (e.g, tendons, ligaments, and muscle). And remember, stress is stress, and takes a toll on all of the body’s cells and our immune system. Protein helps to build the body back up. We need to obtain protein from our diet because unlike glucose (from carbs), our body cannot make all of the amino acids it needs. So, our first key takeaway is that EVERYONE needs an adequate amount of protein. Women, men, children, runners, bodybuilders, office workers, retirees — everyone. We all need to get adequate protein in our diet.
However, sometimes the pendulum can swing to far, and some people think that you can have as much protein as you want and more is better. More is more, right?! Wrong, bro. You can have too much of anything. More on this later.
So, I guess I need to eat some protein. How much do I need?
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is 0.8 grams per kilogram or 0.36 grams per pound. That is for the minimum for breathing, brain function and not dying. However, many of us are focused on much more than not dying. We want to thrive. And if we are living busy lives and trying to achieve goals in the gym or on the trail, we are putting our body through some stress. So, we require more than the RDA.
Individuals who routinely exercise or strength train need closer to 1.0-1.5 grams per kilogram of bodyweight or 0.45-0.7 grams per pound of body weight. Some endurance athletes may even need more than that to recover properly. The upper end (1.5-2.0 g/kg) is generally needed only for high performing athletes, not the recreational weekend warrior.
What about protein powders?
Protein powders are usually associated with people who lift weights and who look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. But let’s take a closer look. Protein powders are concentrated and processed sources of protein. You will often find whey and casein protein powders which are derived from milk. Vegan protein powder options are becoming more available, and you can pretty easily find pea, hemp, rice or soy proteins, among others, sometimes in combination to provide a complete amino acid profile. Much of the research is based on whey and casein because they are effective and readily available. That does not necessarily make pea protein any less effective.
When looking for a protein powder, you will find two common kinds. The first is a protein concentrate, which contains fat and carbohydrate. The other is a protein isolate which is another way of saying that you are getting an isolated compound of that protein. You may often see the word hydrolyzed as well. This is a fancy word for partially broken down. These proteins can be easily digested and absorbed. Many protein powders have vitamins, fiber, minerals and unicorn glitter added to them. Aside from cost, the average person will not notice the difference between a concentrate or isolate, and either is generally fine. There’s usually a lot of marketing hype around these terms. Welcome to the billion dollar industry of protein powders.
So, should I use them?
For many people, protein can be one of the more difficult macronutrients to obtain on the go. Carbohydrates are everywhere and readily accessible. Fats are also an easy find. Chips? Carbs and fat. Cookies? Carbs and fat. Fruit? Carbs and fiber (bonus!). Nuts? That’s primarily a fat source. But protein, that sneaky little guy isn’t around every corner. You have to plan, prep and transport most protein foods. I doubt that you carry around hard boiled eggs, chicken breast, or edamame in your pocket for your post workout snack (if you do let’s talk food safety). So, protein powders are an easy, transportable and accessible way to get some protein in your day.
After a hard workout, many people aren’t hankering for food, but that doesn’t mean your body doesn’t need it. All hail the protein shake! Hollar to all my vegans and vegetarians out there! I doubt you bring a tupperware of beans for your post workout snack, although that would be a good options (carbs + protein!). Plant based protein powders can be an easily accessible way to get some of those #gainz and decrease recovery time.
But, protein powders do not have to be exclusively for post-workout use. I recommend that most meals and snacks contain a balance of each macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat), with some fiber as well. A scoop of protein powder can balance out a snack or meal nicely, and help you get enough throughout your day. Just going to have a banana for breakfast? Pair it with a quick spinach and protein shake. Have an apple and some almonds? While that can be a stand alone snack, you can also have a quick scoop or protein powder and some carrots for something more complete and substantial if your next meal won’t be for a few hours.
The downside is that protein powders can get super pricey (it is a $4+ billion dollar industry). There can be huge markups for fancy marketing, terms like “clean” and “complete,” and additives that you may not need. A lot of the game is trial and error to find one that you like. Some may cause you GI distress or discomfort (check for artificial sweeteners), and they may taste like the bottom of your gym bag.
You’ll want to be careful not to use a protein shake as a stand alone meal replacement too often. If they are not fortified with other vitamins, you may be missing out on some key nutrients if you are using it as a meal replacement. Also, most protein shakes do not have carbohydrates or fiber. Fiber is a subject for a whole different blog post, but let’s just say I am a HUGE fiber fan, most likely number one fan.
So... should I use them?
No, you do not need a protein powder. You can get most of the protein you need from meals and snacks, especially if all you are doing is going to the gym once a day and sitting at your desk the rest. But if you are a person who is super busy, working a full-time job, running to the gym between appointments, cooking dinner, chasing two kids and doing laundry, forgetting to eat lunch, and trying to fit in a run in the evening because you’re stressed, then you are most likely not paying the closest attention to your nutrition. But if you do not give your body the proper building blocks and nutrients to rebuild itself then, you will not be able to perform at your peak and are leaving yourself at a greater risk for injuries. A protein powder can make it easier to get what you need.
While I don’t support close counting of all of your macronutrients daily (for a lot of reasons that we’ll explore, including orthorexia), you might benefit from doing a rough estimate of how much you get on a normal day, based on some foods that you typically eat. If you have had multiple overuse injuries, take a long time to recover from workouts, or are constantly sick or run-down, you might not be getting enough. Or, if you don’t eat much meat and don’t focus on your protein intake, you might find that you don’t get quite enough either. Many plant-based advocates will say that you don’t need to worry about getting enough protein, and that it’s easy to get enough from simply eating whole plant foods. While this can be true, and eating plants is definitely great, I’ve worked with many plant-based patients, often athletes, who simply weren’t getting enough protein. You don’t have to eat animal products, but if you choose not to, meeting your protein needs will take some planning, and protein powders can potentially be helpful.
However, if you do choose to use a protein powder, know that too much of a good thing is not a good thing. Do not replace all of your meals with protein shakes, or really any processed food for that matter. About 30-50 grams of protein from a powder per day is the most we can recommend — this isn’t based on hard science, but more than 1-2 scoops a day just seems like too much. Our bodies thrive on real food. Try to eat some real food after long workouts if you can. And, your body can realistically only absorb about 30 grams of protein at a time, so mega-dosing yourself with 50g post gym session will not get you your #gainz faster. Carbohydrates and micronutritients (read: vegetables, fruits, whole grains) are also essential to recovery. Too much protein, especially in powder form, WILL drain your wallet, upset your stomach, and make you less hungry for those other important foods (again, vegetables, fruits, whole grains). Excessive intake of anything even protein, is still excess. You body doesn’t do well with excess, and it can cause weight gain, not #gainz.
The main takeaway
Whether you choose to use a protein powder or not, if you aim to get about 30 grams of protein per meal and 15-20 grams post workout, that should be more than sufficient for most. But if you are busy, increasing training volume, getting injured frequently, staying injured, sometimes skimp on the protein at meals, or just don’t want to think about it, adding a protein supplement may not be the worst idea.
NOTE: The supplement industry, is HIGHLY unregulated. When looking for any supplement, whether it is a multi-vitamin, B-complex, protein powder, or any other dietary supplement, ensure that is 3rd party tested (NSF certified, USP verified, Consumer Lab) to ensure that it doesn't have any other substances not listed. This is ESPECIALLY important for athletes, pregnant women, and well, just about everyone. There have been countless incidences of banned substances or other medications found in supplements that can be very dangerous. We like the site labdoor.com to check for quality.