The minute you walk into the gym, what do you see? Before the treadmills, the weights, and the men admiring their bulging muscles in the mirror, you probably have to pass the array of protein powders and supplements for sale. From the very start of your workout you are conditioned to believe that you need extra protein to make the most of your workout. As you walk to the drinking fountain you spy Mr. Muscles downing his protein shake, you overhear the personal trainer talking about protein, and you begin to question whether that water is really enough. Should you be drinking a protein shake too? Is protein powder the secret ingredient that will finally give you the perfect body you have always dreamed of? Let’s find out!
First things first, what is protein powder? It is a dietary supplement which usually has about 20-30 grams of protein per serving (although some types of powder have much larger amounts). It is generally marketed to athletes to enhance muscle gain and recovery after a workout. Interestingly, it is also marketed to people wanting to lose weight, vegetarians/vegans, and anyone that works out at all. It does not contain steroids, but it is not regulated by the FDA so it may not contain what it claims. Two of the most popular protein powders, whey and casein, are made from cow’s milk. When milk is processed into cheese, liquid whey is drained off and then spray dried to form whey protein powder. There are also some vegan powders which are made from peas, soy and hemp.
Second, how much protein do you actually need? The recommendation from the Institute of Medicine is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. A 150 pound person would need 55 grams of protein per day. Some research suggests that higher amounts may be beneficial for athletes or those looking to build muscle. Sports dietitians recommend increasing your intake to 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Using this recommendation, a 150 pound person would need 75 grams of protein per day for optimal recovery and muscle building. Bodybuilders and personal trainers often times recommend amounts much higher than this. It is important to remember that just because something is good for you, it doesn’t mean that more is better. Eating 100 grams of protein per day will not equate to larger muscles than 75 grams per day, it will either be excreted through your urine or stored as fat. Very high protein intakes have been associated with gout, kidney stones, osteoporosis, some types of cancer, and can cause dehydration.
Finally, is there any benefit in consuming protein powder over protein foods? No. There is absolutely no nutritional advantage of consuming the powder versus the food. Thirty grams of protein from a four ounce chicken breast may even benefit you more than a protein shake because chicken also offers you iron, potassium, B-vitamins, and most importantly, it tastes good. I know what you are saying, “but Nutty, I cannot quickly scarf a chicken breast the way I can down my shake after a workout.” If you like your shake because it is quick and portable, some high protein foods which are also quick and portable are Greek yogurt, nuts and nut butters, hard boiled eggs, string cheese, beef jerky, and chocolate milk. If you are specifically looking for vegetarian protein foods here is a great list.
One last question I’m sometimes asked. Is protein powder Paleo? No! I don’t care how it’s advertised, Paleolithic people did not walk around with protein powder in their back pocket. Not to mention, if your protein powder tastes sweet, it either contains sugar or a sugar substitute like sucralose (Splenda). Which would definitely NOT be paleo.
The final verdict on protein powder: Leave It! Don’t waste your money, just eat real food!