Protein Powder: Essential Supplement or Only for Athletes?

You can find protein powders in just about every grocery, health food, and supplement store. Not only are there often several to choose from, but they usually come in rather large containers with a rather high price tag which begs the question if it’s an essential supplement to include on your shopping list or something you only really need if you’re an athlete. So, who should take protein powder and how much protein do you need anyway?

At The Dietitian Center as your trusted nutrition professionals and source of credible nutrition information, we’d love to share some key insights to help you decide whether protein powders are for you, and if so, how to choose the right one. That’s why this blog post is all about protein and protein powders—why protein is so essential, which foods contain it, and a bit about the common types of protein powders that you can choose from.

Protein is for everyone, but what about protein powder? Protein powders are often thought of as nutritional supplements for athletes. This is completely understandable because most protein powders focus on selling their products to athletes. But, while athletes do need more protein than most people, everybody needs to consume a minimum amount of protein every day for good health. In this blog post we’ll go over what protein is and how to calculate your personal protein needs and learn how to choose from the vast array of protein powders available on the market.

What is Protein?

Protein is an essential nutrient that everyone needs every day. Protein, along with carbohydrates and fats, is considered to be a macronutrient because you need more of these every day than the micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. Plus, it’s these macronutrients that contribute to our daily need for fuel. The protein compound itself is made from several building blocks called amino acids. There are over 20 different amino acids, 9 of which are considered to be essential and must be consumed daily. That’s because you don’t store excess protein and amino acids in your body, so you need a constant supply of them. Protein sources that contain all nine essential amino acids are called complete proteins, and those that may be low in one or two are called incomplete proteins.

Protein is so important for good health that your body naturally contains over 10,000 different proteins. Protein is critical for all parts of your body including your muscles, bones, skin, hair, enzymes, blood, hormones, etc. Protein helps with so many functions including promoting bone and muscle mass and strength, healing burns and wounds, and having a strong immune system. Some studies show that consuming enough protein each day can help you stay fuller longer, and help with managing weight. 

so How much protein do you actually need?

An average person needs 0.8 grams of protein for every kg of body weight each day. This means that if you weigh 70 kg (154 lb), you need a minimum of 56 grams of protein every day. If you weigh 90 kg (198 lb), then you need 72 grams of protein every day. These are the minimum requirements for most people, but most people can benefit from consuming a high protein diet well above those recommendations.

Fun Fact: According to the Office of Dietary Supplements, high-protein diets are safe and actually can have some health benefits. Recent research shows that high-protein diets don’t increase the risk of kidney stones, kidney function, dehydration, nor do they negatively impact bone health.

Choosing the right protein powder for you

Protein powders are convenient sources of protein and often have added vitamins, minerals, and other ingredients for an extra nutritional boost. Different protein powders may contain protein from several different sources, and the amount of protein per scoop can vary between products. Some protein powders have been found to contain contaminants like heavy metals, so it’s important to read the nutrition labels and get a recommendation from your dietitian for a high-quality product from a credible brand. The type of protein powder is also very important–below is a brief overview of some of the most common types of protein powders.

Whey or casein based protein powder is made from milk and should be avoided if you are allergic, sensitive to, or otherwise avoiding dairy. These animal-based proteins contain all of the essential amino acids your body needs. The difference between them is that whey is water-soluble and is absorbed more quickly than casein. 

Collagen is the most common protein naturally found in your body. It’s essential for the structure of your bones, skin, muscles, tendons, and cartilage. Collagen supplements, including protein powders, are animal-based.

Soy is a plant that is high in protein and contain all of the essential amino acids, so it’s considered a complete protein. Soy-based protein powders are a popular choice for people who avoid dairy.

Pea protein powders can be used by those who avoid dairy and soy. Pea protein is rich in eight of the nine essential amino acids, so it has low amounts of just one amino acid (methionine). Pea protein can be mixed with rice or animal-based proteins to provide a complete protein.

Hemp protein is low in two essential amino acids (lysine and leucine), however it does contain some of the essential omega-3 fatty acids.

Bringing it all together

Protein is a key part of every nutritious, health-promoting diet. Meeting your personal protein needs is essential to good health. Protein is found in many foods—not only animal-based foods—and many people can meet their basic protein needs without supplementing, but often find it really helpful to consume optimal amounts of protein.

Not all protein powders are created equal and it’s important to choose one that contains all essential amino acids (as tolerated) and also purchase from a credible brand to ensure you’re getting a quality product made from quality ingredients and not tainted by contamination or low quality ingredients. If you have questions about how much protein you specifically need, we recommend scheduling an appointment with one of our dietitians to get a personalized assessment.

References

Casparo, A. (2020, July 20). Protein and the athlete — How much do you need? Eat Right. https://www.eatright.org/fitness/sports-and-performance/fueling-your-workout/protein-and-the-athlete

Cleveland Clinic. (2021, January 29). 13 of the best vegetarian and vegan protein sources. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/13-of-the-best-vegetarian-and-vegan-protein-sources/

Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (n.d.). Collagen. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/collagen/

Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (n.d.). Protein. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/protein/

Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (n.d.). Workout supplements. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/workout-supplements/

Hunnes, D. (n.d.). The case for plant based. UCLA Sustainability. https://www.sustain.ucla.edu/food-systems/the-case-for-plant-based/

Mayo Clinic. (2020, November 13). Whey protein. https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-whey-protein/art-20363344

Medical News Today. (2018, September 18). What are the benefits of protein powder? https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323093

Office of Dietary Supplements. (2022, June 2). Dietary supplements for exercise and athletic performance. National Institutes of Health. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/ExerciseAndAthleticPerformance-HealthProfessional/