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Should I Use Protein Powder?

It’s no secret body builders and gym enthusiasts love their post-workout protein shakes, and many love to add a scoop of powder to their favorite smoothie. But for those who don’t regularly pump iron, is protein powder a good idea?

Is powder different than other forms of protein?

Along with fats and carbohydrates, proteins are a macronutrient vital to our body’s functions. We use protein to build and repair muscles and bones. Proteins contain amino acids, which are important for the production of hormones, enzymes and more. There are nine ‘essential’ amino acids, or necessary building blocks that our bodies cannot produce on their own. Powder and shakes offer convenience and a way to mix up the variety of your protein intake, but what really matters is getting adequate protein for your body type and activity level.

INTEGRIS dietician, Karen Massey, RD, LD says, “I would always promote a ‘foods first’ preference in terms of maximizing overall quality of diet. It is easy to accommodate protein needs using ordinary foods like eggs, cheese, milk, lean meats, legumes, nuts and seeds.  Supplements are just that -- supplements.  They don’t have to be used at all.  However, sometimes there may be logistical issues so that a packaged product might be more practical.”

How much protein do I need?

Protein needs vary greatly among individuals, but the average is about 40 to 60 grams per day. Men typically need more than women, and people who are significantly more physically active need more than people who are more sedentary. Breastfeeding women also require more protein. In the case of protein, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, potentially causing kidney issues, so consult with your physician or dietitian to target your personalized protein needs.

For reference, an average chicken breast has about 27 grams of protein, while an egg offers six grams and certain vegetables like spinach and broccoli contain a few grams of protein per serving. Protein is crucial for muscle repair and is often consumed in convenient powder form after exercising. However, protein powder alone will not make someone “bulk up” or attain a certain physique. It’s definitely not required that you drink a protein shake after every workout; water and proper recovery should be your first priorities. But with the wide variety of powders available, it’s helpful to know your options.

Differences in Protein Powders

Whey Protein Concentrate. Whey is a dairy byproduct commonly used in protein supplements. Whey protein concentrate is generally a less expensive, faster-digesting form of powder. It contains 60 to 90 percent protein, among other ingredients, mostly lactose and fats.

Whey Protein Isolate. This typically contains 90 to 95 percent protein. It’s more easily digestible because of lower lactose content, but it’s usually more expensive.

Whey Protein Hydrolysate. This is the purest (and most expensive) form of whey powder at 99 percent protein per serving.

Casein. Like whey, casein is a dairy byproduct and also contains all nine essential amino acids. Unlike whey, casein is slow-digesting and typically absorbed over several hours.

Soy. Soy protein powder is one of the only plant-based protein powders with all nine essential amino acids, but controversy exists over its potential hormonal effects. Research thus far is inconclusive, so consult with your physician if you have questions about soy intake.

Brown rice. Powder made from the proteins found in brown rice is a great option for those with dairy or soy allergies. However, this type is not a “complete” protein source, as it does not contain all nine essential amino acids.

Pea. This plant-based protein powder isn’t a complete source either. However, pea protein is soy-, gluten- and lactose-free, making it easily digestible.

While there are many reputable supplement brands on the market, Massey encourages everyone to be mindful of potential risks. “Supplements are not protected by the same laws as foods. Many have been found to contain undeclared substances. This is a serious problem for athletes who may be unwittingly taking a banned substance,” she says. 

Which type of protein powder is best for you?

Protein choices, like all nutritional decisions, come down to deciding what fits your needs and personal preferences. Powders and supplements are optional alternatives but should be secondary to eating high-protein foods as part of a balanced diet. As always, read ingredient labels and consult with your doctor to make informed decisions about what you’re putting in your body.

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