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Bulking up or slimming down: The scoop on protein powder

Is protein powder good for you?

This supplement has benefits, but there are some things you should be aware of

Protein powder is popular. People blend it into their morning smoothies, mix it into their hot cereals, and use it in their baked goods. They drink it in post-workout smoothies or as a meal replacement. It may seem that using protein powder is an essential component of staying healthy and fit. But is protein powder good for you? These are the pros and cons, and potential side effects of adding it to your diet and fitness routine.

What is protein powder?

Protein powder is a dietary supplement made by turning protein-rich foods or food components into powders. It can easily be added to smoothies, beverages, and other foods to increase the protein quotient.

Many people find that protein supplements are a more convenient way to make sure that they are meeting their recommended dietary allowance. That’s especially true for people consuming higher-than-average amounts of protein, such as those who are looking to build muscle with strength training.

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What is protein powder made from?

Foods used to make protein powder can include plants (peas, soybeans, hemp), dairy proteins (whey or casein), or eggs. Most protein powders have additional ingredients, which may include sweeteners (artificial or natural), thickening agents, artificial flavors or colors, and added vitamins and minerals.

What does protein powder do?

Essentially, protein powder has the same health benefits for your body as other sources of protein have—it’s just a more convenient and versatile way to consume this nutrient. Getting enough protein is vital for general health and well being, explains Annelie Vogt von Heselholt, MD, RD, founder of Dietitian Doc.

Protein powders “provide amino acids to help maintain things like muscle mass, communication, transportation, and fluid balance in the body,” Dr. Vogt von Heselholt explains. “Maintaining your muscle mass is vital for life and health, so getting enough protein to prevent shortages of amino acids is very important.” People who don’t get enough protein may feel weak and fatigued, she adds, and protein deficiency can cause you to get sick more often and experience nutritional imbalances.

Is protein powder good for you?

It’s important to note that protein powder should be used as a supplement, and that you shouldn’t get all your protein from protein powders alone. Food sources are the best way to meet your protein needs. That said, protein powders are helpful when you are short on time, or on the go. “It can be difficult to find protein sources that are both convenient to prepare and don’t involve refrigeration, so protein powders can be a simple way to fill this gap,” says Caroline Burkholder, a registered dietitian and owner of RootED Nutrition and Counseling.

Besides convenience, protein powder can help with weight loss because it is filling and can help reduce hunger. Protein powder may also help with building muscle . “Protein powders that are rich in branched-chain amino acids and leucine can also help promote muscle growth,” Dr. Vogt von Heselholt says. Additionally, people who are vegan or vegetarian might find protein powder helpful because it offers a complete source of protein and the full profile of amino acids, says Burkholder.


You can use protein powder every day if you wish, says Dr. Vogt von Heselholt. Still, she doesn’t recommend using it as your source of protein for every meal because you need to eat proteins from different sources throughout your day. “It’s really hard to mimic nature, and man-made protein powders hardly ever outperform food proteins in the number of nutrients or protective effects they contain,” Dr. Vogt von Heselholt explains.

You can use protein powder anytime you want, says Burkholder. “It can work with any meal time, but people most often find it fits best with breakfast or lunch foods, such as oatmeals and smoothies,” she says. Burkholder recommends limiting it to about one to two scoops at a time, or no more than 30 grams.

Although many people find protein powders convenient, most people don’t strictly need them. “The truth is that most people don’t need that much protein,” says Dr. Vogt von Heselholt. “If you can meet your needs with food, you don’t need protein powders.” Nevertheless, people who are experiencing protein deficiencies, are following a high protein diet, or are training for athletic events might find supplementing with protein powder to be beneficial.

Side effects

Moderate use of protein powder usually doesn’t cause side effects in people. However, according to a 2016 review, when used chronically and in large amounts, protein powder can cause digestive issues, kidney issues, and vascular abnormalities and dysfunction. Moreover, people who are allergic or sensitive to an ingredient in protein powder, such as dairy or soy, should avoid protein powder with those ingredients.

Is whey protein powder good for you?

Whey is a protein found in dairy products and is frequently used to make protein powder. Casein is another dairy protein that is often used to make protein powder, but whey is more popular and more widely available.

“Whey and casein are the most common proteins used in protein powders because they are inexpensive, they provide all nine essential amino acids needed to generate new tissue, and they are absorbed effectively into muscle tissue,” Burkholder says. There are people who are allergic to milk protein or have trouble digesting it, and these people should avoid whey and casein proteins. “However, if you tolerate them well, they are perfectly safe to use, and will be a healthy and complete source of protein,” Burkholder assures.

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Is plant-based protein powder good for you?

If you are vegan or allergic/sensitive to dairy or egg products, you may be looking for a plant-based protein powder. Some plants that are used in the making of plant-based protein powders include peas, soy beans, hemp, brown rice, pumpkin seeds, or chia seeds.

Plant proteins are usually less processed and have higher fiber content, says Dr. Vogt von Heselholt. This can make them more filling and better able to satiate your hunger. There are some disadvantages to plant-based protein powders, though. “Protein powders may include a less complete amino acid composition, they may not be tolerated as well, and have contaminants and anti-nutrients that interfere with the absorption of other nutrients,” says Dr. Vogt von Heselholt.

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Is protein powder bad for you?

If taken in appropriate doses, protein powder is generally not harmful. But there can be issues with protein powder if you are allergic or sensitive to one of its ingredients, or if the protein powder has contaminants. Here’s what to know.

If you rely on protein powder for all of your protein-based nutrition, you may be missing out on certain nutrients, including different forms of proteins that food-based options can offer. Additionally, some people find protein powder cost-prohibitive. At $1 or more per serving, the cost can add up. If you are looking for organic protein powders, or protein powders with more natural ingredients, you may see even steeper prices.

Usually protein powder is not harmful, but there are some dangers of protein powder to be aware of. First of all, if you are allergic or sensitive to any of its ingredients—such as whey, casein, eggs, or soy—you may have an issue with consuming it. Burkholder says that people with allergies may find pea protein-based powders more tolerable.

Additionally, says Burkholder, some people are sensitive to the artificial sweeteners that some protein powders or protein shakes contain. “Some people tolerate artificial sweeteners (such as sugar erythritol, xylitol, and stevia) poorly,” she says. “Individuals with sensitive stomachs may experience gastrointestinal discomfort when consuming artificial sweeteners.”

It’s important to note, too, that protein powders are not regulated by the USDA, which means that they have the potential to have added ingredients that may be harmful or toxic to you. For example, researchers found that certain protein powders had high levels of heavy metals, BPA, pesticides, and other toxic substances. Not all protein powders have this issue, of course, but it makes sense to ensure you are buying a protein powder that is reliable. Consider asking your doctor or nutritionist for recommendations.

What happens when you stop taking protein powder?

Nothing bad will happen if you decide to stop taking protein powder, as long as you make sure you are getting enough protein from other sources. If you have relied heavily on protein powder for protein, you may have to wean slowly off of it, ensuring that you get enough protein from food sources. The FDA recommends that most adults consume about 50 grams of protein a day. It’s healthy if 10% to 35% of your calories come from protein.

What are the symptoms of too much protein?

Studies show that consuming more than 2 grams of protein a day per kilogram of body weight can cause health issues in some cases. “If you use too much protein powder or drink your protein too fast, it can cause digestive problems such as nausea, pain, bloating, cramping, diarrhea, and gas,” Dr. Vogt von Heselholt explains. “It can also cause dehydration and constipation, so be sure to drink plenty of water and eat enough fiber.”

People who have kidney or liver issues should not start taking a protein powder without speaking to their doctor first, as protein overload can be harmful to these individuals.

What to look for in protein powder

Many people will pick a protein powder based on price, flavors, or a recommendation from a friend or nutritionist. But there are some other aspects to consider when picking a protein powder.

How do I know if my protein powder is good quality?

Because of the risks of contamination with toxic ingredients, it’s important to pick a protein powder that is quality assured. Dr. Vogt von Heselholt recommends checking the label for a quality seal from NSF International’s Certified for Sport®, LGC’s Informed Choice, USP, ConsumerLab, or Banned Substances Control Group.

What ingredients do you not want in your protein powder?

Besides possible contaminants, you should scan the label for any ingredients you may be allergic or sensitive to. If you have dairy allergies, are lactose intolerant, or find that dairy upsets your stomach, you will want to avoid protein powders with whey or casein. Some protein powders include artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose, stevia, and xylitol, that can cause digestive issues as well. Or, some may be packed with added sugar or carbs, which can lead to weight gain if you consume too much.

Protein powder alternatives

Protein powders have their place, and can be an easy and convenient way to meet your daily protein needs, or increase your protein intake. Still, it’s best to eat proteins that come from a variety of sources, and whole foods should be your main source of protein. Not all food protein sources are healthy, though. Here are some healthier protein-rich foods to consider adding to your diet:

Beans, lentils, and legumes, including chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans, edamame

Low-fat dairy products—Greek yogurt has particularly high protein content


Salmon, which is both high in protein, but also omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower triglycerides and decrease inflammation

Lean meats, such as chicken, turkey, and fish

Tofu (soy protein), seitan (gluten protein), and tempeh (made from fermented soybeans)

Generally you should consume a variety of types of protein—from plants, dairy, and animal sources.

What Does Protein Powder Do to You?

Protein powder has branched beyond serving only athletes and bodybuilders. Marketed to the masses with promises of weight loss, muscle gain, improved strength and better nutrition than actual meals, protein powder resonates with the impression that it's some kind of miracle substance. But does it really live up to the hype? As with any supplement, its effects are not guaranteed and can vary widely from person to person.

Weight Loss

Protein powder does not magically melt fat off your body, especially if you start taking it but change nothing else about your diet. In combination with a reduced-calorie eating plan, however, protein powder can help you lose more fat mass than you would otherwise. Specifically, a 2018 research review found that whey protein supplementation improved overall body composition in overweight and obese study participants.

Muscle Gain

Protein powder’s effects on muscle gains and strength will vary depending on how fit you are. According to a research review published in 2015 in the journal Sports Medicine, protein supplementation was not likely to spur gains in muscle mass or strength in people who were new to exercise. For trained athletes who worked out regularly, however, studies showed that protein powder enhanced muscle strength and power as well as muscle hypertrophy. However, in another study published in 2015 in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, individuals who supplemented with whey protein and were already strength training did not experience more muscle and strength growth than others, illustrating that protein powder affects everyone differently.

Muscle Recovery

There is some evidence that protein powder, especially fast-acting whey protein, can accelerate muscle recovery. In a study published in 2017 in the journal Nutrients, scientists measured athletes’ peak power, the reps of certain exercises they could complete and their maximum strengths during a typical workout and then both 10 and 24 hours after taking whey protein. Moderate improvements showed after 10 hours, but after 24 hours, the participants had made significant gains in all three areas.

Results Will Vary

Bulking up or slimming down: The scoop on protein powder

Protein powders are commonly associated with vigorous fitness activities such as bodybuilding or powerlifting. For the everyday person, protein supplements have become a lot more common for a person to either gain muscle mass or to lose weight. Although this may seem like a simple equation, there a few things to consider before introducing a protein supplement into your diet. We sat down to talk with nutrition therapist Jacque Schwartz, RDN, LMNT, to get the big scoop on protein powder.

What is protein powder?

Protein powder, as the name entails, is a dietary supplement to complement protein intake. These supplements are made from a variety of sources such as whey, egg, pea, soy, rice, etc. Whey protein is probably the most common because it’s water-soluble, cost-effective and is a complete protein.

Is protein powder good for you?

Using protein powder is neither good nor bad. It is important to see protein powder as a tool to reach your goals. Whether you are trying to gain muscle mass or lose weight, the bigger picture of nutrition needs to be taken into consideration.

How does protein powder help lose weight?

A protein shake can be used as a quick and easy breakfast or lunch. Instead of going through a fast-food line or grabbing something heavy in calories like a donut or bagel, a protein shake can be used to replace a meal. Include apples or berries as part of the breakfast to get the full range of nutrients with the protein shake.

Will protein powder give me energy?

At the end of the day, protein powder contains calories and calories mean energy for the body to burn. If you’re used to having no breakfast and start drinking protein shakes in the morning, you might feel a difference in energy. Depending on the protein product, some supplements contain caffeine or B vitamins to give a bigger boost in energy.

Why does protein cause diarrhea, constipation or acne?

If a supplement is causing some type of digestive response, look into the ingredients within the protein powder. If a person experiences diarrhea after consuming a protein shake, it is possible their body is not used to digesting this amount of lactose. Too much protein may cause constipation, so a balance of fibrous foods or an over-the-counter supplement can be added. Although there is not a lot of connection between protein supplements and acne, consider the type of activity being done. It is assumed if protein is being consumed, physical activity may have increased so making sure to shower after a workout may alleviate some of those problems. If those problems continue to persist, consider removing the protein shake from the diet. If acne clears up, then the culprit is found.

How do I know how much protein I need in my diet?

It is important to understand the amount of protein your body needs. Schwartz recommends .8 grams of protein per 1 kg of body weight to maintain body weight or 1.1 grams per 1 kg of body weight to gain muscle mass. In relation to food, imagine a single quarter-pound hamburger patty – it’s about 30 grams of protein.

Remember, protein powder cannot do its job if diets are not balanced. Protein powder is marketed as this magic bullet to help someone gain lots of muscle mass or as a meal replacement to shed some weight. Protein powder is a great way to have breakfast or a faster way to consume more protein to bulk up. Regardless of the reason behind using a protein supplement, whole foods are still a great way to consume nutrients.

Eric Carter