What’s in Protein Powder and Do You Really Need It?



protein powderYou may have noticed that protein is a pretty hot macronutrient these days. A number of people, especially gym buffs, are convinced they don’t get enough of it naturally so they head to GNC or some other health food establishment and buy a big jar of protein powder – smart or not? 

Just as importantly, what are you getting when you add a scoop of protein powder to a smoothie or shake and do you really need that extra protein?

What Protein Does 

Not to knock protein, it’s an essential macronutrient your body needs for a variety of purposes, including:

  • To make antibodies
  • To make hormones
  • For blood clotting
  • To regulate fluid balance in your body
  • To make enzymes that fuel hundreds of reactions, which keep you alive
  • To build and rebuild your body’s support structure – muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones etc.

This is by no means an exhaustive list – it’s just to let you know how important protein is. Proteins are made up of sub-units called amino acids. Your body uses a total of 21 amino acids and can only make 12 of these. The other 9 you have to get through diet.

Protein has some benefits that go beyond what’s listed. For example, protein is the most satiating of all the macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein), meaning meals high in protein keep you fuller longer.

How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

Ask a number of experts and you’ll get a variety of answers. The dietary reference intake is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. This means, on average, about 46 grams of protein daily for women and 56 grams for men.

In our opinion, and based on recent studies, you may need a bit more than that if you’re over the age of 65 or if you’re a bodybuilder or work out intensely.

The case for increasing the amount of protein you consume once you reach the age of 65 isn’t entirely settled, but there are some potential benefits. Diets higher in protein help reduce the loss of muscle all of us experience with age.That’s what puts us at risk for falling!

Plus, some studies show higher protein diets help slow down physical AND mental decline in older people. One study even found a link between higher protein diets and a reduced risk for stroke in the elderly.

Of course, this doesn’t mean everyone over a certain age should triple their protein intake. If you have kidney disease, a high protein diet can lead to further kidney damage – so too much protein isn’t smart.

How much is too much? Based on the research that’s out there, as much as doubling the amount of protein you take in is unlikely to cause health issues if your kidney function is normal. Older people who have lost lots of muscle mass definitely need more protein, as do athletes. 

If you read weight-training journals, they often recommend consuming double the daily reference intake for protein, or even higher, when  you’re trying to build muscle.  Ever seen weight trainers walking around sipping a shake or smoothie? That shake usually has a scoop or two of protein powder. 

Yes, you do need more protein if you lift weights or do intense workouts due to higher rates of protein turnover, but twice as much is probably not necessary. Increasing your protein intake by 30 to 70%, depending on how often and how intensely you work out, is sufficient unless you’re a professional athlete that works out several hours a day. The extra protein goes towards helping your muscles repair and grow.

You Can Only Use So Much Protein

When you eat a meal with lots of protein, you’re hoping all that protein goes to your muscles to help keep them healthy and strong, but there does seem to be a limit to how much protein your muscles can use at one time. That amount is between 20 and 30 grams. 

Unfortunately, most people consume most of the day’s protein at dinner and very little during the early part of the day. Ideally, you should get roughly equal amounts of protein at each meal, for example, 20 grams at breakfast, 20 at lunch and 20 at dinner. 

Protein for Weight Loss?

Another time a little extra protein might come in handy is when you’re trying to lose weight. Because protein best activates hormones that control appetite and because it takes more energy for your body to break down protein, higher protein diets aid weight loss. In one study, women who increased their protein intake by 30% of total calories ate 440 fewer calories per day and lost significant amounts of weight. So, yes, protein works in your favor when you’re trying to lose body fat.

Dietary Protein versus Powdered Protein

Now for the bigger question – do you really need that big jar of protein powder on sale at GNC? If you listen to the protein powder industry, you’d think your muscles will waste away if you don’t add a scoop of protein to your breakfast cereal or smoothie. Think they have a profit motive? You betcha!

It’s really not that hard to get enough protein through diet alone. In fact, most people get about 15% of their calories from protein. That hardly puts them at risk for deficiency.

Just look at the protein content (per serving) in real food:

  • Ground beef 20 grams
  • Chicken breast 28 grams
  • Turkey breast 24 grams
  • Salmon 22 grams
  • Sardines 21 grams
  • Greek yogurt 22 grams
  • Cottage cheese 15 grams
  • Pinto beans 12 grams
  • Lentils 10 grams
  • Tempeh 19 grams
  • Tofu 12 grams

If you eat a diet that includes meat and dairy products, you’ll probably have no problem meeting your protein requirements even as an athlete, as long as you don’t eat a junk food diet or go on a calorie-restricted diet.

In fact, the incredible, edible egg has the highest “biological value” of any protein. This means the protein in eggs is the easiest for your body to digest, absorb and use. Eating an egg of two for breakfast, even with the yolks, is unlikely to raise your risk for heart disease, based on recent research, but if you have concerns, try an egg white omelet instead. 

Special Situations

If you’re vegan and don’t meat or dairy, you can still meet your protein needs without a protein supplement, but you’ll have to make a focused effort to include high-protein plant sources in your diet. Eat a variety of plant protein sources since plant foods, with the exception of soy, don’t contain all of the essential amino acids your body needs but can’t make.

For example, beans and lentils lack the essential amino acid methionine, but you can get the missing amino acid from whole grain foods like quinoa. For some vegans and vegetarians, it does make sense to use a protein supplement.

Other situations where a protein powder might come in handy is when you have little time to eat a solid meal, or if you can’t consume dairy because you’re lactose intolerant and rarely eat meat.

Another time a protein powder comes in handy is for post-workout nutrition. There’s a certain window period, after you’ve done a workout where your muscles can best take up and use protein to fuel repair and muscle growth.

Consuming 30 grams of protein within an hour after exercise helps with muscle recovery. If you’re in a rush, you can get 30 grams quickly by adding protein powder to milk, a non-dairy beverage, smoothie or water.

The Argument against Using Protein Powder

We’ve pointed out some situations where protein powder might make your life easier. On the other hand, we’re not strong advocates of mindlessly using protein powders, especially if you don’t do your research first.

Independent third-party testing of protein powders shows a number contain contaminants, including heavy metals like lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic. Hardly surprising. The FDA classifies protein powders as a dietary supplement, so they aren’t subject to close regulation.

Some protein powders deliver other “surprises” too. Some contain genetically modified ingredients, artificial sweeteners and synthetic colorings and flavorings. They’re also a source of allergens like soy and dairy.

“Mislabeling” of protein supplements seems to be pretty common. One study found 31% of protein supplements didn’t contain exactly what was listed on the label. Along with contaminants, some contained less protein or more carbohydrates than listed.

Protein powders are also highly processed. The protein in them comes from food sources, but to extract it, manufacturers treat the food with high heat and acid to concentrate the protein. In other cases, an alcohol wash, water wash or ionization is used and the final product is filtrated to make a protein isolate.

Then manufacturers add vitamins, fiber and fillers. Read the label of protein powders and you’ll likely find ingredients like soybean oil (not the healthiest of oils), GMO corn, sugar, cornstarch, MSG and artificial colors.

If You Decide to Use a Protein Powder

As mentioned, there are times where using a protein powder is convenient. After a workout, I occasionally add a scoop of protein powder to a green smoothie for muscle recovery. If you do this, choose your protein powder wisely. Most mornings Dr. A and I skip the protein powder and egg whites and have hot quinoa instead. 

If you can’t live without protein powder and are looking for an inexpensive option that passes third-party testing, Body Fortress Super Advanced Whey Isolate in Vanilla Cream fits the bill at only 92 cents per serving.

The one we use when we need a quick protein boost after a workout is organic, plant-based with no added sugar and free of soy, gluten and dairy. It costs more, but we don’t use it every day. Another one we’ve used is pictured in the photo at the top. Unfortunately, it’s only available at Earth Fare.

Take-Home Points:

  • Get your protein from natural food sources whenever possible. It’s not hard to do.
  • If you eat a vegan diet, are on a calorie-restricted diet or need a quick protein source after a workout, you may benefit from a protein supplement occasionally when you can’t meet your protein needs through diet.
  • If you use a protein supplement, do your homework and make sure you’re not taking one that contains contaminants like heavy metals. Heavy metals, especially cadmium, stay in your body for years and can lead to problems like kidney damage.
  • More isn’t better when it comes to protein. You don’t need mega-doses, even if you work out.
  • No matter how you look at it, protein powder shouldn’t be a substitute for whole food sources of protein. 

What about you – have you ever used protein powder? 


J Am Geriatr Soc. 2009 Jun;57(6):1073-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1532-5415.2009.02285.x. Epub 2009 Apr 30.
The American Geriatrics Society. “Diets High in Animal Protein May Help Prevent Functional Decline in Elderly Individuals” March 2014.
Harvard Health Publications. “Daily protein needs for seniors still unsettled” June 2014.
Athletes and Protein Intake. by Densie Webb, PhD, RD. Today’s Dietitian. Vol. 16 No. 6 P. 22. June 2014.
Am J Clin Nutr July 2005 vol. 82 no. 1 41-48.
Consumer Labs. “31% of Protein Powders and Drinks Fail Tests by ConsumerLab.com”

Purdue University News. “Elderly women may benefit from higher amounts of protein”J Allergy Clin Immunol. Jun 2008; 121(6): 1301-1310.Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2007, 4:8 doi:10.1186/1550-2783-4-8.

Kristie Leong M.D.

Dr. Kristie Leong and Dr. Apollo Leong are physicians helping you to lead a healthy lifestyle by sharing nutrition and fitness tips and keeping you abreast of the latest health news.

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