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Should You Add Protein Powder to Your Diet?

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Protein shakes used to be the territory of body builders and elite athletes. Now, protein powders are becoming more common as a weight loss strategy or supplement and you may wonder if you should be adding a little to your diet.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends 50 grams of protein a day for adults. Protein is present throughout the body in bones and muscles, red blood cells, your immune system and more. Some proteins your body makes on its own, and some you need to get from your diet. The body uses the protein you eat to build and repair muscle tissue, maintain lean muscle, support the immune system, regulate mood and more.  

“In general, the majority of protein should come from natural sources like lean meats, vegetables and legumes,” said Kyle Bangen, MS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist at Samaritan Athletic Medicine (The SAM) in Corvallis. “If you aren’t able to get what you need from food alone, protein powder can be a good option.”

Most people, including those who don’t eat meat, are able to get enough protein from a balanced diet. However, Bangen notes that those who are trying to gain muscle, or who are over the age of 50, may need more than the recommended amount, which may be hard to achieve through diet alone.

Protein powder offers an easy solution. Added to a shake or smoothie, you can get a convenient boost of protein on the go. Just be careful with serving sizes; brands can have between 10 and 30 grams of protein per scoop. The body won’t store excess protein but flushes some of it out in the urine and converts the rest to carbohydrate and fat. The National Research Council recommends no more than twice the Recommended Dietary Allowance of protein.

Supplement Carefully

Protein powder works best as a supplement, not a replacement for other food sources. The drawback to protein powders, reports Bangen, is that they lack the additional nutrients that are found in whole foods.

“A protein shake can be a convenient replacement for breakfast or lunch, but I don’t advise having it in place of dinner,” said Bangen. “Dinner should be when you take the time to cook real food that is nutritious.”

How to Choose

Bangen recommends avoiding the most expensive powders, which are often full of additives and over promise results. You should also pass on the cheapest powders, which are usually full of the cheapest ingredients. Instead, look for those that are priced in the middle, that don’t contain added sugar or fat, and have protein from a natural source. If you are competing in an athletic event with drug testing, look for a powder that is certified by an independent lab.

Protein from whey, a milk protein, is the most commonly available option and generally has the best taste. Casein protein is another milk-based option. It is digested more slowly than whey and may work for longer in the body. However, a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that casein protein was not as effective at repairing muscle tissue as whey.

Plant-based protein powders like soy, pea, brown rice or hemp are also available, but are not as well studied comparing performance to whey. Bangen notes that additives are common in plant-based protein powders, so check the ingredient list carefully.

“For recreational athletes or people who are looking to supplement their diet, the right protein powder comes down to taste and personal preference,” said Bangen.

Natural Protein Sources

If you’re looking to boost your protein intake from natural sources, consider some of these protein-rich foods to reach your recommended 50 grams a day:

  • 2 oz. canned light tuna in water, 14 g
  • ½ cup nonfat Greek yogurt, 10 g
  • ¼ cup whole almonds, 7.5 g
  • 1 cup 1% milk, 8 g
  • 1 cup soymilk, 7 g
  • ½ cup 1% cottage cheese, 14 g
  • ½ cup prepared black beans, 7.5 g
  • ½ cup steamed broccoli or Brussels sprouts, 2 g
  • 2 Tbsp peanut butter, 8 g
  • 1 cup prepared steel cut oats, 7 g
  • 1 egg, 6 g
  • ½ cup prepared lentils, 9 g
  • 2 oz. cooked chicken breast, 16 g

Learn more about plant proteins that can substitute for meat proteins. Find out how to fuel your workouts. Schedule an appointment at The SAM and meet your performance goals.