In the last few years, protein powders have muscled their way into just about every grocery store in America. Sometimes, entire aisles are packed with tubs, bottles and packets of the powdery supplements, in a rainbow of colors and flavors.
What used to be the domain of athletes and weightlifters is now increasingly common in the diets of everyday Americans, for better or worse. So, what’s the scoop – and should you sprinkle them into your next smoothie? We’re here to ease your mind on this topic, with the inside scoop on if protein powders are healthy for your complete health.
WHY use protein powders?
Protein supplements can be an easy, effective way to improve lean muscle mass, encourage fat loss and get essential nutrients we may lack in our diets.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), protein builds and repairs skin, blood, bones, muscles and cartilage. Simply put, protein isn’t just good for us: we can’t live without it.
WHO are protein powders right for?
All natural foods contain protein, and the optimal balance comes from a well-rounded variety of dietary sources, such as nuts, beans, vegetables, dairy products and meats. However, there are a few specific groups of people who may most benefit from supplemental protein.
First, the elderly. Older adults often face waning appetites, making it difficult for them to get the nourishment they need. At the same time, elderly people are losing muscle – something a healthy dose of protein can help repair. Drinking their protein in the form of powders, mixes and shakes is a low-effort way to boost their diets.
Athletes are probably who we most associate with protein drinks. Protein does some heavy lifting when it comes to building muscle, repairing the body’s tissues after a vigorous workout. For serious athletes, it isn’t always possible to prepare meals with the amount of protein they need to keep their bodies sufficiently fueled, making protein supplements a good alternative in a pinch.
Teens are another group that can benefit. Their growing bodies need plenty of protein, and powders and shakes can be a much healthier alternative to candy and snack bars.
For vegetarians and vegans, protein supplements fill an important role in a meat-free diet. Vegetarians can load up on healthful whey, which is considered a complete protein. Dairy-free vegans can incorporate proteins derived from hemp, peas and rice (or a combination of plant-based proteins) to ensure they’re getting enough amino acids.
WHAT are the downsides and risks?
While protein powders pack a lot of pros, there are some sizeable cons everyone should know.
First, they don’t provide balanced nutrition – lacking key nutrients like fiber, which is vital to the digestive system. Relying too heavily on protein powders rather than whole foods as a primary source of nutrition can leave your body’s nutritional balance lopsided.
Protein powders can also have too much of a good thing. Excessive protein is bad for the kidneys, while too many vitamins in your body can cause nausea, hair loss and even nerve damage.
You also run the risk of consuming too many calories with protein powders. The reason? Liquid mixes, while rich in calories, are oftentimes not very filling when first consumed, leading people to think they need more.
Quality control issues are another potential drawback. Unlike food, protein powders (and other dietary supplements) are not subject to independent review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before hitting the market, so unwanted ingredients may be lurking in that tub. Caffeine, large amounts of sugar, heavy metals and even steroids have been found in certain powders.
The bottom line: Protein powders can be a mixed bag. For certain people in certain situations, they can help bulk up nutritional intake; in other cases, protein powders can be an unnecessary or even risky addition to your diet. And anytime you do consume these or other supplements, be sure to boost your water intake to prevent dehydration.
Sherri Flynt, MPH, RD, LDN, registered dietician at the Center for Nutritional Excellence at Florida Hospital, sums it up beautifully, “Whole foods should be your first means of meeting your protein needs. When this isn’t possible, a protein supplement can fill in the gaps. Because excess protein can have health consequences, talk with your doctor to see if a supplement is right for you.”
If you would like to speak to a Florida Hospital nutritionist about protein supplements, call (855) 303-DOCS to find the right specialist for you.