Protein found in the foods you eat can help your body in many ways. Protein helps to maintain your bones and muscles, repair tissue and aid in digestion. Protein has several benefits related to fitness and weight management. Protein can:
— Help you build muscle mass.
— Fill you up, so you eat less.
— Help your body to burn more fat.
— Aid your body to recover more quickly after a workout.
Your body has different protein needs depending on your age, sex and level of activity. The current recommended daily allowance for protein for adults is 10% to 35% of your overall calories. (For teens, it’s 10% to 30%.) Another way health experts will phrase it is to say the average adult should get 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight each day. However, that recommendation increases if you’re:
— Male, although your activity level still factors in to your protein needs.
— An athlete or exercising more than usual. The recommendation is generally 1.2 to 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram for endurance athletes and 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram for strength and power athletes, says Roxana Ehsani, a sports dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who is based in Las Vegas.
— Pregnant or lactating.
— Eating a 100% plant-based diet.
Some health experts also support higher protein consumption for adults 65 or older because they lose muscle mass more rapidly. A 2014 study in Clinical Nutrition recommends 1 to 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight for healthy older adults and even more for those who are malnourished.
Although most Americans get enough protein, some may need more than they currently eat. To help get more protein, they may buy protein powders to get more protein into their diet. Users usually mix them with water or another liquid, such as in a shake, for easy consumption, says registered dietitian Emily Danckers, owner of Emily RD Nutrition Coaching in Palo Alto, California.
Protein powders can be made from several sources:
— Milk — if the powder says casein or whey, it’s made from milk.
— Hemp protein.
People using protein powders include those who want to:
— Increase their muscle mass.
— Get adequate protein but they don’t like to cook, or they have a poor appetite.
— Lose body fat. A protein shake in the afternoon or evening instead of a higher-calorie snack can be a good weight-loss strategy, says Leslie Bonci, sports dietitian for the Kansas City Chiefs and owner of the nutrition business Active Eating Advice.
Do Protein Powders Work?
When used correctly, protein powders can be effective to build muscle mass and provide more protein in your diet. However, the use of protein powder alone won’t magically increase muscle mass, Bonci says. “It’s a combination of eating protein and carbs, as well as strength training,” Bonci says.
Protein powders also can help busy athletes who are training for many hours and find it much easier to have a protein shake than to make a meal or snack, says Ehsani.
In addition to shakes, you can stir protein powder into liquids or other foods, including:
— Pancake batter.
— Spaghetti sauce.
Protein powders also can help muscles recover after a workout, Danckers says. The best time to use a protein powder or any type of protein is within 30 minutes after a workout.
Still, you can achieve the same goals of muscle recovery, losing body fat and building muscle mass with food-based sources of protein instead of protein powder. For example, if you wanted to consume 20 grams of protein, some good food-based sources include the following, Bonci says:
— 5 ounces of plain Greek yogurt.
— ¾ cup of cottage cheese.
— 3 ounces of tuna.
— A 3-ounce serving of lean chicken, beef or fish.
— A plant-based burger, although these can range from 11 to 20 grams of protein per serving.
Other good protein sources are:
— Grains such as quinoa, buckwheat and barley.
— Some vegetables, including baked potatoes, peas and spinach.
[READ: Best Foods for Energy.]
Risks of Too Much Protein
There are some reasons to be cautious about the use of protein powders. It’s possible to consume too much protein, leading to dehydration or damage to the kidneys and liver. Overconsuming protein won’t help you build muscles any faster. You should keep your nutrition goals in mind and work with a registered dietitian nutritionist to determine the right amount of protein for you, Ehsani says.
It’s also possible to overconsume protein from powder or food sources and not get enough of other foods that your body needs, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, says registered dietitian Ryan Andrews, principal nutritionist and adviser for Precision Nutrition, an online lifestyle and health coaching certification company in Toronto.
8 Tips for Selecting a Protein Powder
Here are some tips to keep in mind if you plan to try protein powders.
1. Check with your doctor first if you have kidney or liver disease or any diet that requires protein restriction.
Too much protein could cause damage if you have kidney or liver disease. Your doctor or a registered dietitian nutritionist can let you know if you should avoid using a protein powder.
2. Look for a product that has a third-party verification symbol.
Protein powders and other supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Third-party verification ensures the product contains what it says on the label. This is important as some powders may contain ingredients that aren’t listed on the label, including heavy metals like arsenic, lead and mercury. For example, a 2018 study from the nonprofit group Clean Label Project tested 134 protein powders and found that most of them had detectable levels of a heavy metal, and more than half had bisphenol A, or BPA, a chemical found in plastic food liners. Heavy metals and BPA are associated with brain damage and cancer over long-term use.
Look for symbols such as GMP, USP or NSF to indicate third-party verification, Andrews says.
3. Consider your allergies before you buy.
Read the label in advance so you know what’s in it. For instance, if you have a dairy allergy or you’re lactose-intolerant, you’ll want to avoid whey or casein protein powder, Danckers says.
4. Try a sample before you buy, if you can.
Protein powders are often sold in large tubs, and they can be expensive. That means you could end up stuck with a lot of unused product if you dislike the taste.
5. Look for a powder that doesn’t have too many added ingredients.
Some may have a lot of added sugars, artificial flavors, thickeners or high doses of added vitamins and minerals that you don’t need, Ehsani cautions.
6. Select unflavored or vanilla-flavored powders.
These are more versatile for adding to other food, says Bonci.
7. If you choose a vegan protein powder, opt for one that mixes multiple sources of protein.
That’s because some vegan proteins, such as rice protein, don’t contain all of the amino acids needed for proper recovery. (Amino acids are what make up protein.) A better choice for a vegan protein powder would be a mix of rice and pea protein combined, Danckers says.
8. Spread your protein intake evenly throughout the day.
Many people will eat foods low in protein earlier in the day and then a big portion at dinner. It’s better to spread it out, as the body can’t store and process large amounts of protein at a time, Ehsani explains.
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