Let’s be honest: In a world that often feels like it’s spinning out of control, it can be tough to find the time to to seek out meal options that are both healthy and delicious, and actually keep you full. Because of this, protein powder is a popular choice for many, as it offers a way to achieve macros without putting loads of time or effort into the meal item. But, is protein powder actually good for you? And does it compare to consuming whole sources of protein? We chatted with a few dieticians to find out.
What Is Protein Powder?
Protein powders are protein-rich supplements derived from animal- and plant-based whole food sources. Powders come in a variety of flavors and can be mixed with water, milk, dairy-free milk, and smoothies in order to increase protein intake.
Is Protein Powder Good For You?
Short answer: yes. According to dietician, author, and Fab Four creator Kelly LeVeque, protein powder is a great, easy way to help you consume enough protein throughout the day. It should be noted that Leveque is also the founder of a protein powder line, Be Well by Kelly.
“In addition to supplying your cells with amino acids necessary for proper functioning, protein also helps turn off hunger hormones to help you feel full and satisfied while also helping to keep your blood sugar levels stable,” she explains.
NYC-based dietician Alana Kessler adds to this, noting that protein powder is good for you so long as it’s consumed within your targeted daily needs for protein.
“Protein needs are individualized and influenced by height, weight, lifestyle, and pre-existing conditions,” she reminds us. “Protein is a nutrient that is essential for building tissue but it also puts demand on the body to excrete.” Because of this, she explains that too much protein can put a strain on the kidneys (read: the body’s filtration system). “When this happens symptoms such as bloating, constipation and even osteoporosis can occur,” she adds.
Protein Powder vs. Whole Food Sources of Protein
As beneficial as protein powder can be, LeVeque maintains that you should be getting the majority of your protein from whole sources of protein (as in real food).
“It’s the synergistic combination of nutrients in whole food that provide you with the most and best nutritional value,” she explains. And Kessler agrees. “Protein powder doesn’t provide the additional macronutrients, fiber, vitamins and minerals that whole sources of protein have,” she explains. “From a gram perspective, protein powder can offer a good source but it is not a meal.”
And that’s what trips a lot of people up. While protein powder is great for a snack or post-workout recovery, it’s not meant to be a full meal replacement. LeVeque says the protein powders she recommends always "compliment a diet rich in [whole] protein sources, [but don’t replace them].”
This doesn’t mean that protein powders are bad though. Instead, it’s a reminder that they’re meant to be added into your diet, not substituted in.
What’s more, it’s important to remember that the protein from powders isn’t as readily absorbed as the grams from whole sources of protein. “The biological value (BV) of protein is different for all whole food sources of protein,” explains NYC-based dietitian and Chelsea Nutrition co-founder Jennifer Maeng. “That is the amount of protein actually absorbed and utilized in your body. High BV proteins come from meats, fish, poultry, and eggs and some plant-based proteins that contain all nine essential amino acids such as quinoa, hemp seeds, and soy.”
Is it Safe to Consume Protein Powder Every Day?
Safe? Yes. Necessary? Not really. According to Maeng, unless you’re a bodybuilder who requires hundreds of grams of protein a day, there’s no real need to incorporate protein powder into your daily routine.
“If you are relying on protein powder to follow a very low carb diet for weight loss, it is important to remember that when you ingest too much protein (more protein than your body needs), some of its amino acids will convert to glucose (AKA carbohydrates),” Maeng points out. “So enjoy your protein in moderation and get other important macronutrients (fats, carbs) in your diet.”
Nevertheless, she (and Kessler and LeVeque) understand that protein powder is a popular option for people on the go. As such, Kessler points out that it’s safe as long as you’re attuned to your calorie and protein needs. In other words, only sip on protein shakes and add powder into your breakfast bowls, oats, and other goodies if you know it fits within your limits. After all, excess is never good in the world of nutrition.
The Best Way to Incorporate Protein Powder Into Your Diet
Want to explore protein powders but unsure how to get the most out of them? LeVeque is a big believer in protein-packed smoothies. To ensure they stay well-rounded and as nutritious as possible, she recommends blending up a Fab Four Smoothie, which includes protein, greens, fiber, and fat.
“I recommend my clients get 20 to 30 grams of protein at each meal, and that can be a struggle sometimes,” she explains. "Having one or two smoothies with protein powder is not a problem, however as we want whole foods to be the base of our diet, I do not recommend relying completely on supplements to provide all the protein you need.”
The Most Important Thing to Keep in Mind
That said, it’s important to remember: Protein powder is a dietary supplement—not replacement. “It is not regulated the way food and medicine are by the FDA,” Maeng says. “It can be loaded with sugar or sugar substitutes/artificial sweeteners, as well as heavy metals and chemicals.” Because of this, you want to ensure you’re only adding the highest quality protein powder into your diet. According to LeVeque, avoid powders with ultra-long ingredients lists and those that are chock-full of additives. “I always recommend simple protein powders and favor ones made of collagen, whey, or simple plant-based blends,” LeVeque says.
The Best Protein Powders to Incorporate Into Your Daily Diet
When looking for a protein powder to add to your pantry, remember that the fewer the ingredients, the better.
This plant-based formula is loaded with bone, muscle, and skin-loving ingredients like vitamin C, probiotics, organic mushroom, and acerola cherry. To boot, fiber content promotes fullness and digestive regularity.
At over 20g per serving, LeVeque's powder is an excellent source of supplemental protein. It's made from Swedish grass-fed beef and contains zero preservatives (the ingredients list is just three items long).
Derived from pea and pumpkin seeds, this protein powder is completely vegan, certified organic, and delivers 15g of protein per serving.
As with most things in life, incorporating protein powder into your daily diet is all about balance. You don’t want to eat too much or too little protein, however, if meeting your macros is difficult, adding protein powder into your morning smoothies or afternoon snacks can be a helpful way to stay on track.
“Like so many of the things I talk about in my books and with my clients, protein powder is a tool you can use to feel your best and reach your health goals,” LeVeque concludes. “It doesn’t take the place of eating nutritious meals made up of whole foods, but it can definitely make your life easier and it’s an essential in my pantry for that reason.”