Grabbing a protein smoothie after a hard workout is a no brainer. Trainers have long drilled it into your head that protein plays an important role in repairing and rebuilding the muscles that you’ve just broken down through exercise. Pro athletes and bodybuilders are experts at understanding this recovery process, using protein in many forms—powders, bars, lean meats, fish, nuts, and more—to promote muscle growth, improve athletic performance, and maintain a fit physique. For the average person, however, who just wants to stay trim, active, and healthy, they might not need the extra protein boost found in powders, such as whey, soy, and casein.
“Protein powders are for very few people. They’re an isolated nutrient that really wasn’t meant to be isolated in nature. They were created for convenience for bodybuilders who were looking to build mass and repair muscle. There’s really no nutritional need for protein powders,” explains performance nutritionist Adam Kelinson, author of The Athlete’s Plate: Read Food for High Performance and nutritional consultant for athletes and celebrities, including Prince, Hillary Swank, and Mariska Hargitay.
Despite the intent of their origins, these powders are becoming a household staple for folks who have no desire to bulk up. And while it’s difficult to turn into Mr. Universe overnight—building mass takes, time, rigorous workouts, and a very strict diet—you may be inadvertently working against your fitness goals with these powders. Before you make the shake, consider these the pros and (mostly) cons of using protein powder.
PRO: Protein powders are, indeed, convenient, especially after a long and intense workout.
With many gyms offering a juice bar right by the exit, it’s very tempting to order a protein shake or grab a protein-fortified baked good on the way out—and it makes sense why you would. “In modern society, we’re always on the go and don’t have time to prepare quality recovery snacks. This is where protein powders really come into play,” Kelinson says. Sports nutritionist Suzanne Smith, R.D., who works at UC San Diego Health, agrees that protein powder can be a nice pantry item if you’re in a hurry. “You can just add a scoop to your almond milk and throw it back,” she says.
CON: You’re probably getting all the protein you need from your daily diet.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to eat a ton of protein. “Most people consume [more] protein than needed in a day,” Kelinson says. The recommended daily allowance of protein for the average adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, according to the USDA. If math isn’t your strong suit, follow this general rule of thumb: The average adult female needs 46 grams and average adult male 56 grams of protein daily. That adds up to about 15 to 19 grams of protein per meal, which is totally attainable in more natural protein sources, such as lean meats, cheese, yogurt, or nuts, which also contain healthy fats to help you feel satiated and full.
FUN FACT: What does ~15 grams of protein look like? A half cup of cottage cheese. A serving of Greek yogurt (6 to 8 ounces). Two ounces of cheese (i.e., mozzarella, cheddar or Swiss). Four tablespoons of peanut butter. A half cup of almonds. One scoop of whey protein.
PRO: Protein powders can be useful for strength and endurance athletes.
Whether you’re trying to get ripped or ramping up for a race, protein powder may help you get the extra oomph the body needs for the results that you want. Both the American College of Sports Medicine and Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition advises endurance athletes, like marathoners, bump up their daily protein intake from 0.8 grams to 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight. Strength training athletes need a bit more at 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight. “The higher the intensity of the workout, the more protein is required,” Smith says. This is only true if you have specific performance goals. If not, then you’re likely meeting your daily protein needs through a variety of real foods, she says.
CON: Not all workouts are created equal and, therefore, have different nutritional demands.
Shorter workouts (60 minutes or less) don’t require a protein boost. “For the recreational athlete, a balanced diet should suffice for their daily workout needs,” Kelison says, adding that “timing of food consumption is more important.” Plan on eating a high quality snack (Smith recommends a glass of kefir with a banana) about to 15 to 30 minutes after exercise.
CON: Overloading on protein powders may be harmful.
“Anyone with renal issues should consult their doctor before adding protein powders to their diet,” Smith warns. “Too much protein consumption may not cause kidney issues in a healthy adult, but if you have a preexisting renal condition, it may be harder for your kidneys to process all that protein,” she explains. A 2014 Danish paper found that excess amounts of protein may stress the kidneys (they can’t get rid of protein waste fast enough), resulting in protein in the urine and an increased risk of kidney stones. That’s not the only red flag. “When people rely too much on protein powders, they are likely replacing other nutrient dense foods, like carbohydrates or vegetables,” Smith says. Not eating a varied diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies, which can trigger problems such as bad breath, headaches, and constipation.
PRO: Protein powders might be easier to stomach than solids when you’re sick.
“Perhaps high-quality protein powders would be useful for individuals who are fighting a disease, such as cancer, which may cause a loss of appetite as a side effect of the illness or treatments,” Kelinson says. The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center backs this, stating that “for cancer patients, [protein powders] can provide necessary protein to the diet and help maintain muscle tissue during treatments when experiencing a lack of appetite for eating meats or other high-protein foods.” The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute recommends whey or soy protein powder, which is available in a variety of health food and grocery stores.
CON: Protein powders may contain hidden ingredients that could mess with your goals.
No nutritional label on a protein powder means you don’t know what you’re getting. “Try to choose ones that have a ‘Nutrition Facts’ label. That way, you know whatever is on the ingredients list is actually in the container,” Smith advises. “Items labeled with ‘Supplement Facts’ are not as regulated by the FDA as those that have a nutrition facts label, which are considered food,” she adds. Some hidden ingredients may include preservatives, maltodextrin (a cheap filler), chemical compounds like sucralose, sugars, artificial sweeteners, and more that might lead to weight gain and other issues.
The Bottom Line
The occasional scoop of protein powder may help you recover after an long and intense workout, especially when you need something fast and portable. But as a general rule of thumb, you’re always better off relying on real foods for your nutrients. “Whether you’re trying to maintain fitness or race on weekends, your sports nutrition plan is only as good as your daily nutrition,” Kelison says.