If you’re unfamiliar with protein supplements, learning how to use them effectively to reach your fitness goals can be difficult.
You may not even be decided on whether they’re a beneficial addition to your nutrition plan, either—but don’t worry.
Here you’ll find everything you need to know about the pros and cons of protein powder so you can make an informed decision when increasing your protein intake.
We’ve also included some useful tips for using protein powder safely to avoid any unfavourable side effects.
Table of contents:
What is protein powder?
Protein powder is a nutritional supplement designed to help individuals increase their protein intake alongside eating a healthy and balanced diet.
It is a powdered form of protein that can be extracted from several dairy-based and plant-based sources. It dates back to the 1950s, and there was less regulation and variety in its early days.
Today’s protein powder is easy to weigh and mix with water or milk to create a protein shake—flavours ranging from sticky toffee pudding to lemon cheesecake make it incredibly easy to drink.
Many unflavoured products are on the market to make increasing your protein intake easier than ever.
However, there are concerns about consuming too much protein powder, as little is known about its long-term health effects. So, let’s take a closer look at the advantages and disadvantages of protein powder.
Pros and cons of protein powder
While hitting your protein goals through food is possible, it’s difficult to obtain without proper planning. Therefore, many people opt for the more convenient choice of supplementing with protein powder.
It’s a great way of adding protein to your diet without preparing and eating large amounts of meat or other high-protein foods, which can become monotonous.
Plus, if you’re exercising outdoors or at the gym, having a protein shake on hand becomes much more convenient to refuel properly after your workout.
Those following a plant-based diet can benefit from using protein powder, as it’s particularly difficult to hit your goals for consumption, let alone absorption.
Plant proteins are 60-80% digestible compared to animal-based sources being less than 90% digestible, according to Third Wave Nutrition. Those eating only plant-based foods may need to increase their intake and ensure they consume the right micronutrients for optimal protein absorption.
One of the biggest advantages of protein powder for many athletes and gym goers is that it’s a cheaper way of reaching their protein goals compared to buying high-protein whole food sources alone.
For example, 1kg of chicken breast fillets from Sainsbury’s costs £6.09, and each serving contains around 30.6g of protein. There are around four-six servings in each pack, each costing approx. £1.20.
A 1kg bag of Myprotein whey protein powder costs £39.99, working out at around £0.83 per serving which contains 21g of protein. There are around 48 servings in each bag, each costing approx. £0.83.
While protein powder doesn’t contain as much protein in each serving, the savings are significant, especially considering protein powder lasts much longer than meat sources and can be consumed over a longer period.
An individual’s shopping list becomes much less costly when protein powder is combined with meat protein sources, adding to the convenience we mentioned in our last point.
Related: The best vegan protein shakes
3. Concentrated protein source
One of the biggest advantages of protein powder is that it is a concentrated protein source, making it ideal for those looking to build hypertrophy or lose weight.
Consuming whole foods is great for your health but obtaining a lot of protein from each meal usually coincides with a higher calorie intake. This can make staying within a deficit or protein-specific surplus difficult.
Since protein powder contains a high percentage of protein vs calorie content, it’s a great solution for those looking to increase their protein intake without consuming a larger quantity of other macronutrients.
1. Cannot replace real food
Many supplement companies boast the nutritional benefits of their products, proclaiming that they contain just as many micronutrients and amino acids as natural food sources.
But even if this is true, it means there is no benefit to consuming a supplement over a whole food alternative. Opting for a natural source could be healthier in many cases.
In a study on protein supplements and their relationship with nutrition, researchers from the Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition stated:
“The consumption of ultra-processed foods has been associated with the higher prevalence of several diseases, possibly due to high content of processed vegetable fats, sugars, salt and artificial sweeteners among other components.
While it’s a matter of personal choice whether or not you decide to supplement with protein powder, it’s a good idea to remember the golden rule of consuming a balanced diet. It’s a fact that whole foods are vital for staying in good health.
2. Ingredients vary from product to product
Regarding the pros and cons of protein powder, this factor raises many questions surrounding its place as a healthy, reliable supplement.
An investigation by Clean Label Project in 2018 led to the discovery of high levels of heavy metals and BPA in 53 leading brands, showing that many powders have either unlisted ingredients or dangerous levels of those shown on the label.
It’s a good idea to check each individual product’s labels. Marketing information can be misleading and often leaves out the more unsavoury ingredients used to make their supplements.
3. More research is needed into long-term health effects
Leading on from our above point, not much is known about the long-term health effects of protein powder.
Not only are their labels sometimes less transparent than they should be, which is a cause for concern, but high-protein diets could be dangerous regardless of the source.
A 2013 study found that a protein intake above the recommended dietary allowance for healthy adults could be dangerous in the long run, potentially leading to an increased risk for coronary heart disease or cancer.
The study also stated it could impose a metabolic burden on the bones, kidneys, and liver.
Much speculation is involved in estimating the long-term health implications of an excessively high-protein diet, and more research is needed in this area. It’s a good idea to remember this when self-prescribing any dietary supplements.
Safety tips for using protein powder
If you do choose to supplement with protein powder, here are some general guidelines for gaining the advantages of protein powder whilst limiting any adverse effects:
- do your research—thoroughly check the label and brand behind the products you’re looking at
- track your intake—ensure you don’t exceed the recommended dietary allowance
- balance supplements with whole foods—make sure you gain enough protein through natural sources
- listen to your body—reduce your protein intake if you experience any adverse effects
Our research on supermarket vs premium protein products could help you learn more about responsibly increasing your protein intake whilst on a budget.
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