Are protein powders actually healthy?
Like with all things in the health space, there is a lot of confusing information out there. With marketers trying to convince us to buy expensive protein powders in order to 'blast' fat and get 'ripped' muscles, it's easy to think that protein powders are the best choice.
As a dietitian, I bet you can guess that I don't have protein powders myself nor do I recommend them. I used to have them all the time when I yo-yo dieted, struggled with my weight and over exercised but now I prefer to eat my protein. It's yummier, cheaper and healthier.
Here are the reasons why I don't think you need to have protein powders and think the high-protein real food is the best option:
1. They are highly processed
Can you tell me what food protein powders are made from? If you're really into supplements you may know but most of us, understandably, have no idea.
Protein powders are so processed that it's really tricky to work out what food they come from! I'm not saying that ALL processing is bad but when you can't actually tell where a food is from, it's a good sign that we are messing with nature - a little too much.
A note about 'wholefoods': It's quite frustrating when people claim that protein powders (or other 'magical health' powders) are whole foods. If you can't tell where the food comes from, then it's definitively not a whole food. Just because something is made using whole foods, doesn't make it a whole food. E.g. Rice is a whole food. Rice pudding isn't....
2. You swap out real foods
Protein powders are being marketed as a healthy alternative to real food which is a bad idea.
There are plenty of real food, high protein options that give you loads of protein very easily (see below for ideas). I’m always an advocate for choosing real whole foods instead of using packaged, processed foods. Trust me - there are heaps of ways to get enough protein in your diet without having to buy expensive tubs of protein powder.
3. You double-up on protein
Most people believe "The more protein I have - the better, leaner, stronger, more ripped, sexier I will become". Unfortunately not. Your body needs far less protein than you probably think.
I was surprised when I first learned that unless you're an athlete or really bulking, the average person needs to have about 0.8g of protein per 1kg of body weight. E.g. if you weigh 70kg that equals 64g of protein/day (based on NRV, 2014).
Protein powders also contain trace elements of heavy metals like lead and mercury. Having the recommended dose is fine but overdoing it can put a strain on your kidneys if you're overweight (Diseases of the Kidney and Urinary Tract, 2007) and liver (Signaling Pathways In Liver Disease, 2009).
4. They don't always promote weight loss
So now we know that your body can only have so much protein at a time. So when you have too much protein that your body can't use - it simply gets turned into fat.
If I was trying to lose weight, I personally wouldn't 'add' something like protein powder into my diet. I'd just focus on eating high protein whole foods (see below) that keeps me feeling fuller for longer instead of drinking extra energy via a product I don't like the taste of.
5. They are expensive
No wonder people think that healthy eating is expensive when they have supplements and superfoods. A tub of protein powder is really expensive.... particularly when you consider you can get all the protein you need from real food.
You need to eat food any way so it makes commercial sense to get protein from foods - not tubs. I think we are getting duped into thinking that adding protein supplements into our diet is going to be a good thing, when in my opinion, it’s overrated and costly.
6. Too much protein isn't good for your gut
Have you ever had a protein shake and farted all day. Like seriously - all day? Ever noticed that protein powders can make you feel bloated and lead to constipation?
If you've ever overdone the protein intake, you'll have realised that too much protein doesn't agree with your gut (The Impact of Diet and Lifestyle on Gut Microbiota and Human Health, 2014). If something is causing your gut to stop functioning properly, then you probably don't need a dietitian or doctor to tell you that it isn't ideal for your body.
Take Home Message
Protein powders are not a healthy alternative to real, whole foods.
It's a far healthier and tastier to get protein in foods rather than supplements! This is good news because it's much cheaper and yummier to eat whole foods.
Want to know how to get the protein you need from food - not powders? Here is a handy list of my favourite high-protein, real food picks!
Protein from Whole Foods Instead
There are plenty of protein rich foods that make for a healthy snack after you exercise.
Try these high protein whole food options instead (and save money and your kidneys).
+ One skinless chicken breast has about 30 grams of protein
+ 100g of salmon has about 20g of protein
+ A 170g tub of Greek yoghurt contains about 17 grams of protein
+ Three large eggs contains about 18 grams of protein!
+ One cup of lentils has about 18 grams of protein
+ Half a cup of oats contains about 13 grams of protein
+ One glass of milk (250ml) has 8-10g of protein
+ One handful of almonds contains about 6 grams of protein
+ One cup of quinoa has about 8 grams of protein
I also recommend adding some carbs to your protein snack to help refuel your glycogen stores. FYI - Carbs are not fattening. More on this at a later date.
High-Protein, whole food meals
Instead of protein powders, why not try these whole food options. Bet they taste better than powdered water!
- A bowl of porridge made with milk with a handful of nuts/seeds or a drizzle of peanut butter
- A three-egg omelette with spinach and feta cheese with a piece of grainy toast
- Greek yoghurt with seeds and nuts
- A quinoa salad with spinach, chickpeas and a tin of tuna
- Lentil salad with chopped herbs and red onion with white cheese like feta, haloumi or ricotta.
- Grilled chicken with brussel sprouts and side of brown rice and quinoa mix
- A small salmon steak on the BBQ with salad and a corn on the cob
High-protein, whole food snacks
- A glass of milk!
- Two boiled eggs
- A handful of nuts and seeds
- A tub of greek yoghurt
- A slice of cheese of grainy toast
TIP: Aim to have your supplement of 20g of protein within 1 hour after exercising. It's seems that it's important to have it between this time. If you miss the window, you may as well eat normal food as the protein won't do what is needed.
(Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?, 2013)
Healthy tips if you want to have protein powders
If you are having protein powders, then it helps to make smart choices. Here are some of my tips for making a better choice:
Stick to the recommended serving size.
Skim milk powder is a super cheap and easy way to add protein to milk. It's far less trendy but will save you a bucketload.
Pick a less processed powder if possible. Simple ingredients lists.
Skip the concentrate blends that contain a lot more stuff that doesn't do much.
WPI (Whey Protein Isolate) appears to be the best choice based on the research as it has the full profile of essential amino acids.
Order or buy in bulk to make it cheaper.
Exceptions to the rule
I'm a big believer the there is no one size fits all approach to health! Some people will benefit from protein supplements because they have higher energy and protein needs. If this is you, speak to a sports dietitian who can help.
Athletes and body builders who exercise a lot will benefit from a high-quality protein at the right times at the right dosages.
If you’re really struggling to gain weight then I would also recommend adding a protein powder into your diet, particularly at night.
People with higher protein needs like people with cancer cachexia. Sometimes having a protein shake is easier for people to eat like the elderly.
Lie in bed at night feeling guilty for overeating (yet again)? If you can't stop eating, then read this blog post to learn how to break the cycle. These tips are especially useful if you can't stop eating at night.
If you're always striving for more, better or leaner, then you need to read this.
Before I became a dietitian, I tried many detoxes and cleanses so I know how they work! I'm sharing the 8 simple steps to detox or cleanse (just like a celebrity or health blogger).
Coconut oil is very trendy at the moment but is it really that good for you? Find out which oil I use every day and what I really think about coconut oil (and the superfood claims).
Nutrition has become so confusing. I've learned a lot about people and healthy eating by working as a dietitian and nutritionist. Here is a no-BS summary of what I know for sure...
Want to get more followers on Instagram? These 10 strategies will help you gain more Instagram followers in the health and fitness world.
Intense sugar cravings can be really hard to resist. Luckily, you can stop sugar cravings with these 5 strategies. Learn how to beat sweet cravings - without 'quitting' sugar.
Nadia Felsch is one smart and talented lady. This soon-to-be nutritionist and founder of Wholefoods Society shares her favourite foods, self-care habit and tells me how she manages to do it all (and still keep it real simple)!
Hate shopping for a new swimsuit? You're probably doing it wrong. These game-changing 7 tips will make bikini shopping infinitely less stressful.
A few weekends ago, I flew to Australia's produce capital, Tasmania to visit the Huon Salmon Family farm. My aim? To learn exactly how Huon Salmon is always the freshest to market.
Dietitian and Nutritionist Rebecca Gawthorne (aka Nourish Naturally) will inspire you to eat more plants and get active. She shares her favourite snacks, tips and what's in her fridge as I found out how she keeps it real.
The Flexitarian Diet the latest trend in the health world. So, what is the flexitarian diet? Find out the pros and cons of the flexitarian diet to help you decide if it's right for you.
Around 30% of people are avoiding gluten because they think it's better for you. But is a gluten-free diet really healthier for you? Should you cut gluten out of your diet?
Diets suck. These 29 (surprisingly simple) healthy habits don't. Stop struggling to get healthy by depriving yourself. Follow these simple healthy habits instead. Promise - It's way more fun.
Losing the last bit of weight can be so hard. If it feels like your body is fighting against you and you can't lose those last few pounds, make sure you read this.
Since I was diagnosed with clinical anxiety, I've learned a lot about how to manage - and prevent anxiety. Here are the top 10 things I know now about anxiety. If you want to know how to deal with anxiety, this list can help.
Want to know which foods I never eat? As a nutritionist, there are a number of foods I avoid - and you might want to as well! Find out which foods to AVOID.
I used to be a binge eater. Until I stopped dieting. I lost 20kg and reclaimed my health. Here is my story how I lost weight. Plus all my favourite tips to help you on your journey.
Feeling bloated after meal is not fun. Here are some tips to help stop you from overeating when you're dining out.
Constipated? Bloated? These are the best high-fibre foods to add your diet to keep you going regularly.
Face lotions and serums have a role to play, but what you put in your mouth really does show on the outside! Here is my go-to list of the foods to eat for healthy, glowing skin...
We caught up with Miguel Maestre recently at an Australian Mushroom event and got to know about some of his favourite foods, preferences and how he keeps it real.
I often get asked for tips on how to stay healthy when you travel. Travelling used to make me feel stressed about my weight…But when I started to apply these simple strategies, it was easy to stay healthy whilst travelling.
If you're 'trying to be healthy' there is a good chance that you are dieting and secretly sabotaging your health and relationship with food. Find out if you are accidentally dieting - and what to do instead.
Do you think "well - I've ruined it now so I may as well..."? If so, you may be stuck in all-or-nothing thinking. And breaking free from this limiting belief will make all the difference. Here's how...
If you are trying to be healthy, you may be doing these things by mistake, jeopardising your wellbeing. Find out which 6 'healthy' habits aren't actually good for you and how breaking up with these habits can make you healthier - and happier.
Cutting back on alcohol? You may notice one of these amazing 12 benefits when you cut back on the booze. Find out what happens to your body when you drink less alcohol.
Always craving something sweet to eat after your main meals? There is a reason why. Find out the strategy I used to beat my sugar cravings and break the habit for good.
Are you obsessed with what you're allowed to eat? Do you get guilt when you eat too much? Obsessing over food and getting guilty doesn't help you be healthier. Get these two strategies to help you create a healthier relationship with your body.
Do you spend all day eating well but comfort eat when you get home? Do you eat healthily during the week only to overeat on the weekend? Learn how to stop binge and emotional eating with these tips.