What are protein powders?
Protein powder is a liquid shake that's been pre-mixed for you with a specific type of protein powder that is either animal- or plant-based. There are seven types of protein powder including mixed protein, whey, egg, soy, rice, hemp, and pea.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a health-conscious person, you might have tried a pre-made protein shake or blended various protein powder types into milk in the morning. Health supplements like protein shakes are everywhere — but is protein powder good for you?
Most people can benefit from consuming a high-quality source of protein, but there are a few cases in which drinking it in shake form isn’t a good idea. Learn more about protein powder and gain a better understanding of how to pick the right one for your nutritional needs.
These specialty drinks are marketed under various names, including “protein powder,” “protein shake,” or “nutrition drink.” Usually, what’s included is a liquid shake that’s been pre-mixed for you with a specific type of protein powder that you mix into liquid yourself. These powders are either animal- or plant-based.
People use protein powders for a variety of reasons, including adding quality nutrition to their diets, building muscle after a workout, or healing from a serious injury.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of protein powder?
Powders can be a good source of protein, though experts agree that people should mostly eat unprocessed protein sources like meat, dairy products, eggs, beans, and nuts. Women need around 46 grams of protein per day, while men need about 56.
If you don’t feel like you’re getting enough protein in your regular diet, protein powders can fill that gap. Plant-based protein powder can help those following a vegan or vegetarian eating pattern to get enough of this nutrient in their diets as well.
Because there isn’t any central agency or government branch that regulates protein powder manufacturing, you’re taking a gamble with many protein powders on the market. Many powders show heavy metal contamination, which can lead to serious damage over time. Signs of heavy metal poisoning may include stomach issues like vomiting and diarrhea, trouble breathing and flulike symptoms like chills.
Another drawback is that you may not know what’s in your shake or how it’s affecting your body. Protein powders are often bulked up with multivitamin supplements, herbal formulations, and extra calories. Be sure to read over labels carefully before buying new protein powders.
7 protein powder types and their benefits
There are many flavors of protein powder available at local grocery shops, in specialty stores, and online. Choosing the right type of protein often comes down to your dietary preferences, the taste of the powder, and how easily it mixes into a liquid.
Animal proteins are “complete” proteins, which means that they have all of the amino acids that your body needs. Plant-based proteins, like hemp, soy, rice, and pea, are often combined to create a complete set of amino acids.
These mixed proteins have the benefit of being plant-based without sacrificing any of these building blocks that your body needs to create muscle, promote immunity, and maintain heart health.
Some types of protein powder are studied for their nutritional and medicinal value. For example, whey protein, which is found in dairy products, boasts the following benefits:
- It may not cause allergies like milk can, and it can help prevent eczema when given to babies as a hydrolyzed (broken down) formula.
- It’s often OK for people with lactose intolerance.
- It can help people with medical conditions gain weight.
- It may help athletes build muscle faster than regular protein.
- It helps injured people’s wounds heal faster.
While this type of powder isn’t suitable for those with egg allergies, it is a complete protein. It’s ideal for those who are allergic to cow’s milk and can't tolerate whey protein, or it can be used as a potential supplement by those who don’t like eating meat. Eggs themselves are a good source of several vitamins, and many protein powders are fortified with even more nutrients.
One cup of soy milk contains 7 grams of protein, and concentrated soy protein powders often contain much more. Many people claim that soy protein reduces hot flashes, and research from Japan seems to back this up — but it’s important to understand that this research doesn’t include soy protein powder. Overall, soy protein seems to be a good source of protein for those who aren’t allergic to it.
Rice protein alone doesn’t contain all nine of the amino acids, but drinking rice protein shakes may benefit those who want to gain muscle and lose fat. In one study that compared rice protein isolate with whey protein, researchers found that the participants who drank rice protein shakes after resistance workouts for eight weeks experienced health gains similar to those who drank whey protein — including decreased fat and increased strength. This information could benefit those who don’t, or can’t, drink animal-based protein to boost their exercise routines.
Despite what you may have heard, hemp protein isn’t illegal, and it certainly won’t get you high. It’s just the protein from hemp seeds, which come from the Cannabis sativa L. plant. While they aren’t a complete source of protein, these little seeds are often combined with other proteins to make one.
Pea protein doesn’t taste like split peas, though it does come from them. Pea protein isolate, which is a pea protein-only powder, is often used in weight loss shakes and supplements because it contains so much protein: Many pea protein powders contain up to 20 grams of protein per 100 calories of shake.
What are a few precautions to consider when choosing a protein shake?
Some people need to ask their doctor before trying a protein powder. Consider the following information when you’re deciding whether you should buy a tub of whey or soy protein for your breakfast or post-workout routine:
Good nutrition during pregnancy is important for maintaining the health of both the mother and the baby. A high-quality protein powder could provide much-needed nutrition for many pregnant women who can’t get calories elsewhere, but if you’re pregnant, you shouldn’t try any new supplements without running them by your doctor first.
If you’re watching your blood sugar, you’re probably watching the carbs you eat and drink too. Don’t be fooled into thinking that all protein powders are healthy. Some contain extra sugar that you might not want to consume if you have diabetes.
Do you know what’s in your protein shake? While it may look and taste like chocolate milk or peanut butter fudge, you’re at risk of adding hundreds to thousands of calories to your diet with the wrong formulation.
Protein powders tend to be safe for most people, but it’s important to research whether your favorite shake has undergone heavy metal testing. If you have more questions about protein powders or your specific nutritional needs, it’s best to talk to a doctor or licensed nutritionist to make a plan that works best for you.