Eating enough protein is an important part of a healthy diet. Protein is an essential building block of life and is found in every cell of the human body. Along with fats and carbohydrates, protein is one of the three major macronutrients that we need in larger amounts for our organs and bodies to function properly.
In recent years, the use of protein powder has become a popular way for people to supplement their diet for a variety of reasons.
Protein powder is probably best known as a popular way for bodybuilders and athletes to promote muscle growth and boost performance in their exercise routines, but using protein powders has become mainstream for all sorts of health conscious people. For example, vegetarians and vegans often use protein powder to ensure they get enough protein in their diet, and older people may use it to help maintain muscle mass and strength as they tend to process protein less efficiently.
But what is actually in these powders? What are the different types? And do we absolutely need them to be healthy?
What’s in protein powder?
Protein powder is concentrated protein derived from either animal or plant sources. Animal sourced protein usually comes from either eggs or dairy products while plant-based protein can come from foods like soy, split peas, hemp, quinoa, or brown rice.
Here is a quick breakdown of some of the most popular types:
Derived from cow’s milk, whey protein powders are some of the most common and popular. Whey is water soluble, packed with amino acids and can help with appetites control, blood pressure and sugar levels and can help boost muscle growth.
Whey is easily digested for those without lactose intolerance issues, and can make you feel energized and full to help cut down on cravings.
Another milk-derived protein, casein is similar to whey in that it is absorbed and digested more slowly. This exposes the muscles to the amino acids in the casein at a slower rate, leading to a reduced rate of muscle breakdown. Casein tends to be a favourite of people using protein powder for weight training.
Egg-based protein powder is essentially made from just dried egg whites, so they are fat and cholesterol free, while still protein and amino-acid rich. Egg-based powders are popular for people who may have an intolerance to milk products.
For people who would rather not use an animal-derived product, plant-based powders are a great alternative. Chia seeds, hemp, different nuts, pea, brown rice, and mixed plants (a variety of plants are used to make the powder) are some of the most popular with each having distinct characteristics. Pea protein, for example, is rich in amino acids and is absorbed into the muscles slower than whey, but faster than casein. Meanwhile hemp protein is lacking in a couple of amino acids but is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and fibre.
Protein powders generally come in three different forms, according to Healthline:
Protein concentrates typically supply 60 to 80 per cent protein, with the remaining 20 to 40 percent composed of fat and carbs.
Protein isolates uses an additional filtering process removes more fat and carbs, further concentrating the protein. Protein isolate powders contain about 90 to 95 percent protein.
Protein hydrolysates are produced by further heating with acid or enzymes — which breaks the bonds between amino acids. Hydrolysates are absorbed more quickly by your body and muscles.
What’s the best one for you?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, your choice of protein powder depends on the results you are looking for. For example, if you are looking to bulk up your muscles, you want a powder that is easy for your body to absorb and use, like whey protein. If your goal is weight loss, the protein powder you consume should be one without added sweeteners or added amino acids which will promote weight gain.
Do we need protein powder to be healthy?
The short answer is no. For many people, a diet full of high-protein foods will be more than enough to maintain a healthy lifestyle. However, other people may need to supplement with powders or other protein supplements to reach those healthy protein levels.
How much protein we need also varies widely from person to person based on age, sex, weight, exercise routine and other lifestyle factors. Generally, the rule of thumb is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of weight, per day (54 grams for someone who weighs 150 lbs, for example).
There are also some risks associated with protein powder. A 2018 study found heavy metals in 75 per cent of 134 different powders tested for the study. There are products available that guarantee they are free of any metals. A article from Harvard Medical School also lists potential risks, including weight gain, a spike in blood sugar levels, digestive stress and a lack of long-term studies on protein powder use.
If you are thinking of incorporating a protein powder into your diet, it can’t hurt to consult your doctor about which type might work best for you.