With the rise of the fitness industry popularity of protein powders and shakes increased significantly and shows no signs of slowing down. In 2020, the global market size of protein supplements was valued at $18.91 billion (1). After all, millions of people use these products so it’s not so shocking that the market keeps expanding. But, are protein powder and protein shake healthy? Find out in the post below.
What is Protein Powder?
Let’s start with the basics first. Protein powder is a concentrated form of protein obtained from plant or animal sources. Active men and women buy these products online or in stores or fitness shops to make protein shakes to drink before or after a workout session. They also come in different flavors. The most popular one is Vanilla protein powder. They often mix it with other flavors to create more tasty drinks like chocolate peanut butter.
Examples of plant based protein powders are pea protein, soy protein, brown rice protein, and hemp protein. In most cases, these products contain a blend of different plant proteins (2). On the other hand, animal-based protein powders are usually made of two milk proteins called casein and whey. The latter is more popular, it is isolated from whey i.e. a liquid byproduct of cheese making. Manufacturers prepare this protein so that it’s dry and powder-like (3).
Each scoop of protein powder supplies the body with 20 to 30g of protein. That means protein powder is a convenient way to add more protein in your diet.
Are Protein Powders Healthy?
Protein powders and shakes have become a convenient way to take fitness regimens to a whole new level. Most also contain essential amino acids. Indeed, these products do have some important health benefits and we’re going to discuss them below.
Protein happens to be one of the most important nutrients for weight loss and maintaining weight in a healthy range. Supplementation with protein can suppress your appetite and promote the feeling of fullness. As a result, you may opt for smaller portion sizes and snacks less frequently. That way, you can control calorie intake and avoid consuming too much.
Evidence shows supplementation with whey protein can improve body weight, cardiovascular disease risk factors, and total fat mass in overweight and obese subjects (4). One study inspected the impact of a protein ready-to-mix beverage on fat loss and found subjects who consumed protein beverages lost more weight than their counterparts from the control group. Compared to subjects from the other group, participants who drank protein beverages also lost more fat and less mean muscle mass (5).
The most common reason people use protein powders and shake is to support muscle repair and growth, especially after grueling workout sessions. After all, protein is crucial for muscle growth. Studies reveal dietary protein supplementation significantly increases changes in muscle size and strength during prolonged resistance exercise training (6).
The Sports Medicine journal published a study with interesting findings on this subject. The results showed consumption of supplemental protein doesn’t have an influence on lean muscle mass and strength for untrained persons during the first few weeks of resistance training. With increased frequency and volume of workouts, supplementation with protein can enhance muscle strength and gains in both untrained and trained people (7).
Regular workout sessions are important for muscle growth and weight management, but recovery is just as significant. Protein supports recovery by helping repair damaged tissues and muscles. Besides aiding recovery, supplementation with protein can also improve muscle performance, delay protein degradation, and promote protein synthesis (8).
Inflammation is a process where the immune system defends us from invaders and other harmful agents. While a certain degree of inflammation is a part of the natural healing process, long-term inflammation is not a good thing. You see, inflammation can contribute to autoimmune conditions and other health problems. What many people don’t know is that supplementation with whey protein can significantly decrease C-reactive protein (CRP) levels (9). CRP is a key inflammation marker in the body.
Antioxidants are powerful little compounds that neutralize free radicals and prevent oxidative stress and damage they would cause. Oxidative stress speeds up the aging process and contributes to other problems. Not only is it associated with obesity, but neurological diseases, cardiovascular diseases, among other things. When protein powders and shakes come to mind, you most certainly don’t think about health benefits like antioxidant protection. But the truth is whey supplementation can reduce oxidative stress and increase glutathione levels. Glutathione is one of the most significant antioxidants in the human body and it depends on amino acids such as cysteine. Whey is a high-cysteine food that strengthens natural antioxidant defenses in your body (10,11).
Other Health Benefits of Protein Powders
As seen above, supplementation with protein powders and shakes has a wide array of health benefits, but they don’t stop there. Other positive health effects of these products include (12):
- Reduced blood pressure in persons with hypertension
- Moderating blood sugar levels, particularly when taken before high-carb meals; useful for persons with type 2 diabetes
- Beneficial effects on inflammatory bowel disease
- Lower cholesterol levels
Generally speaking, high quality protein powders and shakes are healthy and may help improve our weight management, muscle growth, and overall health and wellbeing. However, all is not perfect and some dangers are lurking around nonetheless. Risks associated with the use of protein powders and shakes include the following (13):
- Protein powders and shakes fall into the category of dietary supplements. These products are not regulated by the FDA as strictly as others are. In fact, the FDA leaves it up to brands to evaluate the labeling and safety of their own products. For that reason, the label can say one thing but the actual truth may be something else entirely. Misleading information about ingredients and products, in general, is not uncommon. Many protein powders were found to contain lower-cost proteins like soy, rice, and chicken.
- Men and women with dairy allergies or problems digesting lactose may experience digestive distress when consuming milk-based protein powders and shakes.
- Long-term effects of protein powders and shakes aren’t fully clear because studies usually focus on short-term effects and results of supplementation with these products.
- Despite the fact protein powders are supposed to be healthy, some products may contain higher amounts of sugars and calories. What’s more, some protein powders may contain 23g of sugar per scoop. That’s a lot! Adding those protein powders to a glass of milk could turn a healthy beverage into a highly caloric one as it would deliver over 1200 calories to your body. This could lead to unwanted effects including spikes in blood glucose levels and weight gain.
- Some protein powders were found to contain heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury, but also BPA, pesticides, and many other potentially harmful contaminants. These compounds are associated with various health problems including cancers. Some of these toxins were present in large amounts in protein powders.
What we can conclude here is that protein powders are not dangerous on their own, but some brands may resort to questionable tactics that tarnish the quality and safety of their products.
What Are the Side Effects of Protein Powders?
Every product, a dietary supplement or not, comes with a certain risk of side effects. Not every person is bound to experience these adverse reactions. In cases when side effects do occur, they include:
Moderate intake of protein powders and shakes is well-tolerated. The risk of adverse reactions increases with excessive intake. Consistent high doses of protein powders like whey may also cause acne.
How Much Protein is Necessary?
The recommended daily intake of protein is 0.36g per pound or kilogram of body weight. In other words, an average sedentary man would need 56g of protein a day while a woman should consume about 46g of protein every day (14).
When it comes to protein powders, product labels contain instructions informing you how much is necessary to take. In most cases, it is necessary to use one to two scoops of protein powder. But you need to keep in mind this dosage is predicated by insufficient or average protein intake in the diet. If you already consume high levels of protein through diet alone, you don’t need supplements. Getting too much protein could induce side effects.
Always make sure to adhere to the dosage displayed on the packaging. You should also focus on diet and determine just how much you consume through food alone.
In most people, the body can process excess protein from supplements and food and can tolerate 1.14g to 1.5g per pound of protein on a daily basis. However, risking excess intake is not a smart idea. You should always stick to the recommended intake since that amount is exactly what your body needs and is well-researched and safe.
Do Protein Powders Harm Kidneys and Liver?
Probably one of the biggest concerns about protein powders, for many, is whether they can harm kidneys and liver. The theory was that excessive protein intake could induce liver and kidney damage in otherwise healthy persons. Recent studies have debunked these claims and showed high intake of protein is consistent with normal kidney function (15).
A study from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed subjects who consumed protein powder didn’t have any difference in the functionality of their kidneys. This study included 48 subjects who consumed a high-protein diet from whey-beef protein powder and food. The subjects were also assigned to an eight-week-long resistance program (16).
While protein powders are not dangerous for kidneys in healthy persons, those with renal problems may want to be careful. Men and women with renal disease or reduced function of the kidneys have more difficulties with the excretion of protein waste products in urine. For that reason, they need to be careful with how much protein they consume.
In other words, protein powders are not dangerous for kidneys in healthy persons, but if you have a kidney-related problem you may want to be careful.
Additionally, there is no evidence protein powder can damage your liver. Keep in mind the liver needs protein for the repair and conversion of fat to lipoprotein. Lipoproteins are molecules that serve to remove fat from the liver. In one study, intake of whey supplements reduced liver fat by 21% in obese women (17).
When it comes to the subject of protein powders and liver, it is useful to mention one case study where a man could have sustained liver damage due to these products. However, we cannot count it as the official evidence since the subject used other supplements at the same time (18). There is no specific indicator that would isolate protein powder as the sole cause of liver damage in the circumstances when a subject consumes other products which could also contribute to the condition.
Just like with kidney diseases, men and women with liver conditions such as cirrhosis may want to be careful with the intake of protein powders. In conditions like cirrhosis the liver doesn’t function properly and a high intake of protein may elevate levels of ammonia in the blood.
Things to Consider
Protein powders and shakes are created to help support our fitness journey by supplying nutrients necessary for muscle growth and repair. While in a nutshell protein powders are not unhealthy, a lot comes down to the product you choose. Some products can be downright dangerous because brands may be irresponsible with labeling and manufacturing.
For that reason, you may want to consider the following when buying protein powders:
- Reputation – Brands reputable for the quality and safety of their products are more likely to provide safe, top-notch protein powders. Go for the brands that are well-known in the fitness niche, for example, or among bodybuilders, depending on the reason you’re buying a protein powder in the first place.
- Third-party testing – Make sure the product is third-party tested. It’s not just enough to have “third-party tested” info, though. Make sure the label contains certifications issued by reliable third-party organizations like Banned Substances Control Group, NSF International’s Certified for Sport, among others.
- Check the serving size – The best protein powders on the market deliver 20-30g of protein per scoop. Avoid products that claim they deliver a lot more.
- Read labels thoroughly – You can learn a lot from the label of the product. For instance, you can find out whether the product has added sugars, extra calories, or if you’re buying a vegan-friendly product or not. This also leads us back to the reputable brand’s section, reliable brands usually provide more thorough information on the label. The more info, the better.
If you are looking for a high protein snack, choose protein powders and shakes! Many active men and women use these to make pre-or post-workout shakes. This post explored whether these products and beverages are healthy. As seen in this post, protein powders are good for you. Numerous studies have shown positive effects of protein powders. However, oftentimes manufacturers use inadequate practices that decrease the quality of protein powders and increase their dangers. So, the key lies in making the right choices when buying these products. Go for trusted brands with a loyal customer base.