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Do You Need Protein Powder?

fitness food Jan 31, 2024

“What protein powder should I use?” As a Personal Trainer, fitness business owner, and nutrition coach, I hear this question almost every day from clients. It doesn’t matter what goals they are working on (weight loss, strength gain, muscle building). It seems to be common knowledge that to be healthy, you need protein powder in your life.

Just because something is generally accepted as true doesn’t mean that it is. For centuries, we believed that the earth was flat. We now know it’s not.

So, is it true?

Do you need protein powder to be healthy?

I’ll start by saying protein is an important part of the health equation. You need to eat protein daily to maintain a healthy body.

Here’s why protein is important.

Protein is made of amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of human tissue. This is true for muscles, skin, organs, and even bones, which are 50% protein. Everything that makes the human body what it is requires amino acids.

Did you know your body recycles everything and can even produce some of what it needs to survive all on its own?

How does protein work in your body?

You eat food that contains protein. Your body breaks the protein down into amino acids. Your body then reconfigures those same amino acids into protein to repair the muscles, organs, skin, and bones. Pretty cool, huh?

Your body can go without eating any protein for as long as 70 days (I couldn’t verify this exact timeline. The medical literature shows that protein deficiency only happens under starvation conditions. The longest someone has survived starving without dying is 71 days. This was documented during the hunger strikes carried out by members of the Irish Republican Army in protest in jail in 1982).

Going without protein doesn’t feel good. You’ll start breaking down your own muscle tissue to get more amino acids to create new proteins (this is why very low-calorie diets fail). Symptoms of low protein include skin and soft tissue breakdown, low energy, and hair falling out…it’s not pretty.

There are some amino acids that your body can’t create on its own. You have to get them from food. These are what we call essential amino acids. It’s essential that you get these amino acids from your food.

Knowing all of this, it sounds like we probably can’t get enough amino acids from regular food, right? I mean, if your body is breaking down and rebuilding protein all day long, how can you be sure you’re giving your body everything it needs to carry out this process 24/7? Supplementing to make sure you’re getting enough seems like a good idea, right?

So, should you supplement with protein powder?

Well, no.

You absolutely CAN get enough protein from the food that you eat, even if you’re vegetarian. Even if you’re vegan. Even if you’re an athlete trying to build muscle. I’ll get into how to get enough each day in just a moment.

Here’s something you should know.

For all of the research that has been done on protein and humans, there are still many questions. We know the minimum amount of protein that humans need, but we still aren’t sure what the optimal protein intake is. 

That’s because you can’t look at protein in isolation. Yes, it’s an essential nutrient. Yes, you need to get some every day. But we don’t eat protein alone. We eat food, which contains protein and is s packaged with various nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Then there’s fiber, fat, and phytonutrients. All of these are essential to optimum human health.

We’ve hindered ourselves by looking at individual nutrients and attempting to consume them solo as pills, powders, and supplements. That’s not how food works. And it’s not how the human body works optimally.

How single nutrients can go wrong.

I’ll give you an example. Beta carotene is a nutrient found in orange-colored fruits and veggies. Back in the 1990s, scientists discovered that people with higher levels of beta carotene in their bloodstream had lower incidences of lung cancer, even if they were smokers. 

In 1994, they designed a double-blind, placebo-controlled study (the gold standard of scientific studies) in which they gave smokers a pill that contained either a placebo or beta carotene. The study included more than 2,900 participants. 

It had to be stopped early because the subjects receiving beta carotene were developing more lung cancer.

How is this possible?

They concluded that people with higher levels of beta carotene eat more food (specifically, fruit and veggies) that contain beta carotene. This is why beta carotene was elevated in their bloodstream. 

Eating more fruits and veggies also means they are eating more fiber and other phytonutrients that may be important in cancer prevention. Beta carotene alone, as a supplement, was not only unhelpful, it was actively harming study participants.

Back to Protein Powder.

Which brings us back to protein powder. Protein powder is not a whole food. It is a highly processed extracted single nutrient. This means it will work differently in the body than whole food. 

The research supports this. While protein powders can spike the circulating amino acids in the bloodstream immediately following digestion, we don’t know how this shows up as muscle mass growth or skin repair, etc., over the longer term. 

Don’t get me wrong. We know that in order to build muscle, we need to have a net positive amino acid balance to grow muscle. But does spiking amino acids with a short-term protein bomb make a difference? The literature is unclear. Rather, an overall increase in protein intake over the longer term (meaning that eating more protein throughout each day for a period of 3 months or longer) increases muscle growth when coupled with exercise.

This is why whole-food sources of protein will always beat out protein powders. They come naturally packaged with multiple amino acids (protein powders tend to contain a single amino acid), and in the case of plant proteins, they also come packaged with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that your body needs. 

On top of this, it’s tastier, easier, and less expensive to add protein as real food in your meals and snacks when you consider that you’ll be doing this for months or making a permanent change to your eating habits. 

Animal-based sources of protein often come packaged with cholesterol and saturated fat, which your body doesn’t need (it can make its own cholesterol and saturated fat), and they lack fiber.

What can you do when you want a convenient, tasty protein to add to your smoothie?

Open a can of beans.

Beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils are excellent sources of protein. A ½ cup serving can add 8–15g of protein to your smoothie.

I know. That sounds gross, right? I thought so, too. Until I tried it.

Beans make your smoothie thicker and more satisfying (just like a protein powder does), and there’s no flavor added. I add 1 TBSP of raw cacao powder, 1 TBSP of maple syrup, and ½ cup of black beans. I’ve added white beans or chickpeas, too, and I can’t tell they’re in there.

To supercharge my smoothie, I add soy milk instead of water for another 9 grams of protein. Altogether, I can get more than 20 grams of fiber in my smoothie. Plus Potassium, Magnesium, B Vitamins, and Vitamin C. The list of nutrients is endless.

Your smoothie will have you feeling full much longer than a protein powder because your body will have to process all of that fiber and protein.

More protein in your drink, more money in your wallet.

Beans are pennies per serving, whereas a protein powder can be $2-$5 per serving. Why pay more and get less?

Give this option a try, and let me know how it goes for you.

Want another bean-powered smoothie recipe? Get my Pumpkin Spice Smoothie recipe, along with 9 other plant-based recipes in my Recipe Guidebook.


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