Protein is a hot topic among clients in my practice. How much is enough? How much is too much? And what about protein powder? Is it a good idea or is it a waste of money?
The short, unsexy answer: It depends.
Here’s what you need to know.
How much protein do you actually need?
Protein provides important amino acids. Of the 20 amino acids we get from plant and animal proteins, there are nine that are considered essential, meaning that the body can’t synthesize them on its own so we need to get them from food—histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
Protein recommendations are based on roughly how much we need to eat to cover our needs for these various amino acids. Most healthy adults need about 0.8 to 1.0 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight. Since 1 kilogram is equivalent to 2.2 pounds, a 150-pound person (68.2 kilograms) needs about 55 to 68 grams of protein per day.
Just note that someone on a vegetarian diet likely needs more than someone who eats animal products in order to get all those essential amino acids. Some proteins, like animal proteins, for example, are called "complete proteins" because they provide all the essential amino acids. With a few exceptions, most plant proteins provide only some, which is why they’re sometimes called "incomplete proteins."
Plant proteins that are complete include soy, quinoa, buckwheat, and Quorn. Combining complementary plant proteins can also help you cover your bases. A few classic combos are rice and beans, whole wheat or sprouted grain bread with nut or seed butter, and pasta with peas.
Who should use protein powder?
Most of us do a great job meeting our protein needs and don’t need to supplement with protein powder, but some people can benefit from it.
For people whose needs are higher, protein powder can make it much easier to get enough. Athletes and people who are really active tend to need more, as do pregnant or lactating women. Certain medical conditions such as cancer may also increase protein needs. People recovering from surgery or healing a wound tend to need more to help their body repair and rebuild new tissue, and healing a burn often requires a big jump in protein.
People with conditions that affect swallowing may also find protein powder helpful. For example, I spent several years working with people with ALS. Because the muscles involved in swallowing are affected by the illness, we focused a lot on adding calories and protein to foods that were easy to consume. To help people get the most nutritional bang for their buck, protein powder could be added to foods, such as smoothies, soups, oatmeal, mashed potatoes, and more.
If you’ve got food allergies or restrictions that make it tough to get what you need when you’re out of the house, protein powder can be a handy, portable way to eat enough protein to keep your energy up through the day.
How to use protein powder.
If protein powder is something that would be helpful for you, think about where you struggle the most. If you’re a fitness instructor with little time to eat between classes, maybe shaking up some protein powder with water will help you keep going until you can sit down and have a full meal.
On a vegan diet with no time to meal prep and there are no good vegan options near your work? Protein powder is a delicious way to doctor up oatmeal, which can easily be prepared in an office microwave. If you’re trying to increase protein overall, consider an unflavored variety you can stir into sweet and savory foods. Protein powder is also great for adding to baked goods. You can even play around with making your own protein bars, fudge, or energy bites.
Not all protein powders are created equal, so choose based on your needs and preferences. If you’re going for a whey protein, go for organic or grass-fed. Pea protein is a versatile plant-based protein with a mild taste and texture. Hemp protein is packed with plant protein and fiber, but its gritty texture can be a bit off-putting. There are also a lot of great plant protein blends on the market. I generally encourage my clients to avoid soy protein isolate, which is more processed and no longer has the good parts of the soy plant—"filler" protein, you might call it.
Whatever type of protein powder you buy, read the ingredients list to scope out added sugar, preservatives, or other manner of "how do you pronounce that" you'd rather not put into your body.
The bottom line?
Most of us do just fine meeting our protein needs and should save our food dollars for making sure we’re enjoying the best quality we can and enjoying what we’re eating (if your diet makes you miserable, what’s the point?). If you do think protein powder would benefit you, consider your needs and how to use it to help you meet your goals.
Want to incorporate protein powder into your diet? This definitive guide will help you choose the best one.