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  • Writer's pictureAlan Frischer, MD, MPH

Protein Powder

I love my morning smoothie, and it always starts my day off right. I throw in spinach, avocado, Greek yogurt, peanut butter, blueberries, banana, milk, and even a few chocolate chips. A recent houseguest expressed surprise that I didn’t include protein powder. In my mind, every ingredient of my shake (even the blueberries!) contains some protein, so I figure that I’m covered. Am I wrong?

Protein is important for all of our bodies, but each of us has different needs. High level athletes might need twice the protein, due to the energy they expend and the process of breaking down, repairing and building muscle. Many vegetarians and vegans choose protein powders to replace animal-based sources like meat, dairy or eggs. Post-operative patients and those recovering from various illnesses can benefit from more protein. Those who are trying to increase their muscle mass may want additional protein. Still others look for an easy, non-greasy meal.

There are different types of protein powder. It might be dehydrated from milk, soy, or other plants. It is typically mixed with water or other liquids, or added to foods. Which protein powder would you select?

Whey protein: Whey is a natural byproduct of making cheese from milk. It is quickly absorbed, is low in fat or even fat free, and is rich in amino acids, minerals, and vitamins. Note that some cheaper versions do contain additives, including sugar. Whey protein is well thought of; it is relatively cheap, low in fat and carbs, and because it is low in lactose, is tolerated well among those who are lactose intolerant. It is absorbed quickly, so can be useful before, during, and after working out.

Casein protein: Casein makes up 80% of milk protein. It is not appropriate for those who are lactose intolerant. It can be high in sodium, trigger allergies, cause bloating, and due to its slow digestion, is not as useful as a before, during or post-workout protein. It is often used at bedtime, or with a large meal when there is ample time for digestion.

Milk protein isolates: This is made up of 20% whey protein and 80% casein. The powder has both fast and slow acting proteins, but absorption is still slower than whey protein alone. It works well for those who are lactose intolerant.

Egg protein: This protein from eggs is inexpensive, full of amino acids, and high in protein quality. However, it can cause gas and bloating.

Soy protein: This plant-based alternative comes from soybeans. It can reduce cholesterol and help prevent heart problems. It is good for those with lactose intolerance. It has a complete amino acid profile (unlike other plant-based options), and is low in fat and carbs. However, research is still underway regarding its benefits and its relationship to estrogen-related cancers. It may be a lower quality protein than others, and in general, limiting our soy intake is a good idea.

Pea protein: This protein, made from peas, appears to perform relatively well. However, it lacks the amino acid methionine, so should be combined with another source of protein.

Rice protein: Rice protein is good for those with allergies to other protein sources, and for vegetarians. It is easily digested, but is not the best quality of the proteins listed here.

Regardless of which protein you might use, these powders are convenient. They can enhance the quantity and quality of protein in your diet, usually (but not always) in a cost-effective way. However, note that they do not contain the vitamins and minerals that would be in the actual food.

I would suggest that, for most of us, there is no great advantage to choosing a supplement over food. And, consider that too much protein (generally over 35% of daily calories) can lead to health issues, including nausea, cramps, fatigue, headaches and bloating. Too much protein can even potentially cause kidney damage, loss of calcium and bone weakness, and dehydration. And, many protein powders contain extra calories, oils, and sugar.

It will come as no great surprise to most of my readers that my recommendation is to eat a wholesome, balanced, high quality diet filled with fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, dairy, seeds, fish, whole grains, and low-fat meats. If your protein intake is sufficient and evenly distributed among a variety of sources, then supplements are usually unnecessary. Still, if you have an additional need for protein, select a powder that suits you, and control the quantity you consume. Personally, I’m going to leave my morning smoothie recipe just as it is.

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