Gary Klein, MD, on Protein Powder: Healthy or Hype?May 31, 2023 04:13PM ● By Gary Klein, MD, MPH
Protein powder has become increasingly popular in recent years, especially among athletes and fitness enthusiasts. The allure of a quick and convenient source of protein has made it a popular addition to many diets. However, it’s important to remember that protein powder does not replace a healthy diet and exercise routine and there are potential hazards associated with consuming synthetic sources of protein.
Let's explore how much protein we really need, a little about the hazards of protein powder in our diet, and the risks of consuming too much protein.
We need protein for multiple reasons: It supports a healthy immune system, and it helps us to re-build and repair muscle and tissues in our bodies. When we work out, particularly when we strength-train, we damage our muscle fibers causing our bodies to make necessary repairs and build new fibers. These repaired fibers increase in thickness and number to make our muscles bigger and stronger.
Protein is an essential building block of this process, but the physical act of exercising is really the key ingredient. Protein alone in natural or powder form is not a replacement for regular strength-training for building and maintaining muscle.
So how much protein do we need? The average sedentary man should consume about 56 grams of protein a day and the average sedentary women 46 grams. (1)
There are a few instances where we may need more protein than the daily dietary recommendation and that is when we are building muscle. So, this would include when we start a new workout, when we are amplifying an existing workout, or if we are recovering from injury. Another reason to supplement protein is if we are following a strictly plant-based diet and aren’t getting protein from meat or dairy.
While it is true that protein powder is a convenient source of protein that can be added to shakes, smoothies, or other foods and drinks, many of these products are highly processed. Many of these powders contain added sugars, artificial flavors, and other additives. Some may also contain heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, and arsenic, which can be harmful to health when consumed in excessive amounts (2).
Interestingly, a study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that many protein powders contain elevated levels of heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, and arsenic. The study found that over 75% of the protein powders tested contained detectable levels of lead, and over 50% contained detectable levels of cadmium and arsenic (3).
In fact, just last year GNC had to pull more than 50 nutrition and protein shake brands from their shelves due to microbial contamination alone.
It is important to note that not all protein powders are created equal. Some are made from animal sources of protein, such as whey, casein, or collagen, while others are made from non-animal sources such as pea or soy. It is important to choose a high-quality protein powder that is free from harmful additives and heavy metals. If you are not sure what to buy, read the label and avoid added sugars, and flavorings. If you do not recognize an ingredient, wait to purchase until you have looked up that ingredient.
Consuming too much protein can also have negative effects on health. It can put a strain on the kidneys and other organs. High protein diets have been associated with an increased risk of kidney disease, kidney stones, and other health problems (4). And yes, you can gain weight from eating too much protein.
Anytime you consume more calories than your body needs, your body will store those calories in our fat tissue. One scoop of protein powder typically has about 25 grams of protein. So, some of us may be getting more than half of your daily recommended allotment in just one drink!
Another study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that consuming elevated levels of protein did not improve muscle mass or strength in resistance-trained individuals. This study followed 48 healthy resistance-trained men for eight weeks and found that consuming elevated levels of protein did not lead to greater gains in muscle mass or strength than consuming moderate levels of protein (5).
The truth is most of us, even athletes, can get all the protein we need from whole foods. While it is true that protein powder can be a convenient source of protein, it is equally important to be aware of the potential hazards associated with consuming too much protein. It is important to follow the recommended dietary allowance for protein and choose high-quality sources of protein when adding it to your diet. Best Tip: The best source of protein has and always will be from natural sources.
Gary Klein, MD, MPH, utilizes a functional medicine and collaborative approach with WellcomeMD in Charlotte. To connect with Dr. Klein, call 980-890-8974, email [email protected] or visit www.wellcomeMD.com.
1. How Much Protein Is Simply Too Much? (2019, July). Intermountain Health. https://www.sclhealth.org/blog/2019/07/how-much-protein-is-simply-too-much/
2. As Source of Heavy Metals. (2021, February 26). Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/protein-powder-heavy-metals
3. Consumer Reports. (2018). Arsenic and Lead Found in Many Protein Powders. https://www.consumerreports.org/dietary-supplements/arsenic-and-lead-found-in-many-protein-powders/
4. Protein in diet. (2020, October 16). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/high-protein-diets/art-20045856
5. Helms, E. R., Zinn, C., Rowlands, D. S., & Brown, S. R. (2018). A systematic review of dietary protein during caloric restriction in resistance trained lean athletes: a case for higher intakes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 28(2), 126-137.
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