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June 12, 2020 10 min read

Let’s get these puns out of the whey so we can properly get into whey-ing the benefits and drawbacks of everyone’s favorite supplement: protein powder.

When it comes to getting ripped, gaining strength, and even increasing endurance, there’s nothing that’s as important as protein. One of the three macronutrients, along with fats and carbs, protein not only helps us in getting swole, but it’s also a very necessary ingredient when it comes down to the proper functioning of the body.

And protein’s even more important for anyone seriously working on their athleticism. With protein comes muscle, and with muscle comes strength, agility, endurance, and explosive power. Not getting enough of the stuff is the primary reason that naturally skinny people can’t bulk up, and it can get you into annoying plateaus that stall your progress.

It makes sense then that protein powder enjoys the popularity that it has.

There it is—a pure, distilled version of the thing that we crave the most. What’s not to like? Anyone who’s ever had to put on a lot of weight knows that eating does become a chore if you’re forced to do a lot of it. Protein powder offers us a way to get a lot of it inside of us, quickly. No more chewing, no more cooking. It’s all right in the powder. What’s not to like, right?

Obviously, it’s not that cut-and-dry. And even if it might seem sometimes that more protein is better, it’s only like that to a point. Just like everything in life, moderation is key. We’ll look into the nitty-gritty below, but the evidence of this line of thinking is all around us. Especially when it comes to protein powders that promise us the world in terms of gains.

What Actually is Protein?

Protein is essential to life. It’s important in the building of every human cell and it’s extremely important to regulating some biochemical functions in the body. What we’re interested in, however, is how protein relates to the growth, development, and repair of tissue. Namely, muscle tissue.

While we can get protein from a variety of sources, all proteins are not built equal. The quality of a protein is judged by how complete or incomplete it is. This “completeness” is dependant on the number of amino acids in a particular protein.

All in all, there are 20 amino acids that your body uses. Of these, seven are non-essential acids because your body is already able to produce enough quantities of each to meet its needs. Another four of these 20 are called conditionally essential. This means that your body is able to make them in regular circumstances—such as being healthy, and not too tired. If you are sick or have just finished a strenuous workout, then that might change—but for the most part, we don’t have to worry about them.

Which leaves us with 9. These are the essential amino acids (EAAs). As the name suggests, they’re essential in that our body can’t produce them naturally, and therefore we have to get them from other sources—i.e., food, and in particular, protein.

This is just a brief background of proteins and there’s a ton more information to delve into if you’re interested. But for the sake of this discussion, and what interests us the most (muscles!), there are two things to keep in mind.

One, the quality of a protein can be judged by how complete or incomplete it is. A complete protein is one that doesn’t just have all 9 EAAs, but it also has them in significant quantities. A good example is whey protein powder compared to other vegetable-based protein powders. Whey is by far the favorite protein supplement because it’s complete in large quantities, while many other protein supplements are lacking in one thing or another

Second, it’s important to keep in mind that leucine is the most important amino acid for what we’re interested in—getting ripped. While obviously general health is important, most people do get enough protein in their diet and therefore get a well-rounded dose of all 9 EAAs. But if you’re looking for that extra edge and find yourself judging an incomplete versus a complete protein, it wouldn’t hurt to look at the leucine levels in each. 

Protein powder.

How Much Protein Should You Be Eating?

This is one of those questions that don’t have a very clear answer, and there are people with good arguments in a wide variety of camps. The commonly quoted protein recommendation is 56 grams per day for men, and 46 for women. On the other hand, there’s a (probably) more exact way of measuring recommended protein intake by looking at it as a function of weight. This recommendation looks like 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. So, for example, a 140-pound person should be eating just over 50 grams of protein daily.

If you’re trying to gain muscle and bulk up, then shoot for more. For example, 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight is a good standard. However, as much as protein powders would like us to think, more protein isn’t necessarily better (at least up to a certain point).

High protein diets can cause kidney stones and liver problems. Especially when it comes to eating red meat, there’s a higher chance of heart disease and colon cancer. But we’re not necessarily looking at the pros and cons of protein in general, but protein powders.

It’s important to note that a lot of the touted benefits of protein powders are just the benefits of protein in general. For example, any research on the topic of benefits of protein powder will inevitably talk about weight loss, muscle gain, and even a boosted immune system.

These are, however, functions of the protein and not the powder. That’s not to say that protein powder doesn’t have its own benefits, but that most people are already cashing in on its benefits by eating a well-rounded diet with whole foods.

Furthermore, just like protein itself, protein powders aren’t created equal as well. This can come down to anything from surprise ingredients, to just a natural lack in whatever the powder is based on. The biggest difference in the latter point can be seen between vegetable-based powders and animal-based ones. In large part, the vegetable-based proteins aren’t considered as complete as their animal counterparts. But we’ll dive into this more while looking at individual pros and cons. 

The Benefits of Protein Powder 

Like we mentioned above, protein powder comes with all of the benefits of eating protein. Not only is it essential in the proper functioning of your body, but there’s also no better way to gain muscle mass than by eating a high protein diet.

And it’s this latter point where protein powder really shines because when it comes down to it, it’s all about getting enough of the stuff inside of you. And if you’re naturally skinny and have been trying to bulk up for a while, then protein powder might even be a necessary component of your workout regime. This is especially true if you don’t have time to eat 6 meals a day and do all the cooking and meal prep. Put some protein powder into a protein shake or smoothie, and you’ve got a recipe for gains.

Used as a meal replacement, protein powder can help in losing weight as well. Especially if you get a high-quality powder, it’ll help in making you less hungry for other less healthy foods that you might crave. Just like protein, protein powder is more filling than other macronutrients and less healthy foods. This means that you’ll be eating less bad stuff while also being able to pack on some lean pounds of muscle mass. 

Vegetable-based Benefits

Vegetable-based protein powders also come with their own benefits. While obviously helping vegan athletes get enough protein, they’re also much better on the stomach in terms of bloating and other gastric discomforts. Their biggest drawback is their incompleteness as proteins.

Specifically, pea protein is low on the amino acid methionine while rice is low on lysine. These two proteins just happen to complement one another, however. That’s why they’re often combined in a vegetable-based protein powder which is a terrific substitute for the traditional whey stuff.

We’ve looked at rice protein powder in the past, and it’s important to note its leucine levels (the muscle-building amino acid). For a protein to be complete, it needs 55mg of leucine per gram of protein. Rice comes out at 80mg while traditional whey protein comes out at 104mg per gram. 

Whey might seem like the all-out winner in this scenario, but keep in mind that leucine benefits don’t scale linearly to leucine intake. In order for muscle growth to be stimulated, you need 0.7 to 3 grams of leucine per serving. Anything less risks leaving gains on the table, while more than 3 grams doesn’t provide any significant additional benefits.

So, when looking at the majority of protein powders, this comes down to 2 scoops of rice coming out at the high end of this range (3 grams). Compared to whey, this is equal to just under 2 scoops. However, if you just want to take one scoop of rice protein powder, then it’s arguable whether you’re leaving gains on the table or not.

The amino acid levels aside, vegetable proteins also have the added benefits of being more environmentally friendly and conscious of the meat industry and its effects. So, if you’ve been avoiding vegetable-based powder because you hate losing out on gains, it might not be as bad as you thought.

The Cons of Protein Powder

Just like many of the benefits of protein powders are just general benefits of protein consumption, many of its drawbacks are due to protein’s overconsumption. We’ve touched on some of these above, such as kidney stones, but it’s also worth taking a closer look at the powder component itself.

The first thing to understand about protein powder is that it’s considered a supplement by the FDA. That means it’s not regulated in the same way as food or medicine—leaving it up to manufacturers to make sure that their product isn’t hazardous. While there are some guidelines in place, it still remains the responsibility of producers to make sure that everything is safe and compliant.

Nevertheless, even if you get a good protein powder, there’s still a number of potential drawbacks you might want to consider before diving in.

They Lack Micronutrients

Using too much protein powder as a meal replacement is not a good idea. Even though some powers come fortified with vitamins, they’re still not a good replacement for a well-rounded meal with whole foods. Since they’re a supplement, they should be supplementary.

Most powders don’t contain a good range of micronutrients, antioxidants, and other things that make them significantly worse than eating a good diet. That isn’t to say everyone should stop taking protein powder. It’s more that people shouldn’t be overindulging in it to the point where it replaces other important foods. 

They’re Processed and Contain Additives

Protein powder, specifically whey protein, is a by-product of the dairy industry. Depending on the way in which the powders are processed, the proteins can potentially be denatured and lack the full benefits. 

Along with this comes a lot of other ingredients that you don’t necessarily want to put into your body. While different protein powders come from different sources and therefore have different processes when it comes to manufacturing, they often contain preservatives, artificial sweeteners, fructose syrup, and maltodextrin.

Essentially, these ingredients make the product more appealing to the consumer—at least on a superficial level. Whether it comes to taste or shelf life, protein powder can throw off your nutritional profile by having you consume much more sugar than you thought were.

And while vegetable protein powders come with their own benefits compared to whey, they’re also not innocent of doing this. For example, while rice protein powder is usually sold relatively “purely”, it’s often mixed with pea protein powder in order to obtain a full amino acid profile. And pea protein powder usually contains higher amounts of sodium than other powders, which is bad if you’re on a sodium-restrictive diet. 

What this comes down to is knowing what you’re buying and reading the ingredients. The market’s been inundated with options and some are significantly better than others, which is why it’s more important than ever to be a conscious consumer. If your “protein” powder turns out to just be a vehicle for flavorings, colorings, sweeteners, and sugars—what’s the point?

And while the discussion over-processed foods versus unprocessed continue to rage on, the point that it’s easier to sneak these additives into processed foods remains a fact.

Protein powder.

It’s Easy to Over-Indulge 

When training, it’s very easy to get into the “bigger, faster, stronger,” mindset. This is fair. It’s where our motivation stems from and how we get better at doing things. It becomes a problem when we don’t find some level of balance in what we’re doing. 

Protein has, rightfully so, become synonymous with muscle gain. And so, the assumption that many people hold is that the more the better. As we saw above, there are diminishing benefits after a certain level—a level which can be reached relatively quickly. 

Since protein powder is so convenient as well, there’s a major risk of it pushing out other whole foods that we should be prioritizing. Unless you’re really at very high levels of bodybuilding or powerlifting, there’s no reason to be consuming more than pre and post-workout—especially if you’re eating a regular whole-food, protein-rich diet, as well.

Furthermore, along with this over-indulgence can come health problems related to high protein intakes. So, for example, kidney stones and other kidney and liver issues. While protein powder might lessen the risk of diseases stemming from red meat such as heart issues and colon cancer, it can do just as much in instigating other illnesses.

The Jury Says…

There’s no denying the usefulness and popularity of protein powder. It has become, and will probably remain, a mainstay in any gym-goers supplement repository.

What’s important to remember is that the major benefit of protein powder is its convenience. What’s more, is that this convenience is only really necessary if you’re looking to bulk up. Most people’s protein needs can be met by eating a well-rounded diet with whole foods (unless you’re a bodybuilder).

Furthermore, while protein powder is an excellent tool, it’s essential to make sure that you’re actually buying high-quality protein powder and not just a good tasting/looking powder. 

The key, as with most things, is moderation. Much like rest is essential in balancing out hard work in the gym, it’s also essential to balance out protein powder with a significantly larger portion of whole foods. It comes down to knowing your goals, knowing your body, and knowing what you’re putting into it.