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Pros & Cons of Protein Powders

Updated: Jul 23, 2023

Protein powders are very common among athletes. But how common something is doesn’t tell us anything about its merits. In this article, we bring you the potential pros and cons to protein powder consumption for an active individual.


Athletes are always seeking an extra edge against the competition and nutrition supplements are heavily marketed to fulfil this desire. Indeed, perhaps the most well known and marketed nutrition supplements are protein powders. It then comes as no surprise that protein supplements are one of the most commonly used supplements by athletes (1). We have written about the importance of protein for athletes before, but are there any unique advantages to protein supplements, and are there any downsides?



Pros

We present what we think are the three main pros of protein powder consumption for an active individual.


1/ Protein powders can help you meet your daily protein goal

This one is quite straightforward, but important! As an active individual, your protein requirements will be greater than the average person. Evidence-based protein recommendations for athletes range from between 1.2–2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (g/kg/d), with 1.6 g/kg/d generally considered as the sweet spot for maximising muscle strength and size (2,3). Considering that a single scoop of protein powder will give you about 20–25 grams of protein, this can be helpful for reaching your daily goal.


2/ Protein powders are convenient

For those of us who are busy, having a protein shake after a workout can be a handy way to fuel. Of course, this is not required; you can eat a protein-rich meal instead. But if time is a significant constraint, this approach is convenient and can help you meet your daily protein requirements.


3/ Protein powders can be useful if you are cutting

For athletes who need a low body fat percentage—such as bodybuilders, or weight-class athletes (e.g., boxers)—going through a period of “cutting”, or targeted fat loss, is required at some point in the competitive season. When in a calorie deficit, our bodies lose muscle as well as fat. But if we eat high levels of protein (2.0+ g/kg/d)—alongside engaging in resistance training—muscle loss can be minimised (4). Protein powders are very worthwhile in this scenario because they are high in protein and low in calories.


British Sprinter Adam Gemili with a Protein Shake (Source: Pinterest)


Cons

Like the above section, we present what we believe to be the three main cons to protein powder consumption for an active individual.


1/ Protein powders can be unnecessary

There is no doubt that evidence-based protein requirements for athletes can be achieved through food intake alone. For example, one serving (100 grams) of salmon would give you about 25 grams of protein; one serving of tofu (150 grams) would give you about 20 grams of protein; and one serving of chicken breast (85 grams) would give you about 26 grams of protein. Considering you will also get protein from the other foods you eat in mixed meals, it’s feasible to eat the required protein amounts through food intake alone.


2/ Protein powders can be expensive

High-quality protein powders can be expensive to buy. Related to the previous point, if you don’t require them to meet your daily protein requirements, why spend the money? There’s nothing special about protein powders—they are a supplement to your diet and don’t provide any additional benefits compared to the protein found in foods.


3/ Protein powders can be contaminated

In a study by the Clean Label Project, nearly 75% of 130 top-selling protein powders had measurable levels of lead, and about one-in-three exceeded regulatory safety levels (5). This is a problem because lead is toxic, and even low-level exposure can be lethal. In addition, other contaminants (e.g., BPA, mercury, cadmium, arsenic) were found in about 40% of tested brands. If you decide to consume protein powder, ensure that the brand you choose tests for contaminants and are ideally third-party tested.


Summary

Like most things in life, there are pros and cons to protein powder consumption. Whether you choose to consume them or not will come down to a calculated decision on your part, taking these considerations (and possibly others) into account. We note that there are other contexts where protein powders may have added importance (e.g., in those with restricted diets, in the elderly, etc.), so bear in mind that the focus of this article was on the everyday active individual.


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Hope you enjoyed it! Check back next week for another article on sports nutrition supplements.


Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH

Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121

Founder of Just Health — Instagram: @just.health.info


Health Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educational purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional advice. For health advice, speak to a physician or other qualified health-care professional, and for nutrition advice, speak to a qualified nutrition professional (e.g., registered dietitian). The use of information on this site is solely at your own risk.


References

(1) Daher J, Mallick M, El Khoury D. Prevalence of Dietary Supplement Use among Athletes Worldwide: A Scoping Review. Nutrients. 2022;14(19):4109. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9570738/


(2) Thomas DT, Erdman KA, Burke LM. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(3):501-28. Available at: https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2016/03000/Nutrition_and_Athletic_Performance.25.aspx


(3) Morton RW, Murphy KT, McKellar SR, Schoenfeld BJ, Henselmans M, Helms E, Aragon AA, Devries MC, Banfield L, Krieger JW, Phillips SM. A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. Br J Sports Med. 2018 Mar;52(6):376-84. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5867436/


(4) Ribeiro AS, Nunes JP, Schoenfeld BJ. Should Competitive Bodybuilders Ingest More Protein than Current Evidence-Based Recommendations?. Sports Med. 2019;49(10):1481-5. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40279-019-01111-y


(5) Clean Label Project. Protein Powder: Our Point of View. White Paper. 2018. Available at: https://cleanlabelproject.org/protein-powder-white-paper/


Technical Terms

Calorie Deficit: This is a state of energy intake that is lower than what is required for your body to maintain body weight, and thus leads to a decrease in body weight, the majority of which being body fat (but muscle will be lost to some extent, too).


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