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June 10, 2016

The Scoop on Protein Powders: Do they Live up to the Hype?

Christina Dauer, Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator


Protein powders and drinks are often marketed as dieting aids, meal replacements, energy and metabolism boosters, and endurance/recovery drinks, but are protein powders and drinks truly necessary to achieve your health and fitness goals?

What is protein?

Protein plays a vital role in almost all the body’s biological processes and is necessary to build, maintain and repair muscles. Amino acids are the molecular building blocks of protein.  There are 20 amino acids that the human body needs to survive, nine of these are “essential” and others are “non-essential”.  Essential amino acids cannot be made by the body, and must come from food. Non-essential amino acids can be manufactured by the body and do not need to be obtained from food. We get protein from many foods. Red meat, poultry, fish and soy/tofu are “complete” proteins, meaning they provide all 9 essential amino acids. Legumes and grains are “incomplete” proteins, meaning they do not individually provide all 9 essential amino acids, but if you consume a wide variety of these foods you can get all the protein and amino acids that the body needs. Protein from animal sources tends to have better absorption rates; however, vegetarians can meet their protein needs by including a variety of plant sources of protein in their diet.

How much protein is enough?

It is recommended that 10-35% of your daily energy intake comes from protein. Daily protein needs can also be calculated using body weight. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that the average individual consume 0.8 grams of protein per kg (or 0.35 grams/lb.) body weight per day for general muscle maintenance. Thus, a person weighing 165 lb. (75 kg) should consume an average of 60 grams of protein per day. This is the equivalent of 9 oz. of cooked meat/fish/poultry spread throughout the day.  However, protein intake should be calculated based on “ideal body weight”; therefore, those that are overweight or obese should not use their current weight to determine protein needs. As we age, daily protein intake needs increase to 1 gram/kg to prevent age-related declines in muscle mass. Those with kidney disease may have different protein requirements from the general population and should consult a registered dietitian. A registered dietitian is also best equipped to determine the protein needs individuals trying to lose weight or build muscle mass.

Type of IndividualGrams of protein per lb. body weightGrams of protein per kg body weight
Sedentary Adult0.350.8
Recreational exerciser, adult0.5-0.71.1-1.6
Endurance athlete, adult0.6-0.71.3-1.6
Adult Building Muscle Mass0.7-0.81.6-1.8


If your goal is to build muscle mass, you will need to incorporate regular resistance/strength training in combination with eating more protein than the general recommendations. Although, the protein amount may not be as much as you might think, or that is promoted by many bodybuilding websites. Those training for athletic events also have increased proteins needs. These levels of intake can usually be met through dietary adjustments with food alone, without additional protein supplementation. However, supplementation can be a convenient way to boost protein intake if you are trying to build muscle mass or train for an event.

Timing of Protein Intake with Exercise

Muscle protein turnover (the process of breakdown and rebuilding of muscles) is increased with strength training and can remain elevated for up to 48 hours in those starting a new weight lifting program. Therefore, it is important to time protein intake with exercise to make sure there is an available pool of amino acids for the body to use to repair and build new muscle. Protein supplementation after exercise has the most profound impact on muscle development. An analysis of 22 randomized controlled research trials suggests that protein supplementation soon after resistance training stimulates muscle building during the post-exercise period. Some research suggests there is a window of time, 1 hour after exercise, during which ingestion of protein will have the greatest impact on muscle development. Therefore, failing to eat after exercise may in fact limit protein synthesis and limit progress of muscle building.

For optimal muscle building, eat 20-25 grams of lean protein at each meal (this is the equivalent of 3 oz. of meat, fish or poultry or 1 cup tofu) and consume protein rich snacks (such as edamame, skim or 1% milk, low-fat Greek yogurt or cottage cheese, hard-boiled egg or tuna). This is in contrast to a standard American pattern of eating where there is very little protein at breakfast, a little more at lunch and a large portion of meat for dinner. Examples of lean protein include: skinless boneless chicken or turkey breast, fish, lean cuts of beef (93% lean or greater), egg whites, tofu or edamame. Skip high fat and highly processed meats such as bacon, sausages, or hot dogs. Those who are recreationally exercising, or trying to lose weight, do not need to add additional protein snacks or supplements, but may benefit from timing their regularly planned meals and snacks with exercise.

Choosing a Protein Supplement

While protein supplements are not necessary to meet protein needs, they can be a convenient way to supplement your protein intake. Whey protein is particularly helpful due to its rapid absorption rate. However, it is important to choose a whey protein that is low in fat and sugar, as well as friendly to your budget. Vegans can choose a soy or pea protein powder.

Look for:

  1. Products that state “whey protein isolate”-these products have the fat removed and are virtually lactose-free
  2. Look for products with <5 grams/carbs per serving
  3. Look for products with  <1 gram fat

Protein powders and protein supplements are great for convenience, but are not necessary, even for elite athletic performance. Non-fat milk or skim milk powders can be a budget friendly alternative to protein supplements. Protein needs can easily be met through a balanced diet and do not require additional supplementation. Those looking to build muscle mass may benefit from a protein supplement, but can also build muscle through timing of real-food sources of protein. Regular strength training combined with well-timed protein intake are beneficial for those looking to improve fitness and performance, and can also delay age-related muscle loss and preserve strength.


Clark, Nancy MS, RD Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook Fifth Edition. 2014.

 Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Dec; 96(6):1454-64. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.037556. Epub 2012 Nov 7. Protein supplementation augments the adaptive response of skeletal muscle to resistance-type exercise training: a meta-analysis.

American College of Sports Medicine. Protein Intake for Optimal Muscle Maintenance Accessed 5/17/16

Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000 Dec;32(12):2130-45. Joint Position Statement: nutrition and athletic performance. American College of Sports Medicine, American Dietetic Association, and Dietitians of Canada.

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