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Do you need to use protein powder? A nutritionist weighs in

Here's the best way to use protein powder to boost your health.
Most protein powders deliver about 15 to 20g of protein per serving and range from 90 calories to 200.TODAY illustration / Getty Images

You may have seen your neighbor or co-worker running around with a shaker or jar full of an opaque-looking drink. More likely than not it’s a protein shake, and they could be drinking it for any number of reasons. Protein powder is a hot ingredient and sales of it are expected to climb at a growth rate of 8.4% from now until 2028. If you’ve never used one, you may be asking yourself if you need one. The answer is — maybe.

The power of protein

Protein powders are nothing new. They’ve been sold since the 1950s, but didn’t really gain national recognition until bodybuilding guru Joe Weider created his own line of supplements. These days protein powder has moved out of bodybuilding terrain and has saturated the Lululemon set because consumers have learned that protein can help them build and maintain muscle and may even help them stay slim.

Dozens of studies have shown that getting adequate amounts of protein can help with satiety. And some research has found that getting more than the RDA (recommended dietary allowance) can actually help with weight loss while preserving muscle mass and can even help lower triglycerides. And for people who have struggled with regaining weight after losing it, eating a higher protein diet may help mitigate the amount of weight regained over time.

It’s true that most Americans are not short on protein. The average American diet provides adequate amounts of protein and certainly meet the RDA’s 10 percent of calories from protein. But the RDA is set to meet basic nutritional requirements, as opposed to getting optimal levels. While the minimum is 10%, the guidelines actually allow for up to 35% of calories to come from protein. For an average person eating a 2,000 calorie diet, this would mean a range of 50 to 175g of daily protein — quite a difference.

Do you need a protein powder?

If you’re getting the baseline amount from your diet, you may want to add more. I recommend that my clients get one gram of protein per kilogram of their body weight. You can calculate your weight in kilograms by taking your weight in pounds and dividing by 2.2 and then multiplying that by 1. For example, a person who weighs 150 pounds (68 kg) should get approximately 68 to 70g of protein per day.

Older adults — individuals over 65 — also need to put a specific emphasis on protein intake. Research shows that older people require a higher protein intake (1.2 to 2g per kg in body weight) in order to maintain muscle mass as they age. Keeping our muscles means we’re keeping our strength and ability to do daily tasks as we age.

The question remains — do you need a powder, or can you get all the protein you need from your diet? Here are a few things to ask yourself: Do you usually eat a protein source (poultry, fish, meat, dairy, tofu, beans, nuts and seeds) at breakfast, lunch and dinner? Do you include protein at snacks? If you feel that you’re falling short and you’re struggling to feel satisfied at meals, or you’re getting ravenous between meals, a protein powder might be helpful.

Keep in mind that your body can only use 30 grams of protein at a time. So, it’s smart to break up your total intake throughout the day, instead of loading up at dinner on an 8-ounce steak with 60 grams of protein. If you’re getting enough protein at dinner, you may want to try adding a protein-rich smoothie pre- or post-workout. Or try one of the protein-packed recipe ideas below.

Pick your protein

Just 10 years ago, the protein powder options consumers had was pretty basic—you could either go with whey protein or soy protein. Today the choices are dizzying, ranging from cricket protein to pea protein to bone broth protein and everything in between. Most powders deliver about 15 to 20g of protein per serving and range from 90 calories to 200. Here’s a closer look at the options:

Whey: In terms of supporting muscles, whey is generally considered to be the gold standard. Whey protein is a by-product of the cheese-making process and provides amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Whey also blends in easily to smoothies. Research shows that it helps build muscle when combined with strength training. Whey does contain the milk sugar lactose, so it’s not for you if you follow a vegan or dairy-free diet.

Soy: This plant-based protein has been shown to be as effective as whey protein in stimulating muscle growth. Soy protein also contains isoflavones, which have been shown to protect against heart disease, osteoporosis and some cancers. Soy is one of the top nine food allergens, so that has caused many food brands to move to other plant protein sources.

Pea: For folks who need to avoid both dairy and soy, pea protein has become a great vegan alternative. Pea protein does have a slightly grassy flavor, which some people don’t love.

Brown rice: This plant-based powder is easily digested and works well in both smoothies and baked goods. Brown rice protein is low in the amino acid lysine, so it’s smart to get variety in your protein sources to cover your bases.

Hemp: If you’re trying to increase the omega-3 and 6 content in your diet, as well as your fiber intake, hemp protein may be the pick for you. Due to its fat content, you will need to refrigerate this powder.

Bone broth: This highly nutritious food can be dried and used as a powder. People who have a hard time digesting the higher fiber plant proteins may do better with easily digestible bone broth. Bone broth powder also has skin boosting (hyaluronic acid and collagen), as well as joint supporting benefits (chondroitin and glucosamine). It’s also paleo-friendly and appropriate for people who need to avoid egg protein.

Cricket: Another paleo and keto-approved protein pick is from an incredibly earth-friendly source —crickets. If you’re looking for a protein powder that is sustainable and uses substantially less water and land to produce, it’s a great choice. Cricket powder is also gluten, dairy and soy-free, but may not be suitable for folks who have seafood allergies.

Almond: If you love almonds, as well as simplicity, this may be your go-to powder. Made from just one ingredient — almonds — you can use almond protein powder in everything from smoothies to muffins (you can also use it to make almond butter). In addition to providing protein, you’ll also get substantial amounts of naturally occurring calcium and potassium. This is a higher calorie option at 180 calories per 1/3 cup serving.

Chocho: If you haven’t heard of chocho, don’t worry — it’s one of the newest entrants in the protein powder game. Chocho is an ancient bean variety from the Andes mountains. In addition to being a sustainable protein source, chocho also has calcium, magnesium, vitamin E and is high in fiber. It’s also gluten, soy and dairy-free.

Plant blends: In addition to finding powders made from just one plant source, you’ll also find blends that combine pea with artichoke, algae or sprouted grains. If you’ve tried other plant protein powders and didn’t enjoy the flavor, you may want to consider a blend.

How to use protein powder

The simplest way to use most types of protein powder is to just stir the powder into a glass of water, milk, plant milk or juice. You may want to use a shaker container for better mixing, and certainly the vanilla and chocolate-flavored protein powders are more suitable for simple shakes like this.

Smoothies are definitely the most popular way to incorporate protein powder and can transform even the less palatable ones into delicious and satisfying drinks. You can add a scoop of protein powder to pretty much any smoothie recipe you have. This Workout Recovery Smoothie combines the anti-inflammatory power of cherries and pomegranate juice with nitrate-rich beets, which some studies show can increase muscle function and lower blood pressure. The addition of vanilla protein powder helps you repair and build muscle tissue.

Workout Recovery Smoothie

Workout Recovery Smoothie

Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN

You can also add protein powder into overnight oats, yogurt and oatmeal. When making overnight oats, simply replace ¼ of the oats with protein powder. Stir the powder into yogurt and cooked oatmeal. And try using it to up the protein in sheet-pan or regular pancakes. Simply add a scoop or two to your usual recipe. If it’s a little dry, add a bit more liquid and thoroughly combine. I find that vanilla-flavored protein powder tends to work best.

Remember that as with most things — it’s smart to be moderate. Trying to get all of your protein from a powder is not the way to go, but adding a few servings a week may help you get the extra boost you’re looking for.