Fitness + Well-being

Is protein powder safe? What every athlete should know

There’s whey protein, soy protein, pea protein, and more. Do these protein powders legitimately help with weight loss and muscle building? We chatted with the experts to find out.

What are the benefits of protein powder?
Here’s how protein powders could help weight loss and toning: Protein powders contain, well, protein. And everyone needs protein. How much depends on things like your gender, age, activity level and health. Someone who is regularly exercising, whether it’s an activity like running or strength training (or both), needs extra protein. Protein before a workout helps make amino acids available to your body so it doesn’t use the protein in your muscles to fuel a workout—  and protein post workout helps repair damage to your muscles that occurred during the workout, helping to prevent injury and also helping to make those muscles bigger and stronger.

But does that protein need to come from a powder, versus a food? Nope. “Protein powder doesn’t have any magical powers when it comes to weight loss or muscle building,” Mandy Enright, MS, RDN, a registered yoga teacher and creator of the couples’ nutrition blog Nutrition Nuptials, told Fox News.

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But it can make it easier to get the proper amount of protein for people who need extra, like athletes, or who have dietary restrictions, like vegetarians or vegans. “I am a believer!” Tara Collingwood, MS, RDN, team dietitian for Orlando Magic and official nutritionist for runDisney, told Fox News. “I like the versatility of protein powders and the fact that you can get so much protein at one time.”

Can using protein powders really help you lose weight? And build muscle?
The science is slim when it comes to connecting protein powders and weight loss, Angie Asche, MS, RD, a sports nutritionist and owner of Eleat Sports Nutrition, told Fox News. “If weight loss occurs after someone begins using a protein powder as a meal replacement, it would more likely be the result of an overall reduced calorie intake,” she said.

On the other hand, there is science to connect protein powders with muscle building. “Most protein powders — whether milk, whey, or plant based — are considered complete proteins,” Asche said. This means protein powders typically contain all the essential amino acids your body needs to repair tissues, and build and maintain muscle mass. And complete proteins contain branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which “work to help fuel working muscles, stimulate protein synthesis, and promote muscle recovery,” Asche said.

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Much of that research is tied to whey protein powders. “I typically recommend whey-based protein powders to my clients, especially athletes, because research shows they are most effective for replenishing tired muscles,” Collingwood said.

Is protein powder risky?
Protein in excess of what your body needs isn’t automatically stored as muscle. It might be stored as fat. In addition, “too much protein puts strain on the kidneys, can lead to dehydration, bloating, nausea, osteoporosis, and more,” Collingwood said.

And, of course, protein powder on its own is not a meal. Combine it with a carbohydrate like oats, a healthy fat like peanut butter, and a fruit or vegetable for a balanced meal. Mix the powders into smoothies, pancake mixes, oatmeal and more, Collingwood said.

And while it’s not a risk, protein powder is processed. “If you want fewer processed foods in your life, then try to get all of your protein through natural food sources,” Collingwood said. Try eggs, chicken breast, salmon, milk and more. You can also make your own protein powder from whole ingredients like dry milk powder, oats, and almonds — try this Homemade Protein Powder recipe from Serena Ball, MS, RD, co-owner of Teaspoon of Spice.

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How do you choose a safe protein powder?
All protein powders are not created equal.  A big reason: Supplements such as protein powders do not require FDA approval for marketing. Because of this, they may contain less protein, more sugar, and differing amounts of other ingredients — versus what they label claims. “You run into the risk of not actually knowing what you’re consuming,” Asche said. Look for one that’s NSF Certified for Sport, which means a product has undergone third-party testing to assure that what’s listed on the package is actually in the product. “Even if you aren’t an athlete, I still highly recommend seeking out a protein powder with this certification because it’s gone through rigorous testing to assure it is legit,” Asche said.

Amy Gorin is freelance writer and owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in Jersey City, NJ. Connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.