For some, protein powders are a go-to source of fuel. But are they healthy?
When you think about the benefits of protein powders, it’s easy to understand why protein powders are gaining popularity. Fitness enthusiasts like the the muscle-building boost of protein. The supplements can help older adults maintain their muscle mass, which can help them manage an illness. Basically, people get help muscle-building without all the fat, carbs, and other fillers that come from many foods.
However, there is research that suggests protein powders may not be all they’re cracked up to be.
In fact, some of them could potentially be harmful.
“One common issue is that you often don’t know if you’re getting what you’re buying,” said Jason Stevenson, a registered dietitian and board-certified sports dietitian at the University of Miami Health System.
In a 2018 study, the Clean Label Project found that 74% of the products tested had detectable levels of the heavy metal cadmium, while 70% contained lead. BPA, another potentially harmful chemical, was also found in 55% of the powders tested. Arsenic was also detected in some of the powders.
Of the products tested, the ones derived from plant-based proteins seemed to have the highest levels of heavy metals, while those made mainly from egg-based or whey protein had the lowest. Considering some levels of heavy metals in the soil, as well as plants that grow in that soil, are natural, several protein powder manufacturers have said that the levels found in their products should be considered normal.
Are protein powders harmful?
“In general, protein powder consumption is safe, but some people think more is better,” Stevenson says.
Evidence suggests that certain types of protein can hinder athletic performance by producing excess ammonia, which results in fatigue.
"Excess protein may also tax the kidneys, and the result is a more acidic environment called metabolic acidosis," he says. "Although this is more likely to occur in individuals with an existing kidney disorder, I often see consumption of protein powders offsetting the consumption of other healthy, more alkaline-based foods such as fruits and vegetables.”
Protein powders still have their place in a healthy diet.
The key is to use them at the right times and in a responsible manner.
“The main benefit of using protein powders is that it helps fitness enthusiasts and athletes meet their protein requirements, when normally it would be difficult to obtain through eating alone,” he says. “Some athletes expend so much energy during training; they cannot eat enough to recover. Protein powder helps narrow the gap.”
When it comes to the older population, 1 in 3 adults over the age of 50 was not getting enough protein into their diets. This could be due to reduced appetite, dental issues, impaired taste, swallowing problems, or limited financial resources. Some people simply may not think about how much protein they eat (or how much they aren't eating).
But, protein maintenance is part of a healthy diet. Adults who are in the hospital, or who have chronic or acute illnesses, need more protein to maintain muscle when their bodies are facing additional stress.
“For the older population, our general assessment is always to look at protein intake versus what they need,” Stevenson said. “Their protein needs are based on weight, pre-existing medical conditions, activity level, and a number of other factors.”
The amount of information online can be overwhelming. Conflicting advice about what types to take, and how much or how often to take it, confuses people, he says. If you need a place to start, talk to a physician, especially if you have a pre-existing condition.
Which protein powder is right for me?
“We always try to practice food first and encourage people to get their protein from food sources before a supplement.” But, as Stevenson mentioned, it’s more difficult for athletes to reach the volume they need without using a dietary supplement.
If you think protein powder has a place in your diet, choose the right one. Whey- or egg-based powders may have lower levels of heavy metals than plant-based protein powders. But it’s still too early to know if there are risks.
To get the best results, Stevenson recommends that athletes get a variety of proteins. “For most fitness enthusiasts, I lean more toward a product with a mixture of proteins: whey, casein, soy, isolates, concentrates… you get the picture,” he says. “For my more elite clients, the timing of specific proteins may be more advantageous. Much of the time, though, it’s trial and error.”
Another factor in choosing the right protein powder is a lot less scientific.
“Ultimately, taste is the main factor in an athletes’ compliance to consume,” says Stevenson. “If it doesn’t taste good, you won’t drink it.”
Updated (November 2019) by Cara Tremols, contributor to UMiami Health News.