Protein Powder: Effects, Options, and Your Questions Answered

Medically Reviewed By Grant Tinsley, PhD

People use protein powders to supplement their food intake and make sure they are getting enough protein in their diet. While many people can get their needs met through food alone, others — such as older adults, individuals on a restricted diet, or athletes — may benefit from the use of a protein powder supplement. A protein powder is a dietary supplement that can add to, or supplement, your diet to increase protein intake. It is different from conventional food.

Formulas include powders that you can dissolve to make shakes and soft drinks or easily add to your food.

To make protein powder, manufacturers extract protein from certain plants, eggs, and animal products.

The production process often removes other fats, minerals, carbohydrates, and fiber. It also adds ingredients, such as vitamins, minerals, thickeners, added sugars, and artificial flavoring.

This article will look at the different types, uses, and effects of protein powder. It will also discuss side effects, safety, and other important factors to keep in mind when considering adding a protein powder to your diet.

Why take a protein powder?

A hand enters the frame to tip a plastic scoop of white protein powder into a bottle of water. A large tub of powder sits on the table behind.
Mattia/Stocksy United

Protein is essential to the well-being and healthy function of the body. It helps to build and maintain skin, muscle, and bone, as well as produce important chemicals such as hormones and enzymes.

Research suggests the following benefits of protein powder supplements.

Nutrition

For many people, it is possible to get the recommended intake of protein through natural food sources alone.

However, powder supplements may be beneficial for certain people who want help meeting their nutritional needs, such as older adults with a limited appetite, people on a restricted diet, such as vegetarians, or athletes.

Recovery post-exercise

Some exercise, such as resistance exercise, can cause protein degradation in the cells of the body.

While this is a normal process in the body after exercise, a 2017 review Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source of multiple studies suggests that protein supplements may instead delay this degradation of cellular protein and promote protein synthesis.

This can help recovery after exercise and also avoid delaying recovery due to insufficient protein intake.

However, researchers also note that one single dose of whey protein supplements is not as beneficial after exercise, instead suggesting that consistent supplementation is more important.

Increased strength and muscle growth

A 2017 review and meta-analysis Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source of 49 different studies shows that boosting protein may help increase strength and lean body mass, as well as aiding muscle growth.

Having muscle is important to health, with one 2018 study Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source suggesting that a lower proportion of muscle in the body correlates to the prevalence of metabolic syndromes such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Studies from the review suggested that dietary protein supplementation significantly increased changes in strength and muscle size during periods of prolonged resistance exercise training.

Weight management

A different 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis suggests that protein supplementation with whey protein can improve body weight and fat mass in the body.

It may also help to improve some additional cardiovascular risk factors for people who are overweight or experience obesity, such as conditions affecting blood pressure, blood glucose, and cholesterol.

It is important to note that some protein powders may have added sugar, which can make weight or blood sugar management difficult.

The American Heart Association (AHA) Trusted Source American Heart Association Highly respected national organization Go to source recommends a limit of 25 grams of added sugar per day for females and 36 grams for males.

Search for products that are lower in sugar, and always consult with your doctor before making any dietary changes.

Types of protein powder

There are different types of protein powder that vary depending on the food source of the protein and the production methods.

Options include dairy and animal product sources, as well as plant-based protein sources.

Whey and casein protein powders

Whey protein comes from liquid whey, a byproduct of the cheese making process. It is a “complete protein,” meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids necessary for human dietary needs. This may help with muscle growth and repair, so whey may be a good choice before or after exercise.

There are three main types of whey protein powder products:

  • Whey protein concentrate: This kind of whey undergoes less processing and contains low levels of fats and carbohydrates.
  • Whey protein isolate: Further processes remove more fat and most of the lactose from the whey.
  • Whey protein hydrolysate: Production breaks the whey’s amino acids down into smaller units called peptides. Peptides are much less likely to cause allergic reactions for those with milk allergies.

Like whey, casein protein powder is milk-based and a byproduct of cheese production.

Casein may cause Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source a more sustained and steady increase of amino acids in the blood, which may make it a good choice before periods of fast, for example, before sleep.

Meat and animal product protein powder

Some protein powders use meat such as beef or chicken as their source of protein. They may also use animal components such as collagen.

A 2019 meta-analysis Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source suggests that beef protein supplements can represent a high quality source of protein. However, researchers note that it may be more difficult to digest and have a lower amino acid content than whey protein.

Learn more about collagen and collagen supplements.

Plant-based protein powder

Other plant-based and non-dairy protein powders include sources such as:

  • soybeans
  • rice
  • potatoes
  • peas
  • hemp
  • corn
  • wheat
  • oat
  • egg

Soy, pea, corn, and potato proteins all meet Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source the daily amino acid requirement for adults. However, other types of non-dairy protein supplements do not, so additional sources of protein would be necessary in your daily diet.

Protein powder vs. dietary protein

For some people, using a powder supplement can be a convenient way to ensure they are getting their recommended intake of protein. This may otherwise be difficult for those who have a restricted diet, such as a strict plant-based or vegan diet.

Others, such as athletes who want to boost their progress, may use supplements to get even more protein in their diet.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Offices of Dietary Supplements Trusted Source National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements Governmental authority Go to source , some dietary supplements can help you to get adequate amounts of essential nutrients if you do not eat a nutritious variety of foods. However, supplements cannot take the place of the variety of foods that are essential to a healthy diet.

Whole food sources of protein include:

  • lean meats
  • fish
  • dairy products
  • legumes
  • nuts
  • seeds

Research from a 2019 review Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source recommends that we meet our protein needs with whole foods. Meeting the requirements of a high protein diet with whole food is also beneficial, as whole foods will also offer additional nutrients. Additionally, researchers suggest that highly processed foods or supplements such as protein powder are not as preferable for nutrition.

If you have any concerns about your diet or nutrition, contact your doctor or a registered dietitian to discuss when and how to use supplements effectively alongside a balanced diet.

Read more about high quality dietary sources of protein.

Dosage

Your individual protein needs will depend on your:

  • age
  • weight
  • exercise routine
  • general health

A 2016 review Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source suggests that to meet the functional needs of the body, adults should consume between 1 and 1.6 grams (g) of protein per kilogram of body weight every day.

For example, a person with a body weight of 70 kg or around 154 lb could aim to eat between 70–112g of protein a day, depending on how much they exercise

A certified nutrition professional can tell you how much protein you need based on your individual health and needs.

The amount of protein per scoop of protein powder can vary between 10 and 30 g. Supplements used for building muscle may contain more protein, while supplements advertising weight loss may contain less.

What are the side effects of protein powder?

A protein powder is a dietary supplement and as with all supplements, in some cases, it can interact adversely with the body.

Higher doses of some protein powders, such as whey protein, can cause side effects including:

  • digestive distress, for example in people with dairy allergies or trouble digesting lactose if they use a milk-based protein powder
  • increased bowel movements
  • nausea or bloating
  • thirst
  • acne
  • reduced appetite
  • tiredness
  • headache
  • adverse interactions with medications such as antibiotics and levodopa

Be cautious about taking dietary supplements if you are pregnant or nursing. Many supplements have not undergone appropriate testing in pregnant people, people who are breastfeeding, or children.

Do not give protein powder or any other supplements to children without discussing it with their doctor.

Always consult your doctor if you experience new symptoms after changing your dietary habits.

Is it good to take protein powder?

Since protein powder is classified as a dietary supplement, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate it in the same way as food or medicine.

Many companies do not test their supplements for safety or efficacy, so it is important to do your research.

In 2018, the Clean Label Project carried out an independent study that found that 134 of the top-selling protein supplements contained heavy metals and other toxic and carcinogenic chemicals.

To avoid harmful ingredients, search for chemical-free or organic protein powders from companies that carry out heavy metal testing. The Clean Label Project also has a database listing the protein supplements they approve after testing here.

There are also some third-party testing services, such as Informed Choice and NSF international, that test and certify supplements.

Summary

Protein powder is a dietary supplement that can boost the amount of protein in your diet. While many people get their dietary protein needs met through food alone, others may choose a supplement to ensure they are reaching their recommended intake of protein.

Other benefits of taking protein supplements may include improved body weight management, muscle growth, and recovery after exercise. However, it is preferable to meet your protein requirements through whole foods if possible.

Certain protein powders may have side effects or reactions in some people.

Always contact your doctor or a registered dietitian before starting any new supplement, or if you experience new symptoms after dietary changes.

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Medical Reviewer: Grant Tinsley, PhD
Last Review Date: 2022 Jun 30
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