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Is protein powder good for you?

Protein powders have become increasingly popular – but are they good for you? And when and how should you take them? We find out

Protein powder, formerly the domain of bodybuilders and disciples of Sylvester Stallone, has taken off into another stratosphere in the past ten years. It seems that everyone from doctors to influencers and gyms is releasing their own brands of the muscle-replenishing supplement. You can’t pop into a Boots now without being greeted by a wall of gold-flecked whey powder or pastel-hued pea protein. And the flavours! From chocolate peanut butter to Tahitian vanilla – the market is saturated, the options are endless, and right now is an exciting time to dabble in the world of protein powder.

But what are the health benefits of protein powder? Is it suitable for your specific dietary requirements, lifestyle choices and fitness goals? When should you be taking protein powder? How should you be taking protein powder? And underscoring everything, is protein powder actually good for you? We’ve done a deep dive into the world of protein powder to bring you the answers to all these questions.

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Is protein powder good for you?

What are the health benefits of protein powder?

Protein powder is a supplement that, when used in conjunction with exercise, helps you build muscle. It serves as an extra injection of the macronutrient into your diet, alongside other protein sources such as eggs, fish, chicken, legumes, nuts and seeds. 

Protein is an essential macronutrient that helps your body repair and replenish cells. It’s replete with the amino acids required for muscle growth, and helps with the creation of antibodies needed to protect against infection. It also provides your body with energy and aids the processes that carry oxygen in your blood.

It’s these health benefits of protein that have led to the development of the macronutrient into various forms of edible powder, to provide a digestible source of amino acids and a concentrated source of protein for those looking to increase their intake. Protein powder is often mixed with water or milk (dairy or plant-based) and consumed as a shake, or it can be easily incorporated into baked goods such as pancakes or muffins.

Is protein powder suitable for me?

Whether protein powder is a suitable supplement for you to take will very much depend on your dietary requirements, lifestyle choices and fitness goals.

If you already eat a protein-rich diet – plenty of fish, chicken, tofu, nuts, eggs and milk, for example – then you may not need to supplement your diet with extra protein. The British Nutrition Foundation cites the Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) for adults as 0.75g protein per kg of body weight per day. This translates to about 56g per day for men and 45g per day for women. For reference, there’s roughly 35g of protein in a chicken breast and about 6g of protein in a boiled egg or a handful of almonds. If you’re working protein into most meals, you may be comfortably meeting the RNI for protein, with protein powders in those circumstances superfluous to your dietary needs. It’s important to note that the British Nutrition Foundation reports the “average daily intakes of protein in the UK are 76.0g/day for adults aged 19-64 years”.

If you’re considering upping your protein intake, it’s nutritionally – and financially – worth calculating how much protein you’re currently consuming by either weighing out your meals, or by using a simple online calculator to decide whether the increased protein consumption is beneficial or surplus. Protein doesn’t hang around until needed like excess carbohydrates, which get converted into glycogen and subsequently stored. Protein surplus is either used as energy or stored as fat – crucially, excess doesn’t build muscle.

Those who are vegetarian or vegan and looking to top up their protein intake should pick their supplements carefully. Many protein powders on the market derive from animal products including eggs, milk and beef. For example, casein is a protein extracted from milk, with lots of the carbohydrates and fats removed. As such, vegetarians, vegans and those with lactose intolerance should opt for a plant-based protein such as rice, hemp or pea protein.

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Another factor to consider is lifestyle – in particular, your level of activity. If you’re hitting your protein RNI and only undertake a low to modest amount of exercise, it’s unlikely you’ll need to boost your protein intake. However, if you’re a runner or someone who frequents the gym, it’s important to ensure you’re getting enough protein to build muscle and keep you healthy, and protein powder can be an efficient way to achieve this.

In fact, your fitness goals in general should be taken into account when making a decision over whether you should try protein powder. We often hear about its abilities to build muscle, but protein powder can also support fat loss. For example, if you want to increase your protein intake but don’t want a corresponding critical mass of calories (many protein-rich foodstuffs such as nuts are calorie dense), a lean protein powder can help you do this. Meanwhile, people who eat a protein-rich breakfast report feeling fuller for longer, helping curb mid-morning snacking.

What are the downsides of protein powder?

Some protein powders have been known to cause digestive discomfort in people who are lactose intolerant. As such, those who struggle to digest lactose should avoid milk-based protein powders such as casein, and avoid creating dairy-based meals and snacks – such as porridge and shakes – with the supplement.

Meanwhile, always pay attention to the ingredients and nutritional value of your protein powder. While some are low in sugar and support lean muscle growth, others are high in both sugar and calories to cater for those looking to bulk up. Make sure you align your protein powder with your nutritional goals and fitness targets; otherwise, you could risk an unwittingly calorie-dense, sugar-rich diet.

It should also be noted that there isn’t yet extensive data available on the long-term effects of protein powder consumption.

When should you take protein powder?

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to timetabling your supplementary intake. As long as you’re reaching your required protein intake per day, the time at which you take it doesn’t strictly matter.

That said, the majority of gym-goers opt to consume their supplementary protein within a couple of hours of a workout. This prevents you feeling uncomfortably full during exercise, while working to restore and replenish muscle mass after the gym session.

How should you take protein powder?

Protein powder is commonly combined with water or milk (either dairy or a plant-based alternative) to create a shake with a thick, creamy consistency. They’re usually enhanced with flavouring – everything from salted caramel to banana – since protein powders can have an unpleasant taste on their own.

You can modify your protein shake with a variety of ingredients, from nut butters to Greek yoghurt and honey (although if your goal is fat loss then be wary of the extra calories these accompaniments can add).

Protein powder doesn’t lose its potency if heated, so adding the supplement to your pancakes, muffins and other baked goods can be an easy and delicious way to boost your intake. For a protein-rich breakfast, try adding protein powder to your porridge or overnight oats.

Is protein powder good for you?

In short, yes, but with lifestyle-dependent caveats. Protein is an essential macronutrient for muscle growth and body health – but your optimal protein powder intake depends heavily on your diet, exercise routine and goals. If you’re an athlete who finds it difficult to consume bigger volumes of high-quality protein, or you’re looking to lose fat while building muscle and don’t want to increase your calorie intake, for example, then protein powder is a good supplementary option for your diet. However, the chances are you simply don’t need protein powder if you’re not regularly exercising or already have a protein-rich diet.

Best protein powders to buy

We have full-length roundups of both the best protein powders to buy and the best protein powders for muscle gain and the best protein powders for women if you want to do some in-depth exploration. However, below is a shortlist of the best protein powders available for most people right now.

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