Supplement Savvy: Protein Powders

Many people think they need protein supplements to build muscle. But if a protein supplement is warranted, are how can you be sure it’s safe and effective?
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whey protein powder

It’s a common misconception that you must take an extra protein supplement to build muscle. Most folks are getting plenty of protein from food so there's no need for more from a supplement. But if your diet is too low in muscle-building protein, then a supplement may be a good idea. The question then becomes -- if a protein supplement is warranted, are how can you be sure it’s safe and effective?

Dangers

Walk into any health food store or vitamin shop and you’ll find a mountain of powder-filled canisters promising to help you bulk up or lean out. Unfortunately, the majority of the protein powders on the market come loaded with a variety of other vitamins, minerals and herbs. These can be dangerous when taken large doses or in combination with certain medications or other supplements. If you're on any medication, always check with your doctor before taking any vitamins or supplements.

Too much protein can also be a bad thing - mega-doses can cause stomach upset, dehydration, and in severe cases, kidney problems.

When choosing a brand – simple is best. Check labels for a source of protein (see examples below) along with some flavoring – that’s all you want in there!

Popular Protein Powders

Whey

A top pick for most athletes, dairy-based whey protein powder is particularly high in the specialized type of proteins responsible for building and maintaining muscle. Whey is also a favorite because it’s considered one of the most easily absorbed types of protein and it averages the most protein per ounce (24 grams). Those who have trouble digesting dairy may be better off seeking out non-dairy options.

Casein

Like whey protein, casein is also derived from dairy. Since it’s the primary protein found in cow’s milk, it’s even more likely than whey to cause allergic reactions or stomach upset in those that are susceptible. It takes longer to digest than whey protein. This may be beneficial to some folks depending on their exercise regimen. It has a similar in protein content to whey, coming in closer to 22 grams per ounce.

Soy

This plant-based protein option is a good alternative for those with allergies or who follow a vegan diet.  Like animal sources of protein, soy is one of the only plant foods that offer a full profile of the amino acids the body needs to grow and build muscle. While some worry about the hormone-like compounds that soy contains – research has substantiated that as much as 60 grams of soy protein a day is considered safe. With 15 grams of protein per ounce, like the above mentioned sources of protein, large doses may cause stomach upset.

Other Types

There are a variety of other plant-based protein powders out there including rice, pea and hemp. The protein content per ounce varies (18, 20 and 12 grams, respectively) but they offer additional non-dairy alternatives to those with allergies to dairy and soy or those that follow a vegan diet.

Tell Us: Do you use protein powders?

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. See Dana's full bio »

Part 1 in this series: Supplement Savvy: Vitamins
Part 2 in this series: Supplement Savvy: Minerals
Part 3 in this series: Supplement Savvy: Herbal Supplements
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