Because we’ve demonized both carbohydrates and fatty acids, protein gets all the press as being the healthy macro-nutrient. Protein DOES have a lot of benefits, such as stabilizing blood sugar and building, you know, everything in your body (muscles, tendons, hair, skin, nails, all organs, and any other connective tissue). While there is no doubt that protein is an important part of a healthy diet, it’s sad to see people using protein powders and bars on the daily. That ain’t real food folks! Most protein shakes are highly processed with lots of additives, cheap oils, and artificial ingredients. In fact, they’re often contaminated with heavy metals! Some of the worst offending ingredients are:
- Heavy Metals – This consumer report showed that many protein powders are full of cadmium, aluminum and arsenic with no indication on the label. While these levels are low, the levels are high enough that people drinking protein shakes 3 times per day are at serious risk of exceeding the USDA limits for these heavy metals. This is often the case in high-end protein powders and cheaper versions alike.
- Artificial Sweeteners Companies have to make protein powder taste good – right? Because of this, there is often a lot of sugar in processed protein products – especially the bars. Take a gander at the label of most protein bars sold in stores. You’d be hard pressed to find less than 10 grams of sugar in a single serving of a bar and most powders.
- Vegetable Oils Vegetable oils have been linked to raising the LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) and lowering HDL (the “good” cholesterol). Cheap, processed oils are a major player in heart disease. Even medical foods sold by professional lines often have highly processed oils such as canola, safflower, sunflower, peanut, or soy oils.
- Natural Flavors Companies use the word “natural flavors” when they don’t want you to know what they added to your food. No one really knows what the mysterious “natural flavors” are, so I do get leery of companies who use this terminology. Some natural flavors may be innocent, but often times it’s tricky wording for toxic ingredients.
Protein powders were also under fire in 2005 when NFL running back Michael Cloud suddenly tested positive for a banned steroid that was later found in a protein drink he had recently switched to. There was absolutely no indication of the steroid on the label. It just goes to show that we can’t always trust claims from food labels.
Most people don’t need to supplement with protein powders if they are eating real food. To prove this, let’s do a little bit of math. The DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. This amounts to 56 grams per day for the average sedentary man and 46 grams per day for the average sedentary woman.
Since, those are the amounts needed for sedentary lifestyles, this is a pretty meager amount. While that amount may prevent deficiencies, it does not provide optimal health. The requirements I recommenced are closer to .5-.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight. For those trying to build muscle, they may want to increase that to 1 gram per pound of body weight. I weigh 145 pounds, so I need anywhere from 75.5-101.5 grams of protein. I can easily get that with three servings of complete protein. For example, here’s what a typical day looks like for me:
Breakfast: Veggie egg scramble (about 19 grams of protein/3 eggs)
Chicken Salad (31 grams of protein/ 1 chicken breast)
Veggies dipped in hummus (19 grams/1/2 cup of chickpeas)
Dinner: Beef veggie stir fry (44 grams of protein/6 oz – about 2 palm sized portions of meat)
Total: 94 or 82 grams of protein
If I were focusing on building muscle, I would need closer to 145 grams of protein per day. If someone wants to build muscle, they just need to eat more of everything – not just protein. To be honest, I would probably still be hungry after the above menu anyway. Some easy REAL food protein options are a handful of nuts, Greek yogurt (hormone and antibiotic free of course ; ), a hard boiled egg, nitrate-free beef jerky, hummus, bone broth, or rice and beans.
I give this as an example, just to show you that it’s pretty easy to get enough protein from real food. REAL food protein comes from natural sources – both animal and plant protein. Both have unique properties, so it’s important to eat both sources.
That said, high-quality protein powders are not the WORST options out there. We use protein powders when we’re traveling, when we’re in a pinch on time, or maybe as a quick bedtime snack/treat. The bottom line is that, protein powders don’t take the place of real food, but they are, you know, alright as far as a convenience item. Always keep in mind that protein powders are CONVENIENCE foods, not health foods. They’re definitely better than grabbing a snickers when in a pinch. If we’re striving for 80% healthy food and 20% less nutritious foods, protein powders would definitely be part of the 20%. As with any convenience item, and particularly because of the risk of heavy metal contamination, QUALITY protein should be a huge priority. The one we use is from Designs for Health and it uses mainly collagen (from grass-fed cows raised in Sweden – fancy right?). You can find it here.