More protein, yes; protein powder, maybe
Eating enough protein is not just for athletes or would-be Schwarzenegger types.
Protein is necessary for a healthy immune system and required for organs like your heart, brain and skin to function properly. The nutrient is also touted for its ability to help control appetite and enhance muscle growth.
How much protein you need typically depends on your exercise routine, age and health. (With age, many of us need more. See below.)
A look at protein powders
Whether to supplement protein intake with a protein powder has become a common query.
To make such supplements, protein is extracted from animal- or plant-based sources, which range from cow’s milk and eggs to peas, rice and soy.
During processing, naturally occurring carbohydrates, fats, minerals and fiber are often removed, while supplementary nutrients, herbs and even sweeteners and flavorings may be added.
Anyone considering protein powder should understand that it is classified as a dietary supplement, which means it is not regulated in the same way as food or medicine. Responsibility falls on manufacturers to ensure that their products are not hazardous, though many companies do not test for safety or efficacy before their offerings hit shelves.
Though the FDA created Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) to help minimize adverse issues, compliance with these procedures isn’t guaranteed. In 2017, roughly a quarter of supplement-manufacturing companies whose products were tested received citations related to purity, strength and ingredient content.
That said, there are accredited organizations, like NSF International, which independently test supplements, including protein powders.
NSF’s “Certified for Sport” designation ensures that contents match what is on the label, the product is GMP-registered, and the powder does not contain unsafe levels of toxic metals like arsenic and mercury.
How much protein do you need?
How much protein you need is another crucial consideration when deciding whether you might benefit from supplementing your diet.
The amount thought to be adequate for most healthy people, called the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), is set at 0.8 grams per kilogram. For someone who weighs 150 pounds, this translates to roughly 55 grams of protein; a 200-pound person requires about 70 grams of protein.
Certain athletes undergoing intense training may enhance their progress by consuming more than double the RDA, but this doesn’t apply to most of us.
For many people, it is relatively easy to reach recommended amounts through their usual diet. One egg, one half-cup of chickpeas or a small handful of nuts all provide roughly 6 grams of protein. A piece of chicken or fish the size of a deck of cards offers about 30 grams.
On average, Americans consume 65 to 90 grams of protein each day. (Young women under the age of 19 and people older than 70 are more likely to be at risk for low protein intake.)
Individuals with kidney disease often benefit from consuming marginally less protein than the RDA. They should talk to a healthcare provider before supplementing with protein.
More may help older adults
Older adults may benefit from increasing protein slightly, regardless of their exercise routine. Research suggests older adults and exercisers looking to support muscle growth may benefit from eating one-and-a-half to two times as much protein as the RDA.
As we age, we lose muscle, and research shows boosting protein may help increase strength and lean body mass.
But unless you have a restricted diet, such as a strict plant-based or vegan regimen, this increase is often still achievable through food.
For those looking to enhance the muscle growth that typically occurs with exercise, evidence supports consuming 20 to 40 grams of protein at a time (roughly the amount found in a can of tuna).
Larger quantities simply contribute calories and can actually reduce muscle-building potential. So, having several scoops of protein powder at once is unlikely to be helpful.
Plant-based powders often have less protein, but shouldn’t be discarded as an option. Rice and pea protein, for example, have been shown to stimulate muscle growth similar to whey, a milk-based protein touted for its high quality and quick absorption.
Unless you are an older adult with a limited appetite, have a restricted diet, or are a trained professional athlete, chances are you can adjust your food intake to get what you need. Protein from food is often cheaper, carries fewer risks, and naturally includes beneficial nutrients.
If increasing protein the old-fashioned way is not an option, taking a supplement can be both effective and convenient. But most of us don’t need to channel our inner Mr. Olympia by using a protein powder.
Emily Gelsomin, M.L.A., R.D., L.D.N., is a contributor to Harvard Health Publications. © 2020 by Harvard University