Updated: Apr 9, 2020
We've all been there: scouring the health section of a local grocery store looking for a protein supplement. Or a friend of a friend is always peddling a protein powder from her new weight loss pyramid marketing business and talks you into a $70 protein powder. Well, I would like to clear up some confusion for you on protein supplements, so you can determine the best quality product and answer:
if you need to supplement
how much protein you need
what to look for, should you choose to add it to your nutrition plan
Protein is absolutely essential to maintain optimal health. Protein helps us grow and repair muscle, it strengthens our immune system, makes up the collagen in our body, and even heals wounds! Our bodies simply cannot function without it, since it is part of every cell, tissue and organ we are made up of. This nutrient not only provides energy for our body at 4 calories per gram of protein but also acts as chemical messengers to regulate the body's processes and enzyme function.
Protein is one of the 6 classes of nutrients. The others include lipids, carbohydrates, water, vitamins, and minerals. You can find protein in meats, poultry, fish, legumes, tofu, eggs, nuts and seeds, dairy products, grains and in small amounts, vegetables.
Do I need to supplement Protein?
Here's the thing: we are more than capable of getting optimal protein intake, simply by eating real food from the sources listed above. In fact, the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein is actually a modest 0.36 grams per pound (or 0.80grams/kg of body weight). That means for a 150lb person, the DRI is only 54 grams a day! Now let me be clear- DRI's exist to give recommendations to prevent deficiencies, not for optimal health and wellness. But still, the amount needed for optimal health can still be consumed without additional protein supplementation. The amount an individual needs varies depending on many factors including weight, activity level and age. In fact, as we age, MORE protein is needed in order to help preserve our muscle mass as it declines. So ample protein and strength training exercises are strongly encouraged especially in our later years.
How much protein is optimal?
Again, that is going to depend on a few factors, but according to Dr. Gabrielle Lyon, functional medicine physician specializing in Muscle-Centric Medicine, at minimum, we need 30 g of protein per meal, evenly spaced out throughout the day. Learn more about Dr. Gabrielle Lyon and why "muscle is the organ of longevity", here.
Personally, I often tell my clients to aim for between 25-35 grams of protein at each meal. That can be obtained with 4-6 oz of chicken, 3-4 eggs, or a scoop of quality protein for their smoothies, in addition to other ingredients for the Power Combo. And again, everyone is different. Since protein helps signal satiety (the feeling of fullness) you may have to experiment with your intake to see how much is enough to last until the next meal.
What should I look for in a protein supplement?
So, just because you CAN obtain optimal protein intake through quality food sources, doesn't mean it's always convenient. And when it comes to getting my clients to reach their health and wellness goals, it HAS to fit into their lives, and at most times, be convenient. I often find starting with implementing a simple nutritious breakfast, with the assistance of a protein supplement, kick starts their progress. Protein smoothies are nutrient-dense, satisfying and the protein, fat and fiber combo keeps them satiated until lunch. But the quality of the protein supplement is VERY important!
So here it goes:
First, opt for a plant-based protein supplement over whey or casein. These are proteins found in milk that may trigger an immune response and cause inflammatory symptoms in those who are allergic or sensitive. However, if whey is your jam, choosing whey isolate would be better tolerated for those with lactose intolerance. For plant-based, choose brown rice, pea, or hemp protein powder. These are considered the most hypoallergenic and are a good choice for those with allergies, sensitivities or digestive issues.
Second, flip that canister over and look at the ingredients. If it looks like a laundry list of artificial ingredients, soy, preservatives, gums, fillers, and words you cannot pronounce or spell, put it back on the shelf and move on to the next. You want to look for powders that have natural ingredients and a short ingredients list. Additionally, look for those that are sweetened naturally, if at all, with something like monk fruit or stevia. Digestive enzymes are also nice to have since they will help aid in digestion and absorption.
My Pick: Truvani Plant-Based Protein Powder
Third, make sure it's coming from a quality source and a quality company. In 2010, Consumer Reports conducted an investigation that revealed many popular protein supplements contained high levels of toxic metals like arsenic, cadmium, and lead! Read the full article, here. One way I like to check on the quality of my favorite supplements is by utilizing Labdoor.com. This is a third-party company that tests products for any harmful ingredients or contaminants, and to make sure the products contain what they claim. Then they grade and rank these products and publish that information for free, so we can purchase our supplements with confidence!
Lastly, consider collagen peptides. Collagen is a protein made of amino acids and is easily digested and absorbed. It is the most abundant protein in the body and renews the body's tissues, including skin, bone and joints, and would be a great protein source for your morning smoothies (or frothy coffee), as an alternative to protein powder. Just be sure it comes from grass fed animals, to ensure quality. Learn more about the benefits of collagen, here.
My Pick: Vital Proteins
For something with a bit more flavor, I also like Primal Kitchen Vanilla Collagen Fuel
I hope this lessens the confusion on protein supplements! Also, I am also aware that not everyone may be able to fit a protein supplement product into their grocery budget, so if you still want the added convenience of a smoothie for breakfast, try adding plain Greek yogurt (3/4 cup is about 18g protein) in with your other ingredients, or hemp seeds (3 tablespoons is about 10 grams of protein)!
Katie Valley is a Certified Holistic Nutritionist and Health Coach. With a background in Public Health Education, she continued her journey to share the holistic approach to optimal health and wellness with family, friends, clients and readers.
Learn more here.