A Spirited Defense of Protein Powder
It isn't the answer to all your muscle-building woes, but it is a smart nutrition option for outdoor athletes. Fact is, you likely can't get enough protein without it.
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
Anti-protein powder sentiment is brewing in some circles of the outdoor community. Six months ago, I wrote this piece, which recommends a few good protein powders. Many reader reactions were, to put it mildly, not positive. Here’s a representative sample of some of the comments I received:
To quickly address each concern: Science says your kidneys will be fine. Many nutritionists do, in fact, recommend protein powder—there’s even a guy with a PhD quoted right there in the story. If protein powder were toxic, I’d be dead. And, finally, I wish I had towering stacks of supplement-industry dollars.
The truth about protein powder is less dogmatic and more straightforward. The stuff isn’t a muscle-building, performance-enhancing cure-all. But, for athletes especially, it can be a valuable part of their nutrition.
First, it’s crucial to note that athletes need more protein than the regular recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 50 grams, says Stuart Phillips, director of the McMaster Centre for Nutrition, Exercise, and Health Research at Canada’s McMaster University. “Active people stress their muscles, joints, and bones more, which increases protein breakdown,” he says. If you don’t build back what you broke down, your performance might suffer. You’re best off with at least 0.75 grams of protein per pound of your body weight each day.
For a 120-pound woman, for example, that means eating something like a couple eggs and a cup of Greek yogurt for breakfast, a tuna sandwich (using the entire can of tuna) for lunch, a jerky or dried-meat snack like Epic bars for a snack, and a chicken breast as part of dinner. That’s in addition to a healthy intake of carbs and fats. For a 180-pound guy, add another egg or two for breakfast and double your serving of chicken. But that amount is the ideal minimum, and “there’s no quantifiable harm to eating more,” Phillips says.
Brian St. Pierre, director of performance nutrition Precision Nutrition, says hitting that protein number improves post-training muscle recovery and immune support, as well as “numerous other important performance, health, and body composition functions.”
Plenty of scientific evidence backs such claims, and while many protein powder detractors point out that most short-term studies suggest bumping up your protein won’t improve your immediate endurance performance, research does indicate that correct protein consumption can improve your fat-to-muscle ratio by spurring fat loss and encouraging muscle growth. “If you reduce your fat mass while maintaining or increasing your muscle mass, your performance will likely improve. It’s like putting a bigger engine in a lighter car,” says Alex Leaf, a nutrition researcher with Examine.com.
I exercise six times a week. A couple long runs in the desert foothills behind my home, some swimming or backpacking, a few weightlifting sessions, and one CrossFit-style beatdown to check my ego. I also eat pretty well. My diet centers around whole, nutrient-dense foods. But even though I follow the “real foods first” approach heralded by so many nutritionists, I still find it difficult to get the right amount of protein given my activity. So I throw a scoop of powder into my smoothie every morning and mix another scoop with water and ice to accompany my lunch.
Unless you’re crushing a ton of calories or eating large portions of meat at every meal, an entirely whole-foods diet may not give athletes, who need more than the masses, an optimal amount of protein, Phillips says. Protein powder fills the gap. “It’s just a very convenient way to get in high-quality protein to meet your needs,” St. Pierre says. It’s also dirt-cheap relative to quality sourced animal proteins or even certain vegetarian sources. A scoop of my favorite whey protein costs about 50 cents. The cheapest whole-food option—a serving of chicken with equivalent protein—costs anywhere from a few dimes to a few dollars more. To get the same protein from Greek yogurt would run me four to five times my current cost.
Nutrition-wise, powder is an efficient protein source—it delivers that and not much else. And that purity is rather hard to find in most whole foods beyond the leanest meat and fish. A serving of Cytosport 100 percent whey protein powder—our favorite in the aforementioned rankings piece—packs 27 grams of protein in just 140 calories. By comparison, you’d need to eat 739 calories worth of almonds, 4.5 eggs, or 2.5 cups of fruit-flavored Greek yogurt to get the same amount of protein.
Meat and dairy also have a huge carbon footprint. But whey protein powder, for instance, is made from byproducts of cheese making that may otherwise be thrown out. By drinking whey protein, technically you’re recycling. How about that? Personally, I also consider the ethical implications of overdoing meat. I usually have a little bit of meat with dinner—St. Pierre says many whole-food proteins contain other beneficial compounds that powders often don’t—but if there are ways to up my protein intake without upping my meat consumption, I consider that a less harmful choice.
With these seeming advantages (or, at least, lack of drawbacks), you have to wonder: Why all the protein powder hate? “I think people associate protein powder with the stereotype of big, muscular guys who hide in the gym and do all sorts of bizarre things to their body,” says Phillips, an avid skier who includes protein powder daily in his breakfast. “So people just don’t want to be associated with that.”
St. Pierre thinks the stigma may also come from the notion that processed food is unnatural, or “not clean.” But Phillips, St. Pierre, and Leaf all say that protein powder is a processed food they endorse. “The processed nature of protein powder is only a downside if you also consume lots of other processed foods,” St. Pierre says. Protein powder is just dried, processed milk, like jerky is dried, processed beef. (And keep in mind that so many staple foods of the outdoors—including a significant portion of the best performance foods and post-trail craft beers—are highly processed).
Bottom line: Is eating enough protein good for athletes? Yes. Does that protein have to come from protein powder? Of course not. But will it be easier, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly to reach “enough” by eating protein powder? Hey, it works for me.