Can Protein Powder Be Bad for Your Health?

Source: iStock

Source: iStock

Protein powders are commonly used to get much-needed protein after a workout. But can protein powder actually be bad for your health? Well, that depends. In extreme cases, it’s possible to ingest so much protein that it does long-term damage. While protein powders are typically used to fill holes in a person’s nutrition, there is a new trend of protein-packed meal replacement powders in Silicon Valley, enabling those in the tech industry to work longer hours without needing a break for food. With names like Schmoylent, Soylent, Schmilk, and People Chow, these products are obviously marketed as substitutes for actual food.

The problem is these products make it easy to overdo it on the protein. Nutritionist Keri Gans told Yahoo Health an average 180-pound male (not an athlete) only needs about 65 grams of protein per day, but some protein powders have 40 grams or more per serving. If you have several shakes or doses per day, that can be dangerous. Getting more protein than you need can do damage to your kidneys and increase your risk of heart disease, according to Katherine Zeratsky of MayoClinic.com.

Americans are falling victim to an increasingly common myth that we are largely protein-deficient, but this is not the case. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adult women should eat about 46 grams of protein a day, and adult men should eat about 56 grams a day. But a 2009 to 2010 U.S. food survey found that, on average, women eat about 70 grams of protein per day, and men eat about 100 grams. But with sugar and processed carbs under growing scrutiny, marketing has shifted to protein. In 2012, a study by Mintel, a market research company, found 19% of new food and beverage products in the U.S. were labeled “high-protein,” a higher percentage than any other country surveyed.

Source: iStock

Source: iStock

The amount of protein you consume isn’t the only risk to consider. Our bodies normally use a maximum of 20 to 30 grams of protein from a single meal, so it’s important to space out your protein intake throughout the day, according to Heather Mangieri of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Mangieri recommends consuming roughly equal portions of protein at each meal. You also need to think about what else you are ingesting along with the protein.

Protein powders come in many forms, but they are often highly-processed and high in calories, sugar, and additives that have no nutritional value. Since they are considered supplements, they are not regulated by the FDA. Some of the worst ones have loads of artificial sweeteners and additives like aspartame and maltodextrin. A Consumer Reports investigation in 2012 found low to moderate levels of lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic in many popular protein powder products. Consumer Reports also warned that most protein powders lack warnings labels addressing the potential for overuse.

Whey protein is commonly touted as one of the more high-quality choices for protein powder. According to WebMD, it is considered a “complete protein,” meaning it contains all nine amino acids. Whey protein supplements are convenient and beneficial for some people, contends a Livestrong article, but only when taken correctly, since most Americans consume plenty of protein in their diets. Sedentary people are much more likely to be harmed by protein supplements than active athletes.

While high-quality protein powder is generally a safe choice after a long, hard workout, there are added benefits to getting protein from real foods. Many protein powders don’t account for omega-3 fatty acids found in other food sources like fish, walnuts, and grass-fed meats. According to the Weston A. Price foundation, consuming protein without the other naturally occurring nutrients alongside it can lead to deficiencies, especially vitamin A.

“We can get all the protein we need from whole food, plus all the other nutrients that might be in that particular food. Protein powder is an isolated nutrient,” Gans explained.

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