If you’ve hunted around for a diet plan in your effort to lose weight, chances are you’ve come across someone peddling protein powder.
“Four hours of hunger control,” boast SlimFast bottles.
“Our high-protein, low-calorie mix helps you lose weight,” says Beachbody’s website.
“For Increased Hunger Control and Energy” is the message on tubs of Herbalife protein powder.
Turns out, that can actually be true. Replacing high-calorie meals with lower-calorie shakes does lead to weight loss, but here’s the hitch: It probably won’t last.
Protein shakes make weight loss relatively easy because they remove the work of planning nutritious meals and controlling portion sizes — that’s where the real work comes in, said Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian in New York and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Sustainable weight loss rests on changing people’s habits and the types of foods they choose to eat, she said.
“Are you going to drink these one or two shakes a day for the rest of your life?” Rumsey said.
Dietitians highlight a number of holes in the promises made by protein powder manufacturers. Bottom line: Whenever possible, real foods are better, experts say. Not only is it easy to get all the protein a person needs from food, real foods offer nutrients besides protein and they don’t contain the artificial sweeteners, additives and dyes that are common in protein powders.
“There is nothing magical in it that regular food doesn’t have,” said Brad Haag, a personal trainer and USA Triathlon-certified running coach who founded Bend Fitness.
Athletes commonly drink protein shakes following workouts. Many of them subscribe the idea of a 30-minute to one-hour “workout window,” the time period following exercise during which a person must consume food to replenish their depleted muscles and prevent their gains from being lost.
Some of the dietitians interviewed for this article, however, underplayed the importance of consuming protein so quickly following a workout.
While some research has shown that eating protein within two hours of exercising can help build muscle, most people already get enough protein through their diets and more protein than necessary doesn’t benefit the body, said Abby Douglas, a registered dietitian with Synergy Health & Wellness in Bend.
The Institute of Medicine recommends sedentary adults get 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. For active adults, it’s between 0.4 and 0.6 grams per pound. Athletes require 0.6 to 0.9 grams per pound.
For a 150-pound sedentary adult, that works out to 60 grams of protein per day. For an active adult: 90 to 135 grams per day.
That might sound like a lot, but dietitians said it’s actually pretty easy to find in common foods, such as Greek yogurt, eggs, cottage cheese or chicken.
A half cup of cottage cheese contains about 15 grams of protein, Rumsey said. Three to 4 ounces of chicken or fish can contain at least 20 to 30 grams of protein, and most people eat more than that in one sitting, she said.
For her part, Juli Huddleston, a registered dietitian in Bend who owns a company called Nutrition By Jules, said protein powder really does aid in protein synthesis if consumed within one hour of a workout. That’s because of an ingredient called leucine, a branched-chain amino acid contained in whey protein that research shows can help with muscle development.
That said, some protein powders contain up to 50 grams of protein per scoop, which is far more than a person needs, Huddleston said. Twenty-five to 30 grams of protein is sufficient, which may mean just taking half a scoop, she said.
Excess protein the body can’t use ends up being stored as fat,” Rumsey said.
“Spreading that out throughout the day your body will absorb it more than this big womp of protein,” she said.
One of the concerns about protein powder is that people who routinely replace balanced meals with protein shakes, odds are, you’ll eventually become deficient in other crucial nutrients, Douglas said.
“I know people who do a lot of bodybuilding and drink a lot of protein shakes,” she said, “a lot of times they can be deficient in other nutrients that their body needs that the protein shake isn’t providing because they’re drinking so much of it.”
A good way to avoid that, Huddleston said, is by mixing your protein shake with carbohydrates. This can be done by adding fruit, nuts or yogurt, for example.
It’s not only what protein powders don’t contain that worries the experts. It’s the hidden things they do contain.
Unlike medications and foods, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not inspect what’s contained in dietary supplements, including protein powders. Many of them contain artificial sweeteners, which some research has linked to health problems and some dietitians say can cause people to crave real sugar. Some contain artificial colors or potential allergens like dairy or gluten. Worst-case scenario: Some may contain high levels of heavy metals that could be harmful to people’s health.
Haag, the personal trainer, said he recommends real food over protein shakes whenever possible, but he also understands they’re convenient if there’s no time for anything else. Professional athletes who are being tested, however, generally steer clear of protein powders, as these supplements have been found to contain substances that can prompt them to test positive for doping.
“If you talk to pro triathletes, they’ll say, ‘I steer clear of all protein powders,’” he said.
Personally, Haag said if he’s reaching for a protein powder, he’d go with the brand Vega because it contains plant-based protein.
A study released in October by Review.com, a Seattle-based research firm, inspected 697 protein powder products made by 111 different manufacturers. Researchers, trying to find protein powders they could recommend, eliminated those that contained artificial sweeteners, which disqualified 487 products. Researchers eliminated 22 products when they dropped those that contained artificial food coloring, and another 142 when they eliminated those that had not been verified as steroid free. Recommended products also must have received a score of B- or higher from Labdoor, a company that tests samples of supplements to determine exactly what’s in them, disqualifying another 36 products.
“It’s crazy to see what they find in them,” Rumsey said. “It’s really disturbing.”
Ultimately, the study only approved three products: Vega’s Performance Protein in mocha, chocolate and vanilla, Optimum Nutrition’s 100 percent Whey Gold Standard in natural chocolate and natural vanilla and Garden of Life’s Raw Protein in vanilla, chocolate and original. The study did not rank products that were disqualified. It did, however, crown winners among the remaining three products for best taste (Vega), best texture (Optimum Nutrition) and overall favorite (Vega).
— Reporter: 541-383-0304, firstname.lastname@example.org