When Should You Use Protein Powder?

Nutritional supplements have been in conversation for decades. At any given time, there are numerous questions about them that are passed around: Do I need to take a supplement? Which supplements do I need to take? Are supplements actually going to help me? Should I take a supplement “just in case”?

Ultimately, our recommendation as registered nutritionists is “food first.” If you can hit the majority of the nutrients you need through food, your body will absorb and utilize those nutrients better than it would through supplement form.

Given that the nutritional supplement industry is valued at billions of dollars, it’s safe to say it has a bit of an influence on us as consumers. Protein powder is probably one of the most popular supplements, and can be found in the form of bars, powders, drinks, and even snack foods like chips and popcorn. It can be easy to believe the marketing efforts of companies and assume that you are not getting enough protein and that “more is better.” Which leads us to the question…


How do I know if I should be using protein powder?

Consider your lifestyle and eating habits

Common users of protein supplements are athletes, individuals with chronic diseases and patients in hospitals or health centres. It is also commonly used as a component in weight loss programs, however, it’s not necessary and success can vary based on how it’s used. If the option is available to you, obtaining protein from whole food sources (rather than supplements) is always better. Food is a package, and whole food sources of protein provide a much better nutritional package containing vitamins, minerals, and (if coming from plants) fibre. If whole foods are not feasible due to convenience or availability, then high-quality, third-party-tested dietary supplements may serve as a replacement (Erdman, Thomas, & Burke, 2016). One would have to weigh the benefits and costs of protein supplements, as they tend to cost more per serving than whole-food sources.


Consider your age

Age plays a big role when it comes to supplements. Protein powders are not recommended for growing and developing children, and rarely does the average person under the age of 18 require a protein supplement: for this age group, protein intake from whole foods tends to be more than enough to assist with growth and recovery (Parnell, Wiens, & Erdman, 2016).  Despite that, protein intake for the adolescent population has actually increased in between the years of 2004 and 2015, with a high likelihood this trend has continued (Statistics Canada, 2015).

A protein supplement for adults might improve quality of life as it is convenient, is simple to incorporate into foods, and can be consumed quickly. At the same time, there are many foods that can deliver the same benefits, making protein powder a nice-to-have but not necessarily a need-to-have.  For the elderly population, a unique situation exists. The presence of various health conditions along with the potential for chewing and swallowing difficulties makes consuming enough food, including foods with protein, a challenge. Not only that, but there is research to support the idea that elderly individuals need more total protein throughout the day to maintain their muscle mass (Burd, Gorissen, & van Loon, 2013; Moore et al., 2015). If whole food sources of protein are difficult to consume enough of, then protein supplementation might be a viable option. However, a person in this situation might require something more than just a protein powder.


Consider your exercise level

Athletes are typically very susceptible when it comes to nutritional supplements, protein powders especially. Despite the general increased need for dietary protein for athletes (Erdman et al., 2016), too often athletes worry about “whether they are getting enough protein”, as if this is the holy grail of athletic performance. There are many factors to take into consideration: what type of athlete is it? What level of competition is this athlete? Does this athlete have any special dietary needs? Is the athlete in a sport that requires them to change or maintain a certain body composition? It’s often more of a question of whether or not the athlete is consuming enough food in general for their sport and requirements. As long as they are eating a variety of foods and are including a source of protein at every meal and snack, there should be no issue getting enough protein, and thus, no need for supplementation.

An issue arises when talking about timing of protein around training and competitions: studies suggest that athletes may benefit from consuming foods with protein in the period shortly after these events (Erdman et al., 2016). In situations like these, personal preference, convenience, and even gut tolerance play a huge role. Athletes may feel it’s easier to consume a protein shake instead of eating a whole food snack. But it is important to realize that protein powders are not mandatory or necessary.


Pros and Cons of Protein Supplements

The level of individualization that registered dietitians provide when recommending a protein powder depends on numerous details surrounding the individual. To answer the original question of “when should I use protein powder?”, it’s not quite that cut and dry. Overall, here’s the pros and cons:


Pros of Protein Powder

  • Convenient
  • Can target certain sport or nutritional needs
  • Quick and easy to consume


Cons of Protein Powder

  • Can be expensive
  • Not recommended in some disease conditions
  • Does not provide additional nutrients like whole food protein does
  • Unregulated industry standards can cause bodily damage with long-term use


Ultimately, a tested and regulated protein powder can be used when access to real food is limited in your set of circumstances at the time you are looking to consume it. Is a protein powder going to offer a special benefit above whole foods? Unfortunately, no. A whole food source of protein contains many more nutrients that work in harmony for you. But is a protein powder better than otherwise going for 4 hours without anything to eat? Absolutely, yes. Just make sure that the protein powder you are using has been third-party tested to ensure no foreign or banned ingredients made their way into the product. Check out www.informed-choice.org or http://www.nsfsport.com/ to check your brand.  If you are still a bit confused as to whether or not you should go buy a protein powder, it may be worth reaching out to your local registered dietitian or registered nutritionist to hone in on the details relevant to you.


By Raina Beugelink – Registered Nutritionist/Dietitian

Revive Wellness is a team of skilled and passionate Registered Nutritionists specialized in nutrition and wellness coaching for the Edmonton area.

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Burd, N. A., Gorissen, S. H., & van Loon, L. J. C. (2013). Anabolic Resistance of Muscle Protein Synthesis with Aging. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 41(3), 169–173. https://doi.org/10.1097/JES.0b013e318292f3d5

Erdman, K. A., Thomas, D. T., & Burke, L. M. (2016). Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 48(3), 543–568. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000000852

Moore, D. R., Churchward-Venne, T. A., Witard, O., Breen, L., Burd, N. A., Tipton, K. D., & Phillips, S. M. (2015). Protein Ingestion to Stimulate Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis Requires Greater Relative Protein Intakes in Healthy Older Versus Younger Men. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 70(1), 57–62. https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/glu103

Parnell, J., Wiens, K., & Erdman, K. (2016). Dietary Intakes and Supplement Use in Pre-Adolescent and Adolescent Canadian Athletes. Nutrients, 8(12), 526. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu8090526

Statistics Canada. (2015). Table 105-2019 – Percentage of total energy intake from protein, by dietary reference intake age-sex group, household population aged 1 and over, Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) – Nutrition, Canada and provinces, occasional (percent) CANSIM (database). (Accessed: February 12, 2018)