Nutrition spotlight

Do You Need to Take Protein Powder If You Are Serious About Fitness?

Jacqueline Kaminski
Jacqueline Kaminski
| Stay Updated with NASM!

Protein, Protein, Protein. By this point, most of us are aware of protein's muscle-enhancing benefits — especially regarding exercise.

But does attaining the highest levels of fitness require the addition of protein powders to your diet?For many, the answer is no, but for many, the answer is yes — let's explore whether a protein powder will help you with your fitness goals.

You don't NEED protein powders. But you do NEED protein.

As a core subject matter of the NASM-CSNC and NASM-CNC course curriculum, protein is an essential building block for proper nutrition. Learn more below. 

Breaking Down the Basics

Let's start with the fundamentals of muscle recovery and muscle growth. Muscles are made up of amino acids, and to build new tissues you need a combination of all the essential and non-essential amino acids. Non-essential amino acids are amino acids the body can create on its own through various metabolic processes. Essential amino acids (like BCAAs) are those that must be consumed through our diet because the body cannot synthesize them.

Skeletal muscle is also always in a dynamic state of negative and positive protein balance. When we exercise, our muscles are broken down to release amino acids and are used to regenerate new tissue, act as energy substrates, or be used in the synthesis of enzymes, immune system components, or hormones. However, to shift the body into a positive protein balance (building state), exogenous protein sources must be consumed.

That's where protein powders or protein from food comes in! All animal proteins act as complete proteins that supply the body with all the essential amino acids needed to build new tissues. Some plant sources such as soy and hemp protein can also act as complete proteins, but animal-based proteins are the highest quality.

Therefore, you don't need protein powders after exercise to help build and restore muscle tissues — but you DO need protein.

What Are Protein Powders? Really?

First, let's discuss what protein powders are. Essentially, protein powders are proteins, or amino acids, in their simplest form. Therefore, they can be digested and absorbed quickly because they are already in an elemental state.

3 Types of Protein Powders

There are 3 main types of protein powders: Whey, Casein, and Plant protein powders.

Whey is the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained. It is very fast absorbing and is generally the type of protein that is recommended after exercise.

Casein protein is also a by-product of milk production and is a slower digesting protein. This protein is generally best to consume at night or as a snack.

Plant protein powders are generally a combination of protein derived from wheat, pea, hemp, or soy products. Plant proteins generally contain a combination of various protein sources to include ALL the essential amino acids needed to build new tissue.

See Also: The Power of Protein.

2 Primary Types of Protein

There are 2 primary types of protein: concentrate, isolate.

Concentrate: A concentrate will generally contain less protein by weight and have more carbohydrates and fat.

Isolate: An isolate indicates the protein powder went through further processing to increase protein content and eliminate any carbohydrate or fat sources. Ideally, an isolate will digest and absorb faster than a concentrate, but both are equal in terms of protein quality.

What are the benefits of consuming a protein powder?

So, what are the benefits of consuming a protein powder? Well as previously mentioned, to build new muscle tissue you need to consume a complete protein source. Protein powders (especially whey or casein) are complete protein sources! Furthermore, they are in an elemental form so the body will absorb and utilize those proteins quickly. This makes protein powders an excellent source of protein in the diet for fitness enthusiasts or athletes alike. 

Read also: Vitamins and Supplements for Athletes

However, other than providing convenience, protein can be consumed via food sources as well to provide the same benefit.

High protein foods that can replace your protein powder

• Chicken
• Fish
• Beef
• Pork
• Lamb
• Eggs
• Shellfish
• Dairy Products (milk, cheese, Greek yogurt)
• Soybeans
• Tempeh/Tofu
• Hemp Seeds

A rich source of protein is between 20-40g, or the size of a deck of cards, or the palm of your hand.

Is Protein Powder Good For You?

Protein powders are good for you and a great way to hit protein requirements. Yet, when it comes to protein powders, it's important to be aware of additional ingredients that can be placed in them like heavy metals, artificial sweeteners, fillers, and sugar alcohols.

Con #1: Heavy Metals

Cadmium (Cd), Arsenic (As), Mercury (Hg), and lead (Pb) are among the 4 most common heavy metals found in protein powders. In the 2010 US Consumer Reports, 15 commercially available protein powders were found to have detectable traces of at least one heavy metal. In 2018, the Clean Label Project tested 133 different protein powders and found detectable concentrations of at least one heavy metal (1).

The issue with these heavy metals is that when consumed in excessive concentrations, can lead to various neurological, reproductive, and metabolic problems.

According to a 2020 study that evaluated the health risks of protein powders that were found with "detectable concentrations" of heavy metals determined that none of them consumed in either 1 or 3 doses per day contained traces that exceeded the daily limits that would increase the risk for any adverse health events (1).

However, it should be noted that heavy metals exist in our natural environment and can be found in trace amounts in various food sources. If this is a concern for you, then it is important to look for labels that ensure your product has been the third party tested for dangerous substances. "NSF certified Sport", "Informed Choice", and "BSCG certified drug-free" are among some of the third-party labels that ensure a safe product.

Con #2: Artificial Sweeteners, fillers, sugar alcohols

To add flavor without adding extra sugar or calories, sugar alcohols or artificial sweeteners are commonly used. Some common sweeteners include sucralose, aspartame, erythritol, sorbitol, and xylitol.

There is some debate concerning the effects of artificial sweeteners on the gut microbiome. Some studies have shown that in mice, artificial sweeteners had negative effects on glucose metabolism which lead to weight gain.

In human studies, there has been evidence to show that artificial sweeteners disrupt the learning process associated with recognizing "real sugar" and decreased hormone signaling responsible for feelings of fullness which lead to weight gain. While the results are varied and warrant more research, excessive consumption of artificial sweeteners does seem to impact the bacteria within the gut.

When should I consume protein powder?

If you are choosing to add protein powders to your daily routine, the best time to consume protein is after exercise!

While anabolic effects of protein doses on muscle growth are dependent on the last dose of protein — consumption of your protein powder within 2 hours after your workout will be the most effective.

Read also: Nutrient Timing

Looking for a quick snack? Protein powders are great snack substitutes if you are seeking something quick and convenient.

Lastly, studies have shown that doses of protein 40g or more right before sleep has positive effects on muscle protein balance. Overall, protein powders are a very quick and convenient way to increase your overall protein intake throughout the day.

To ensure you have a safe product you should make sure your protein powder contains one of the banned substance seals, lists all individual ingredients, and uses branded ingredients and raw materials.

See also: Protein and Weight Loss.


The Author

Jacqueline Kaminski

Jacqueline Kaminski

Jackie Kaminski is a registered dietitian/ nutritionist with a Master's degree in Exercise Physiology & Sports Nutrition from Florida State University. Her first introduction to working with professional athletes was back in 2017 when she worked at the UFC performance institute in Las Vegas, Nevada. Since then, Jackie has worked with various professional fighters and other clientele and now operates under her company she started back in March, The Fight Nutritionist LLC. The Fight Nutritionist is dedicated to providing the most effective nutrition plans to ensure her athletes are performance at their absolute best. All of her plans are individualized to the athlete and are backed by the latest research to ensure complete safety and efficacy. Jackie is also a member of the international society of sports nutrition, where she often participates in different research projects and data collection with other ISSN members from Nova University. When Jackie isn’t working, you can find her at Combat Club where she trains kickboxing and Muy Thai. As a sports dietitian, Jackie’s aim is to provide her athletes with the necessary fuel to excel in training and provide the proper education to ensure her athletes are engaging in the safest health practices (as they relate to combat sports). You can find her on LinkedIn here.


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