What you need to know about protein powders

by Ryan Wagner

The first time I picked up a dumbbell with any real purpose was when I was 18 and a freshmen in college. It wasn’t long before I started experimenting with different types of protein powders.

You see, at 18 many guys want to be big. Or at least bigger than they are. More muscle, more power, bigger bench, bigger squat, etc. Protein supplements are billed as part of the solution. Today, there is no shortage of protein powders and drinks lining the shelves from which to choose. In short, protein supplementation has become commonplace.

But after 11 years of taking protein supplements on and off, I have decided to take a step back and ask the obvious question:

Do I really need to take a processed protein supplement?

For so many years, it was a no-brainer. “Of course I need to supplement!” I said. “How else will I get enough protein in my body each day? My muscles need it!”

But just what do we really need to know about protein powders? Here’s what everyone agrees on: If you want to build muscle – real muscle (the kind that can make a barbell look a like toy) – you need extra protein.

So, now you have a choice: You either go the route of whole foods and eat extra sources of protein such as eggs, lean meats, milk, etc or you head to the store and stand in front of the protein aisle. There you are confronted with a colorful assortment of obtrusive product labeling and you will have to make an educated decision. Many of these supplements promise a range of health benefits. Sometimes they sound too good to be true.

Oftentimes the decision will be made by two factors: Cost and convenience. When I was in college I didn’t always have a nice kitchen to cook eggs and meats regularly. And I certainly didn’t have the funding! I already told you which route I took.

I started with whey protein and have more or less stuck with it over the past 11 years (more recently, whole egg protein), but there are really three different types of supplemental protein.


The most common protein, whey is a water soluble milk protein. It is derived from ‘sweet dairy’ – a byproduct of turning milk in to cheese. It is quickly digested and considered a complete protein with all nine of the essential human amino acids required for repair and function(1).

The bottom line with whey is that it’s easily utilized by your body. Combine with the relatively economical cost and it’s easy to see why whey is one of the most popular protein supplements out there.


With regards to men’s health, soy protein has a bad rap. Because soy protein’s main compounds, isoflavones (a naturally occurring plant estrogen), have been shown to raise estrogen in men. But the jury is still out on whether soy protein supplements actually decrease testosterone levels. Some studies have said yes, others no(3).


Casein is a slow digesting form of protein and is also derived from milk(4). The take-away here is that casein is slowly utilized by the body and therefore is a complimentary protein for many lifters(6).

All the others

The above (3) varieties are far from an exhaustive list. There are plant proteins, egg proteins, hemp protein! You have plenty of options. Regardless, the question remains the same:

How much protein do you need?

Well, the majority of Americans actually end up consuming twice the amount of protein they actually need(5). However, the majority of Americans don’t lift weights or train competitively either. But let’s assume that as a reader of this blog you are an active person and may be someone who needs additional protein to reach your health and fitness goals (after consulting with your doctor, of course).

So how much protein do you really need to bulk up? Barbara Lewin, RD, LD, a dietitian and sports nutritionist who has worked with NFL, NBA, and NHL athletes, offers an interesting fact: To build a pound of muscle, Lewin explains, the body needs between 10 and 14 additional grams of protein per day. Now this doesn’t sound like much and it really isn’t. In fact, consuming excess amounts of protein can be problematic and make your kidneys and liver work overtime(1).

Now after you offer up a mea culpa to your own kidneys and liver, you better take a second look at your 5 lb tub of protein on top of the refrigerator. Odds are, there are quite a bit more than 14 grams of protein in each serving.

The concerns

A couple of years ago Consumer Reports published an eye-opening study on just what exactly was in many popular protein powders. The researchers were looking specifically for the heavy metals arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury. Many of the popular protein supplements were found to have contained these metals in low amounts. However, many lifters will consume several servings of protein powder a day which means one’s daily intake of these metals may exceed daily recommended limits(2).

So what?

Thus far, we have painted an interesting picture. If you’re lifting heaving and training with purpose, then you’ll likely need additional protein. You can either buy a supplement in powder form, but then you run the risk of consuming heavy metals, especially if you’re using multiple servings a day. Or, you can zero in on your whole foods and consume more healthy lean meats, eggs and the other usual suspects.

This particular post is not intended to answer the question of whether or not you should supplement with powdered protein powder. Rather, I want to get you thinking. As responsible lifters and fitness enthusiasts, we all need to take the time to really understand how much protein we actually need. And if there is a need for supplementation it’s up to you weigh the risks and understand the trade off between powdered protein and the real deal.

By Ryan Wagner


(1) http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/lifestyle-guide-11/protein-powder

(2) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine-archive/2010/july/food/protein-drinks/what-our-tests-found/index.htm

(3) http://www.livestrong.com/article/377025-can-soy-protein-hurt-testosterone-in-men/

(4) http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/protein-powder-you-5994.html

(5) http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/much-milk-drink-order-compare-protein-powder-10790.html

(6) http://www.nutritionexpress.com/showarticle.aspx?articleid=787

What you need to know about protein powders by