The scoop on protein powder

Eating enough protein is not just for athletes or would-be Schwarzenegger types. It is necessary for a healthy immune system and required for organs like your heart, brain, and skin to function properly. The nutrient is also touted for its ability to help control appetite and enhance muscle growth.

How much protein you need typically depends on your exercise routine, age, and health. And whether to supplement protein intake with a protein powder has become a common query.

A closer look at protein powder

To make such supplements, protein is extracted from animal or plant-based sources, which range from cow’s milk and eggs to peas, rice, and soy. During processing, naturally occurring carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and fiber are often removed, while supplementary nutrients, herbs, and even sweeteners may be added.

Anyone considering protein powder should understand that it is classified as a dietary supplement, which means it is not regulated in the same way as food or medicine. Responsibility falls on manufacturers to ensure that their products are not hazardous, though many companies do not test for safety or efficacy before their offerings hit shelves. Though the FDA created Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) to help minimize adverse issues, compliance with these procedures remains a concern. In 2017, roughly a quarter of supplement-manufacturing companies whose products were tested received citations related to purity, strength, and ingredient content.

That said, there are accredited organizations, like NSF International, that independently test supplements, including protein powders. NSF’s “Certified for Sport” designation ensures that contents match what is on the label, and that the product is GMP-registered and does not contain unsafe levels of toxic metals like arsenic and mercury.

How much protein do you need?

How much protein you need is another crucial consideration when deciding whether you might benefit from supplementing your diet. The amount thought to be adequate for most healthy people, called the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), is set at 0.8 grams per kilogram. For someone who weighs 150 pounds, this translates to roughly 55 grams of protein; a 200-pound person requires about 70 grams of protein. Certain athletes undergoing intense training may enhance their progress by consuming more than double the RDA, but this doesn’t apply to most of us.

Most people can get enough protein from their diet

One egg, one half-cup of chickpeas, or a small handful of nuts all provide roughly 6 grams of protein. A piece of chicken or fish the size of a deck of cards offers about 30 grams.

For many people, it is relatively easy to reach recommended amounts through their usual diet. On average, Americans consume 65 to 90 grams of protein each day. (Young women under the age of 19 and seniors older than 70 are more likely to be at risk for low protein intake.)

Research suggests older adults and exercisers looking to support muscle growth may benefit from eating one-and-a-half to two times as much protein as the RDA. As we age we lose muscle, and research shows boosting protein may help increase strength and lean body mass. But unless you have a restricted diet, such as a strict plant-based or vegan regimen, this increase is often still achievable through food.

Though pregnant women have slightly elevated protein needs, they should consult an obstetrician or dietitian if considering protein supplements, as companies sometimes add potentially unsafe ingredients like ginkgo or papain to protein powders. Also, individuals with kidney disease often benefit from consuming marginally less protein than the RDA, and should talk to a healthcare provider before supplementing with protein.

Protein powders are convenient, but unnecessary for most

If you are a healthy adult considering supplementation, you should determine whether your goal is to improve muscle mass, as most research is centered on enhancing muscle growth and strength. Older adults may benefit from increasing protein slightly, regardless of their exercise routine; however, for most of us, resistance training is more effective than simply supplementing with protein.

For those looking to enhance the muscle growth that typically occurs with exercise, evidence supports consuming 20 to 40 grams of protein at a time (roughly the amount found in a can of tuna). Larger quantities simply contribute calories and can actually reduce muscle-building potential. So, having several scoops of protein powder at once is unlikely to be helpful. Plant-based powders often have less protein, but shouldn’t be discarded as an option. Rice and pea protein, for example, have been shown to stimulate muscle growth similar to whey, a milk-based protein touted for its high quality and quick absorption.

Unless you are an older adult with a limited appetite, have a restricted diet, or are a trained professional athlete, chances are you can adjust your food intake to get what you need. Protein from food is often cheaper, less risky, and naturally includes beneficial nutrients.

If increasing protein the old-fashioned way is not an option, taking a supplement can be both effective and convenient. But most of us don’t need to channel our inner Mr. Olympia by using a protein powder.


  1. Lewis Goudy

    “Larger quantities” meaning larger than “20 to 40 grams of protein at a time (roughly the amount found in a can of tuna)”. This is vague enough to be useless. Net protein synthesis is increased when intake exceeds that which saturates the proteosynthesis signal (around 24g including 2.4g leucine) because higher intakes suppress proteolysis. This attenuation of catabolism increases net protein synthesis which is the anabolic response (new protein synthesis) minus the catabolic response (existing protein broken down thereby replenishing the various amino acid stocks in the circulation). A can of tuna contains 25g protein and 2.0g of leucine. There is no question that taking most of your protein in a single sitting, perhaps 70g at dinner after 10g at breakfast and 10g at lunch, will be less effective than 30g at each meal. You want to keep the synthetic machinery running as much of the time as possible. If your intake is 120g daily, four feedings of 30g will work better than three of 40g. As noted, the extra intake is more than energy: amino acids have metabolic chores to perform which use them up and so they are required in larger amounts than needed for protein synthesis. “simply provide calories” simply ignores such concerns as glycemic response and satiety which are material to both personal and public health. The RDAs reflect nitrogen balance as measured by urinalysis which neglects the sloughing of cells lining the alimentary tract, skin, hair, etc. and are well if not widely known to be insufficient to maintain nitrogen balance in seniors without avoidable loss of lean mass–a prescription for sarcopenia.

  2. Ross

    The studies are pretty clear that whey and casein protein powders, in combination, build a superior amount of muscle (as well as protect from catabolism) compared to a nutrition regimen without.

  3. Stephen mashele

    Am a 39 years old father i have 6 kids so i need to build mussels which best nutrition or supplements can i take when am going to the gym

  4. Daniel Antonio Chavez

    It is much more difficult to gain muscle as we age. Increasing protein when we are older is neccessary but if we neglected to build mass when we were younger, and it was easiest, then we are fighting an uphill battle. It is much easier to retain muscle as we age, so there is a great advantage in growing muscle in our youth. If we want to have full lives as elderly people, we need to have muscles that are strong enough to carry us and fast enough to prevent us from falling if we misstep. Our muscles are the organ of longevity, meeting minimum requirements is a dangerous game to play. There is a reason why the average American only lives till about 70. Let’s encourage muscle growth, and break the stigma. We don’t have to all be athletes or Mr. Olympia, but we should eat more protein. For our future self!

  5. TheSimon

    “Larger quantities simply contribute calories and can actually reduce muscle-building potential. ”
    Is there a source for this? It feels very wrong, unless what is meant are aesthetics, in which case it is phrased misleadingly.

  6. Joeoe

    I rather eat a serving of protein powder everyday than large amounts of meat.

  7. Jason

    I consume about 150 Gramd protein daily, I’m a 34 year old 5’2 male weigh around 155 pounds, inuse when protein every morning simply for the added nutrition, I eat about 4 egglands best eggs with turmeric as well, I only do this to stay healthy not necessarily get huge

  8. MofToronto

    I heard taking a few scoops of protein — in the neighbourhood of three — with each scoop taken two to three hours apart is better for activating protein synthesis (the biological process required to initiate muscle-building and recovery) than taking all the scoops at once. If I recall correctly, this was from a recent McMaster University (Canada) study.

    I think protein intake is also important for those whose sedentary lifestyle puts them at risk of atrophy (or wasting) of the muscle. Doesn’t that justify taking slightly above the RDA?

  9. Siboniso

    Hi there I’m 42 years I do cardio 3 time week
    Should I take protein powder

  10. Kam singh

    Hi I am a vegetarian so my protein intake is very little compared to a meat eater. Can you recommend a protein powder which is best for me to take. I’m a 120kg & 6’4 in height.

  11. S. K. Shivarsm

    Very nice article. Thank you

  12. Lynne

    I started incorporating protein powder in my diet when I started losing my hair. As a mature woman, going through a stressful period in my life seemed to be taking it’s toll on my hair. When I started finding more and more in my bathtub drain, I started to panic. A body-building friend told about a supplement he used and suggested I take it everyday to incorporate more protein in my diet. Well, it worked and I would pass on this tip to anyone needing the same!

  13. Balasundar

    Can protein powder increase protein in the body? I am 75 and weigh 58 kg. How much protein do i require?

  14. Manoj

    Should have talked of few common diets to be included In weekly intake of protein

  15. Snehal Barot

    I’m a vegetarian age 35 yrs and I’m not comfortable with the protein powder suppliment available in market and I do cycling and exercise TRX on very regular basis so what kind of protein reach veg food I can eat which can help me get more protein to my body

  16. Gene Lessard

    I’m 76 yrs old, 6’1″ and weigh 225 lbs. I workout 3-4 days a week with a fairly intense workout – full upper body one day full lower body the next. I do 3 sets of 15 reps with progressive writes. How much protien should I take in.

  17. Will

    According to Google a 1/2 cup of actually more like 20 grams of protein.

  18. Doug Mitrovic

    Animal proteins have a much higher bioavailability than plant proteins. However, they are hard on your kidneys especialy if you have kidney disease you should avoid them and opt for plant based sources. Former Mr. Olympia Lee Haney never consumed protein powders and got all his protein from food. Fish amd other meats. The advantage of that is, they are slowly digested and optimaly utilised. While powders are mostly extreted through urine.

  19. Michael Junod

    As an almost 72 yr old male my objective is to not only maintain muscle but hopefully to increase muscle! Difficult I know! A protein smoothie each day plus chicken, fish and lean beef will definitely boost my protein intake combined with weighttraing I hope at least I can maintain if not gain muscle!

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