Do You Really Need a Protein Powder? This Expert’s Answer Will Surprise You

|Updated Jun 15, 2021
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Most people have concerns about getting enough protein from their diet, especially when they make a shift from eating a diet rich in meat, seafood, and dairy to a more plant-based approach. Admittedly, when I made the switch I added pea protein powder to my morning oats and drank a plant-based protein shake after my workouts.

But when I finally stopped spending my paycheck on protein supplements, guess what happened? Nothing. Turns out, I was already getting the protein I needed from a balanced diet full of protein-rich foods. The pricey powder was just excess. As an RD, I now help my clients learn how to eat the right amount of protein and skip the supplements, which can add cost and potential side effects to your efforts to be your healthiest.

Now research has shown that getting protein from plant-based foods provides all the necessary amino acids required to fuel even the most active person who is worried about getting protein for optimal exercise performance.

Sidenote: The global market for protein supplements was valued at nearly $19 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow around 8.4% per year through 2020. Plant-based protein powders represented $5 billion, or 26%, of the industry in 2020 and these products are projected to be the fastest-growing segment of the protein supplement market in the next 7 years. Additional demand for nutrition supplements is expected from millennials, thanks in part to an increased interest in health. But do you really need to add protein powder for good health? 

My guess is that marketers in the protein supplement industry probably don’t want you to know, but the truth is, for a moderately active person like me, or most healthy active people: No, you don’t need them. If you’re a professional athlete? Still no. 

“Commercially available or processed protein powders are not necessary,” says Dr. Enette Larson-Meyer, a registered dietitian, professor, and author of Plant-Based Sports Nutrition: Expert Fueling Strategies for Training, Recovery, and Performance. “It’s best to get protein from a variety of plant protein sources.” 

She describes the use of protein powders almost in terms of convenience foods, or fast food, in other words, as a last resort. “Since some athletes may not be hungry after exercise, powders mixed in a beverage may help them get protein in,” she says, prefacing that “there is a lot of nutrition provided in whole foods that include beneficial nutrients, and what we do know is that following a well-balanced plant-based diet does not seem to impair performance in sports.”

For non-athletes, research shows that not only do plant-based diets reduce the risk of a host of chronic diseases, but they also offer a sufficient amount of protein for anyone following a balanced vegetarian or vegan diet. 

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How much protein do you need?

The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is .8 grams per kilogram of body weight. To figure out your weight in kilograms, take your weight in pounds and divide it by 2.2. Now take that number and multiply by .8. For example, if someone weighs 150 pounds, their weight in kilograms is 68. Multiply that by .8 and you get 54.5 grams of protein needed for the day. 

For competitive athletes, protein needs may be slightly higher. The most recent position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine states that the "dietary protein intake necessary to support metabolic adaptation, repair, remodeling, and for protein turnover generally ranges from 1.2 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight daily,” says Larson-Meyer.

“Vegetarian athletes should aim to include this amount daily through the protein-rich plant or other vegetarian foods from a variety of sources, such as legumes plus nuts and grains or [for non-vegans] eggs and dairy.” Check out How Much Protein Do You Really Need for a more in-depth look at protein needs.

In addition to protein needs, Dr. Larson-Meyer points out the importance of meeting energy needs (aka overall calories), but not more than what you need. “Otherwise, protein will be used for energy, not for metabolic adaptation, repair, and remodeling,” she points out.

Energy needs, or your overall caloric consumption, vary from person to person depending on weight, health goals, physical activity, and age. But to give you an idea of how protein fits into an overall day, nutrition experts recommend the following breakdown of macronutrients (carbs, fat, and protein):

  • 45 to 65 perecent of total calories should come from carbohydrates.
  • 25 to 35 perceenet of total calories should come from fat.
  • 20 to 30 percent of total calories should come from protein.

For someone consuming between 1,600 and 1,800 calories a day, that comes out to 180 to 290 grams of carbs; 60 to 90 grams of fat; and 80 to 130 grams of protein. To learn more about macronutrients on a plant-based diet, check out How to Eat a Balanced Vegan or Plant-Based Diet. 

High Protein Foods to Add to Your Diet 

Remember that protein is simply a combination of different amino acids. In fact, there are only 20 amino acids your body needs, and you make 11 of them. The remaining 9 are called essential amino acids, and these are what we need to consume in our diet. Since all plant proteins contain at least some of the essential amino acids, it’s easy to get enough by eating a variety of vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts. Some plant foods, such as quinoa and soy, even contain all 9.

If you suspect you’re not getting enough protein, Larson-Meyer recommends doing a scan of your current meal plan and considering the following options as easy ways to sneak in protein.

  • Add lentils or ground soy protein to spaghetti with marinara sauce.
  • Have a glass of soy milk with dessert.
  • Add legumes or textured vegetable protein to soups.
  • Have a handful of toasted nuts with a fruit snack.
  • Spread peanut butter on a bagel or mix it in with a smoothie.
  • Top a bean and grain pilaf with a cooked egg (if you eat them).