What you need to know about protein supplements, and if you need them

Protein is an essential part of our diets, as it helps to build muscle, hormones and plays a role in our immune health.

There are several ways to get protein into our diets, from both animal and plant-based foods, to protein supplements.

But it’s important to remember that protein sources are not all equal, nutrition experts say.

“Pretty much anything that comes from an animal is going to be a great source of protein. But there are also plant sources as well,” Anar Allidina, a registered dietitian based in Richmond Hill, Ont., told CBC’s The Dose host Dr. Brian Goldman.

Allidina emphasizes that most people don’t need to take supplements, as they likely get enough protein in their daily diet.

LISTEN | Is it OK to take protein supplements?

The Dose24:11Is it OK to take protein supplements?

There is no shortage of protein powders, shakes and bars on the market. But are they the best way to get protein into your diet? Registered dietitian Anar Allidina shares her thoughts on protein supplements. Clarification: When referencing the recommended dietary allowance of protein, Anar Allidina meant 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, not eight grams. To find transcriptions for episodes of The Dose, please click here: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/podcastnews/the-dose-transcripts-listen-1.6732281

Yet protein supplements — which come in several forms including bars, powders and shakes — are big business.

Depending on why you want to get more protein into your diet, supplements could help, says Dr. Ashley White, who works in family, emergency and obesity medicine in Hamilton, Ont.

“There’s not really anything inherently wrong with bars and supplements at all. It’s just a matter of how much, when and instead of what,” she said.

If you’re wondering about your protein intake and if protein supplements are right for you, here’s what White and Allidina say you should know.

Am I getting enough protein?

Before even looking at protein supplements, it’s important to know how much protein you’re getting and where you’re getting it from, White and Allidina say.

How much you need will depend on several factors, like your age and health status.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all recommendation but the “bare minimum” recommendation is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, explains Allidina.

Whole foods are considered the “gold standard” when it comes to protein sources, says Anar Allidina, a registered dietitian based in Richmond Hill, Ont. (Shutterstock)

Generally, that translates to somewhere between 45 to 65 grams of protein a day for the average adult.

If you are very active, you’ll want to increase your protein to 1.1 to 1.5 g/kg, she adds. Elite athletes require even more protein.

People 65 and older need about 50 per cent more protein than younger adults — about one and 1.2 g/kg of protein —says Heather Keller, a kinesiology and health sciences professor, and research chair in nutrition and aging at the Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging and University of Waterloo.

“Older adults need more protein to keep the muscle they have,” she said, adding older adults also need to pair movement with increased protein uptake to maintain muscle.

If you don’t know if you’re getting enough protein, White and Allidina recommend meeting with a registered dietitian to figure out how much you need and how you can get enough protein.

Allidina also recommends using an app to track your dietary intake.

Should I consume protein supplements?

White and Allidina agree: whole foods should be the first choice for protein.

Animal proteins like chicken, beef or pork are great sources of the critical nutrient, as are Greek yogurt, legumes and eggs, Allidina says.

She emphasizes that whole foods are always going to be “the gold standard.”

“Food covers all the bases. You’re not only just getting protein, you’re getting vitamins, you’re getting minerals, you’re getting a host of other nutrients that your body needs,” she added.

If someone does want to use a form of protein supplement, White says it should be done in moderation.

“You probably want to make sure that 20 per cent (of your weekly meals) or less are from highly-processed meal supplements, outside of a medically-indicated therapeutic diet,” she said.

For athletes and those with food allergies, protein supplements can be a way to hit those daily protein targets, says Allidina.

For older adults who may be struggling with eating, protein shakes may also be a good, short-term option, according to Keller.

Are there any known health effects of protein powder?

Allidina and White both say there are low health risks with protein powder for most people when consumed in small amounts.

Allidina says people may have some digestive issues like bloating or an upset stomach due to some fillers in protein supplements.

The authors of a systematic review of whey protein — a common form of protein powder— noted in 2020 that there are few studies “investigating the potential adverse effect of a diet with indiscriminate use of” whey protein.

A white jar surrounded by other sources of protein.
If you’re unsure about meeting your daily protein needs, experts recommend meeting with a registered dietician. (Africa Studio / Shutterstock)

They reviewed 11 studies and concluded that chronic use of protein supplements without professional guidance “may cause some adverse effects specially on kidney and liver function.”

Research on the long-term effects of protein powder is also not available yet, Allidina says.

Allidina and White say it’s important to read the nutrition labels on any protein supplement before purchasing.

Protein powders may also contain “high levels of lead and cadmium and heavy metals in them,” White says, which is why she recommends people ensure the product they’re using “has been appropriately tested for heavy metals.”

Heavy metals in protein powders has been flagged by two consumer organizations. Consumer Reports, an independent non-profit based out of the U.S., looked at 15 protein powders in 2010. Researchers found low to moderate levels of arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury in most of the protein powders and drinks tested. But three of the products “were of particular concern” because having three servings a day could result in higher-than-recommended daily exposure levels of some of the heavy metals.

In research published in 2018 by the non-profit organization Clean Labels Project134 protein powders tested had “detectable levels” of lead and cadmium in more than 70 per cent of the tested products.

A little over half of the tested products contained BPA, which is considered a toxic substance.

However, a scientist formerly with NSF International — an independent product testing, inspection and certification organization — wrote that she was “deeply troubled by the methods the Clean Label Project used in its study and report” and that it overlooked basic scientific principles.

“There is no peer-reviewed scientific evidence to support the Clean Label Project’s implied claim that detectable levels of heavy metals present a health risk,” wrote Lori Bestervelt, former executive vice president and chief technical officer with NSF.

Following the two consumer reports, researchers looked into the non-carcinogenic health risks for the heavy metals found in the protein supplements reviewed by Consumer Reports and the Clean Labels Project.

What they found in their peer-reviewed research published in 2020 was that heavy metal exposure through those protein powders “does not pose an increased non-carcinogenic risk to human health.”

What should I look for in a protein supplement?

If you are considering a supplement, here is what Allidina recommends to look for on the label:

  • 200 or fewer calories per serving.
  • Less than two grams of saturated fat.
  • Five grams of sugar or less.
  • No partially hydrogenated oils and artificial sweeteners.