The fact that something called protein powder even exists tells you just how much people love protein. And for good reason: As a part of literally every cell in the human body, this macronutrient is integral to functions like our immune response and hormone production, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—as well as, most famously, building and repairing our body’s cells and tissues.
So yeah, it makes a certain amount of sense that people are forever concerned they need to get more of the stuff. (Also see: the golden age of protein bars, the rise of plant protein, and the existence of products like protein chips and protein water.)
Protein also seems to be the only macro that doesn’t regularly get shit on by diet trends. “Our food culture in the United States seems to be fascinated with high-protein diets and products,” Whitney Linsenmeyer, Ph.D., R.D., nutrition and dietetics instructor in the Doisy College of Health Sciences at Saint Louis University and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells SELF.
Maybe the clearest sign of our protein devotion is belief that to properly and fully repair our muscles and maximize the benefits of our gym time, we need to supplement our diets with concentrated protein—not to mention the collective billions of dollars we shell out each year on protein powder.
But how well-founded is that assumption? How necessary is protein powder, actually?
Here’s how much protein most people need.
If you’re downing protein shakes, you’re most likely doing it because you think you need more protein in your life. So let’s first talk about how much protein you actually need.
The amount of protein you should be getting each day varies based on factors like age, sex, health, and activity level, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. But for a baseline we can use the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA), which is based on the average amount of protein determined to meet the nutrient requirements of 97 to 98 percent of healthy individuals: 0.8 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day. (That’s approximately 0.36 grams per lb. Don’t ask me why guidelines developed for people living in this country use the metric system! Because idk.)
That means that a 150-lb person needs around 54 grams of protein per day, while a 200-lb person needs around 72 grams of protein a day. Based on those guidelines, most people already get enough protein from their diets, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine. If you have roughly zero idea how much protein you typically eat per day, here are a few examples of the amounts you can find in some common foods: a 4-oz chicken breast has 27 grams, a cup of lentils has 17 grams, two large eggs have 12 grams, and two tablespoons of peanut butter have 7 grams.
But, if muscle gains are your goal, here’s how much protein you need per day.
So, we know how much protein most people need, but maybe you’re not most people. You’re you, and the optimal amount of protein for any one individual depends not only on their biology and lifestyle but what their goals are, Adam M. Gonzalez, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., assistant professor in the Department of Health Professions at Hofstra University, tells SELF.
A lot of people who drink protein shakes do so because they heard it’s great for making maximal #gains at the gym—or, in scientific parlance, for optimizing muscle protein synthesis (MPS for short). Generally speaking, people who are trying to maintain and build muscle through diet and exercise benefit from getting more protein than the RDA, Gonzalez says.
How much more depends not just on who you are but also who you ask. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (Academy), Dietitians of Canada (DC), and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) reached a consensus, after reviewing the research on sports nutrition, that the optimal daily protein intake for active adults and athletes is 1.2 to 2 grams per kg of body weight, or 0.5 to 0.9 g protein per lb). The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) came up with a similar number. They recommend 1.4 to 2 g protein per kg body weight a day (or 0.6 to 0.9 g protein per lb) for most people who are exercising with the goal of building and maintaining muscle mass and strength.
So, let’s say you’re someone who exercises with the goal of building muscle and you want to make sure your protein intake helps with that. Combining those two recommended ranges, a 150-lb adult should be getting anywhere from 75 to 135 grams of protein per day, while a 200-lb adult should be getting anywhere from 100 to 180 grams of protein a day. The more strenuous (intense and long) your workouts, the more repair your muscles need to rebuild and grow, and the higher in the recommended range you’ll fall, Gonzalez explains.
So, yeah, that’s a lot of protein. For a 150-lb adult, that’s an extra 21-81 grams of protein per day. It’s certainly not impossible to get all of that from your diet, but it also might not be the easiest or most palatable thing for some people.
So, does it matter if you get your protein from powder or from food?
Deciding if you legit need protein powder is pretty simple. We just addressed the first question: How much protein you need. The second question is: How well is your diet meeting those needs?
Whether or not you need protein powder “really depends on what your diet consists of already,” Gonzalez says. Most people can indeed get enough protein, powder-free. “For the average healthy person who’s pretty athletic and eating a balanced, diverse diet, they’re probably getting enough protein from their food already,” Beth Kitchin, Ph.D., R.D.N., assistant professor in the UAB Department of Nutrition Sciences, tells SELF.
“It is absolutely possible to consume adequate protein from real food,” adds Linsenmeyer. “Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, beans, lentils, soy products, nuts, seeds, whole grains—[they] all provide dietary protein.”
Real food also has a couple advantages over powder. It can certainly cost less, given some protein powders can cost you a pretty penny. (Though this depends on how much you spend on the food you eat in place of the powder, of course.)
The main benefit is what you automatically get alongside the protein. “The plus with foods is that you are able to consume a variety of other micronutrients and fiber from a full meal,” Yasi Ansari, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., National Media Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Assistant Director of Performance Nutrition for UC Berkeley Athletics, tells SELF. This is especially important if you’re drinking a high-protein low-everything-else shake to replace a well-rounded meal that would normally fuel your body with carbs and fat along with that protein. “I have found people will rely more on these shakes, rather than taking the time to prepare and meal plan for a balanced diet,” Ansari says. (Although, to be fair, you can certainly mix in real foods—berries, peanut butter, spinach, flax seed, yogurt—to your smoothie, and get the best of both worlds.)
Now, let’s say you’re finding it hard to get enough protein from food. That’s where protein powder can really come in handy. “If you’re not getting enough protein already, a protein supplement can be beneficial,” Gonzalez says. “Protein powders can be a great way to add more protein into the diet if you can’t meet those needs through just food,” Ansari agrees.
People who are more likely to struggle with getting enough protein through food alone include competitive athletes, older adults, people recovering from surgery or illness, and people on vegan diets, Ansari says. “Most vegans can do fine with proper meal planning,” Kitchin adds. But, If you are a vegan athlete, and struggling with getting enough [protein], then something like a soy protein powder can help [you] meet that.”
As for the vast majority of us, who probably don’t NEED protein powder, strictly nutritionally speaking? Well, given we’re not robots, there’s a lot of other factors that go into our food choices besides our dietary needs. And when you take those into account, there’s a decent chance that protein powder is a pretty sensible choice for you.
Mainly, you can’t overstate the convenience factor of the chuggable, portable, lightweight, takes-two-seconds-to-make shake. “Protein powders are great for convenience,” says Ansari, which is why she has no objections to her busy student athletes who are running from training to class using protein powder. Basically, protein powder is the lowest-effort, highest-efficiency way to be sure you’re getting enough protein with a single scoop. (BTW, if you REALLY want to be efficient AF here, consider opting for whey protein powder. According to the ISSN, research shows that whey has a slight edge on the other types when it comes to that MPS response, likely due to its “optimal amino acid profile,” Gonzalez explains—though it may not make a noticeable difference for most people, Kitchin says.)
When you consume your protein actually matters.
If you’re someone who drinks protein shakes in order to get enough protein to maximize your gym gains, you probably chug one right after your workouts. And while that’s not a bad idea, there’s an even more important rule when it comes to timing your protein intake: It’s crucial to space out your protein intake throughout the day.
“Protein is vital after a workout,” Ansari says. “But it is important for people to know that more [all at once] is not necessarily better.”
The amount of protein your muscles can absorb after working out varies, depending on factors like how much you exercised and your body composition, Ansari says. The Academy/DC/ACSM all recommend consuming 15 to 25 grams of protein (or 0.25 to 0.3 grams per kilogram of body weight) within two hours after your workout to maximize MPS, while the ISSN recommends getting 20 to 40 grams (or 0.25 grams per kilogram of body weight).
If you’re looking for an-easy-to-remember rule, aim for something in the neighborhood of 20-30 g protein after a workout. (Or if you want to be more precise, about it, 11 to 14 percent of your body weight in pounds.) So in terms of food, that could be a 7-oz container of plain, 2 percent fat greek yogurt (20 g) of protein; a 4-oz chicken breast (27 g); or a scoop of protein powder. (The amount varies depending on the product, but many contain 20 to 25 grams or so per serving, like this whey variety and this soy one.)
Now, if you’re trying to help your sore muscles soak up as much protein as they can, then experts also recommend getting about that same amount of protein every few hours on top of your post-gym hit (every three to five hours, per the Academy/DC/ACSM; every three hours or so, per the ISSN. “Consuming adequate protein throughout the day, not just after a workout, is essential to optimizing [MPS],” Linsenmeyer explains. “In other words, muscle protein synthesis is greater when you consume adequate protein at breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” as opposed to, say, two low-protein meals and then a 50-gram protein shake after exercising.
Here’s why: Your muscles will actually continue to be extra thirsty for protein for at least the next 24 hours after you work them out, Gonzalez explains. But unfortunately, when you eat more protein than your body can use in one sitting, it doesn’t just save that protein for later. “We don’t have a storage form of protein that we can pull from,” Kitchin says. Whatever protein is left over will get broken down and most likely get stored as fat, Kitchin says (or used for energy, in the unlikely case your body isn’t getting enough energy from carbs and fat, its preferred sources of fuel, the Merck Manual explains).
The bottom line: Most people don’t need protein powder, but if it works for you, have at it.
For the vast majority of people, getting protein from their diet isn’t a huge lift, so there’s no need to spend a lot of time and money looking for a protein powder that doesn’t taste like chalk.
But if you’re struggling to get enough protein in your diet for some reason or if you need more protein than the average person because of your strenuous workouts, then a shake might help with that. It really comes down to your lifestyle, your needs, and your preferences. For instance, some people feel a ravenous hunger after intense exercise that can only be satisfied by solid food. But maybe you’re one of those people who have zero appetite after a tough workout, and love being able to get in your protein without having to chew it. Some people crave a big ol’ hamburger after pumping their biceps, but maybe a creamy chocolate protein shake is more up your alley. Or hell, maybe a protein shake makes you feel healthy and awesome, and you like that feeling! “For some people it just makes them feel good about what they’re doing,” Kitchin says. Nothin’ wrong with that.
The good news is that there’s probably not a downside to overdoing it. “Excess protein is unlikely to be harmful,” Kitchin points out. According to the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there is not an established upper limit for protein intake. (They do advise caution given the limited data, but note the risk of negative effects is “very low.”) Studies have found that consuming a high amount of protein from food and/or supplements—as much as two to three times the RDA—does not appear to increase the risk of health issues sometimes thought to be associated with extremely high protein intake, like kidney dysfunction, per the ODS. (Though people who already have kidney disease should avoid high amounts of protein because it makes their kidneys work harder, according to the National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).)
One thing to keep in mind: Protein powder is considered a supplement, and the FDA does not approve supplements before they come to market—meaning that it’s up to manufacturers to make sure their products are safe and accurately marketed. (Although the agency does have the power to ban misbranded or contaminated supplements.) Just as with other supplements, studies have found that some protein powders have stuff they’re not supposed to in them.
You can minimize your risk of purchasing a protein powder that isn’t exactly what it claims to be by sticking with reputable brands, Gonzalez says. He recommends choosing products bearing a seal from an independent verifying company, such as Informed Choice or the Certified for Sport seal from NSF International. This indicates it has been lab-tested for contaminants, banned substances, and/or ingredient veracity and quality. (In other words, what it says on the ingredients label is exactly what you get.)
And generally speaking, the FDA recommends checking in with your doctor before trying any new supplement, especially if you’re pregnant, nursing, or have a chronic medical condition. This also might be a particularly good idea if you pick up a protein powder that contains a lot of other supplements in addition to the basic protein, sweetener, and flavoring (like various vitamins, minerals, and botanical extracts).
The TL;DR of the whole situation? Protein is good. You probably get enough of it. If you’re worried you don’t—or just like protein powder—then go for it, and stick with a reputable company. Either way, spread your protein intake throughout the day. And if you end up getting more than you need, it’s probably NBD.
‘’People can get really down into the weeds with this stuff,” as Kitchin puts it. “But basically, if you’re exercising and eating well and getting good quality sources of protein, you’re probably in pretty good shape.”