Protein powders: Are they bad for your health? (2023)

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Protein powders: Are they bad for your health? (1)

By Claudia Hammond27th April 2023

Many people consume protein powder supplements, especially in older age or to bulk up muscles. Are they a good thing to be taking?


When I go into my local health food store, there’s one corner that's always been a bit of a mystery to me – the shelves packed with dozens of white plastic tubs filled with powdered protein supplements. In the changing room at the gym, however, there are plenty who sing their praises, explaining that they simply add a scoop of powder to milk or to a smoothie, work out and then build extra muscle.

With their popularity reaching way beyond bodybuilders and professional athletes, now seems like a good time to look at the evidence around protein powders.

Some people use a protein drink as a snack between meals or even use it instead of a meal if they've not got time to eat. People eating a vegan diet sometimes use the supplements to up their protein intake if they feel they're not getting enough. And there are hundreds of new food products in supermarkets – from cereal bars to ice cream and chocolate – which signal their protein-containing credentials in bold letters.

There's a range of strengths available, with the highest doses aimed at bodybuilders. The powder might come from an animal source such as eggs or milk, or from plants. For example, protein from peas, potatoes, rice and soybeans can all be extracted and powdered, sometimes with added flavourings to make them taste good.

Protein is big business. But how many of us really need any extra?

There’s no doubt that protein is an essential part of the diet. We need it to build and repair muscles, to help our bones stay strong, to maintain the immune system and to keep our brains, hearts and skin doing what we need them do.

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Foods such as eggs, milk, yoghurt, fish, lentils, meat, soya, nuts and seeds are all rich in protein and the majority of adults in high-income countries do get at least the daily amount of protein recommended by health authorities.

In a meta-analysis of 49 studies, the average protein intake from people's diets at the start of the research was more than 75% greater than the US and Canadian recommendations, for example. There are some scientists in the field such as Stuart Phillips from McMaster University in Canada who argue that the recommended levels might not be high enough for everyone.

One of the difficulties is knowing how much you as an individual might need. The answer depends on your age, health and exercise routine, so the standard recommendation may not apply to you. Some older people, for example, find they don't have much appetite which can lead them to eat so little that they don't get enough protein from their diet. And if you're a professional endurance athlete you more need more protein than the average adult.

Protein powders: Are they bad for your health? (2)

Consuming protein powder won't actually build muscle unless you combine it with resistance exercise, studies show (Credit: Getty Images)

Since we know that protein from diet builds muscle, keeps bones strong and protects your immune system, is it a case of the more the better? Could all of us benefit from a little more? Or are there risks in adding extra protein in this way?

Luckily there have been some trials than can guide us. For the most part they tend to show that protein powders can indeed help to build muscle, as many claim. But the catch is that this only works if you also do some form of resistance exercise, such as using weight machines. If the muscles aren’t exercised, the extra protein won't do anything.

In one meta-analysis from 2014, researchers combined the data from 14 randomised controlled trials where, for example, half the people consumed powdered whey protein, which is made from the liquid left over when milk is made into cheese, and half had a placebo drink. They found that as long as people also did resistance exercise, then consuming protein powders did increase their lean body mass, but if they simply drank the drinks without exercise there was no statistically significant increase.

One of the difficulties in trying to compare studies is that some are conducted with people who are obese, others with older people, and still others with younger gym-goers, which makes it hard to generalise.

Someone consuming extra protein and exercising two or three times a week will see a minimal benefit while those working out four or five times a week might see a small benefit

A more recent paper bringing together the best studies, published in 2022, focuses on trials done with healthy adults who were not overweight. Once again protein powder did make a difference, with gains in both lean body mass and in lower body strength, provided people were also doing resistance exercise. There was also a slight effect on people's ability to do bench presses, but it didn't make a difference in other tests of strength, such as handgrip. So it's not some magic powder which will suddenly make you strong. You have to put the work in.

Even after examining all these studies, the authors say the optimal amount of protein still isn't clear, although it was interesting to see that people over the age of 65 didn't need to consume quite as much powder to make a difference.

Protein powders: Are they bad for your health? (3)

Extra protein may only be of use if you are exercising four or five times a week (Credit: Getty Images)

One of the authors of this review, Stuart Phillips, has spent two decades studying the impact of our diets on our muscles. Speaking on the BBC's Food Programme last year, he summed it up like this: someone consuming extra protein and exercising two or three times a week will see a minimal benefit while those working out four or five times a week might see a small benefit. So unless you're very dedicated, a professional athlete perhaps, it's unlikely to make that much difference.

For those who still want to go down the supplement route even for a very small benefit, there's often talk of when it's best to take it – before you head to the gym, or afterwards while your muscles are recovering. There's also debate on which kind to take. Some swear by whey protein, other by plant sources. In the 2018 meta-analysis I mentioned above featuring 49 studies, the overall conclusion was that neither the timing nor the type of protein really mattered.

Of course if you do want to consume protein powders you also need to be sure they aren't doing you any harm. The ingredients vary between different products. As well as protein some powders contain added sugars, flavouring and vitamins. High amounts of sugar could lead to spikes in blood sugar and also, of course, weight gain.

We don't know what the long-term impact might be of adding large quantities of protein powders to your diet on a daily basis

Even more concerning are the stories online about fit young people having heart attacks at the gym and talk of whether protein powders might have contributed. With individual cases like these it's difficult to know what underlying heart problems the people affected might have had. So we need to turn to research once again.

Alas, research on this is sparse. In fact, you have to look to mice studies to find out much at all, and even then there's very little. But there was a study conducted in mice in 2020 published in the journal Nature Metabolism from researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis in the US. The researchers fed mice a high-fat diet to deliberately induce the build-up of plaque in their arteries. But half of the mice were also fed three times as much protein as the other half were given. The high-fat, high-protein group did not gain as much weight, but worryingly they had 30% more plaque in their arteries.

Protein powders: Are they bad for your health? (4)

Older people don't need to eat as much protein as was previously thought, recent studies suggest (Credit: Getty Images)

The problem is that it's hard to generalise from mice on a high-fat diet taking in large amount of protein to young human gym-goers adding a scoop of powder to a drink. So it's early days for this kind of research. But it is true, of course, that we don't know what the long-term impact might be for the heart or the kidneys or any other part of the body of adding large quantities of protein powders to your diet on a daily basis.

Some argue it could bring health benefits quite separate from the muscle gain. A meta-analysis of nine randomised controlled trials found the people given protein powders lost more weight and saw an improvement in blood pressure and cholesterol levels. But the people in this study were overweight or obese, so we don't know if the same beneficial impacts would be seen in those of a healthier weight.

Dieticians are often keen to emphasise that ideally we look to our food to get everything we need before turning to supplements

At Reading University, Agnes Fekete found – in an admittedly small study with just 27 people – that if their blood pressure was just a little on the high side, then extra whey protein could lower it. Meanwhile, a new paper combining the results of 31 trials found that if people took whey or soy powder there was a reduction in two markers of inflammation in the body.

This is interesting because there are high levels of inflammation in people whose muscles become particularly weak in old age, which raises the question of whether there might be some way of trying to prevent this using protein powders.

But to really know whether there are health benefits beyond the small effect on muscle mass provided it's accompanied by exercise, we need more trials conducted over longer timespans.

Time will tell, but eventually we'll discover whether it's the fit gym-goers or the older people with small appetites who stand to gain from consuming protein powders. Dieticians are often keen to emphasise that ideally we look to our food to get everything we need before turning to supplements. Intact food seems to be the best for us, and yet we still don't know exactly why.


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Protein powders: Are they bad for your health? ›

Protein powders are generally recognized as safe, although you may experience digestive side effects if you consume large amounts of protein powder. If you're lactose intolerant or otherwise sensitive to lactose, dairy-based protein powder may lead to stomach upset, bloating, and gas.

How do you know if protein powder is safe or not? ›

Consuming protein shortly after its expiration date is likely safe if there are no signs that it has gone bad, which include a rancid smell, bitter taste, changes in color, or clumping. If these signs are present, it's best to toss your tub and purchase a new one.

Is it OK to not take protein powder everyday? ›

Do You Need a Protein Shake on Rest Days? The bottom line is that you never need to take protein powder. You can get just as much, if not more, protein and other nutrients from whole food sources. Instead, make sure you are eating a balanced diet.

Does protein powder increase cholesterol? ›

Studies suggest that regularly adding whey protein to your diet can help reduce markers of chronic inflammation, lowering your risk of negative health effects. Finally, early studies suggest that whey protein may help lower high cholesterol levels, especially “bad” LDL cholesterol.

What should I be careful of in protein powder? ›

10 Ingredients That Should Never Be In Your Protein Powder
  • Casein + WPC. These are also known as whey protein concentrate and sodium caseinate. ...
  • Gluten. ...
  • Dextrins/Maltodextrin. ...
  • Artificial sweeteners. ...
  • Skim milk powders/milk solids. ...
  • Soy protein. ...
  • Vegetable oils and fats. ...
  • Thickeners and gums.

What are the main side effects of protein powder? ›

High doses can cause some side effects such as increased bowel movements, acne, nausea, thirst, bloating, reduced appetite, tiredness, and headache.

Is protein powder safe for kidneys? ›

Protein shakes and powders can cause kidney stones. Individuals with pre-existing kidney problems, such as chronic kidney disease or kidney stones, should therefore be careful about consuming too much protein. A diet that is high in protein can worsen your condition, and even lead to kidney failure.

Is protein powder good for heart? ›

Whey protein may have beneficial effects on blood fats

High cholesterol, especially LDL (bad) cholesterol, is a risk factor for heart disease. In one study in overweight individuals, 65 grams of whey protein per day, for 12 weeks, led to a significant reduction in total and LDL cholesterol (17).

What are the benefits and side effects of taking protein powder? ›

Whey protein is a mixture of beta-lactoglobulin, alpha lactalbumin, bovine serum albumin, and immunoglobins. Possible benefits include weight loss and lowering cholesterol. Possible dangers include nausea and headaches, but at moderate doses, whey protein is not considered dangerous.

When should I stop taking protein powder? ›

If you experience any symptoms of chronic, low-level heavy metal poisoning, such as unexplained muscle and joint pain, constipation or fatigue, stop using your protein powder.

How long is it safe to take protein powder? ›

Henigan says that most research indicates if your protein powder is properly stored (no extreme temperatures or humidity), it should be safe to consume for up to two years.

Should I drink protein shakes if I have high cholesterol? ›

Absolutely. Studies have shown that regularly consuming whey protein can lower cholesterol and improve your cardiovascular and overall health.

What is the best protein to lower cholesterol? ›

Whey protein, which is found in dairy products, may account for many of the health benefits attributed to dairy. Studies have shown that whey protein given as a supplement lowers both LDL and total cholesterol as well as blood pressure. You can find whey protein powders in health food stores and some grocery stores.

What is the best protein without cholesterol? ›

Nuts and legumes

According to some studies, nuts are one of the healthiest protein choices you can make for your heart. Options include walnuts, almonds, cashews, pecans, and peanuts. Legumes such as beans, peas, and lentils are another excellent option. They contain no cholesterol and significantly less fat than meat.

How can I increase my protein intake without protein powder? ›

Natural alternative to protein powder
  1. High-protein smoothies. Add nut butter, oats or a high-protein yoghurt to a homemade fruit smoothie to up the protein content and help your body repair and recover after a workout. ...
  2. Hard-boiled eggs. ...
  3. Greek yoghurt and fruit. ...
  4. Chocolate milk. ...
  5. Apple slices with nut butter. ...
  6. Overnight oats.
Apr 14, 2022

Is it better to drink protein shakes with milk or water? ›

When building mass and muscle, mixing your protein with milk will yield better results. For lean builders, trimmers and toners, water is the way to go. It comes down to nutrition, as that's exactly why you are drinking protein shakes in the first place.

How often should you take protein powder? ›

For most people, anywhere from one to three protein shakes per day should be plenty to help them meet their nutritional needs.

What are the long term effects of protein powder? ›

Overconsumption of whey protein can affect heart activity and lead to heart arrhythmia, cardiac arrest and other heart problems. Since experts have linked high-protein sources with higher levels of saturated fats, increased blood sugar levels and higher blood acidity, whey protein can affect heart functioning.

Is Too Much protein bad for your kidneys? ›

High dietary protein intake can cause intraglomerular hypertension, which may result in kidney hyperfiltration, glomerular injury, and proteinuria. It is possible that long-term high protein intake may lead to de novo CKD. The quality of dietary protein may also play a role in kidney health.

Can too much protein cause high blood pressure? ›

Recent findings: In epidemiological studies, an increased intake of protein has been associated with lower blood pressure and an attenuated increase in blood pressure over time.

How can I protect my kidneys from high protein diet? ›

How can you protect your kidneys and lose weight, too? For weight loss that won't compromise your kidneys, it's all about balance. “Don't get your calories from one source — combine protein with more fruits and vegetables,” Dr. Calle recommends.

How much protein powder is safe daily? ›

It's recommended that you try to only consume somewhere between 25 to 50 grams of protein from protein powder each day. In the past, there have been claims that high-protein diets can have dangerous health effects like kidney damage, but research has disproven this.

Which protein is not harmful for kidneys? ›

Fish, such as salmon, mackerel and rainbow trout, and even shrimp, are great protein choices. A 3-ounce portion of cooked fish has approximately 15-21 grams of protein.

Do protein shakes affect blood pressure? ›

Research shows that whey protein especially can lower blood pressure (2). Though this can be good news in most cases, people who already are on medications for high blood pressure must be wary as whey supplements might lower their blood pressure too much.

What is the healthiest protein for your heart? ›

Legumes (e.g. chickpeas, beans and lentils), nuts, seeds, fish and seafood are the most beneficial sources of protein. Eggs and poultry do not impact your risk of heart disease. Red meat should be limited to less than 350g (1-3 meals) a week. Processed meat can increase your risk of heart disease and should be avoided.

Is it necessary to take protein powder? ›

Protein powders are convenient, but unnecessary for most

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).

What is the best protein powder for high blood pressure? ›

Pea Protein Powder

Research into pea protein isolate specifically has found that it may assist with lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

What happens after you stop taking whey protein? ›

If you take whey protein out of your diet, this will mean you're actually consuming fewer calories each day, so your weight gain will either slow down or stop. If you're consuming a lot of whey protein, stopping supplementation could even lead to weight loss due to such a large calorie reduction.

What happens if you drink protein shakes without working out? ›

There can be health consequences if you drink protein shakes without exercising are: (1) less muscle gain, (2) unwanted weight gain, (3) increased risk of kidney-related problems, and (4) abnormal spike in blood glucose level.

What does protein in urine look like? ›

Proteinuria is high levels of protein in your pee. If you have proteinuria, you may have to pee more often, and your pee may be foamy or bubbly. You may have general feelings of illness, including nausea, vomiting, tiredness and swelling.

Is protein shake bad for liver? ›

Some experts suggest that too much protein could lead to liver damage in healthy people, while others say there is no reason for concern. However, people with liver disease or other health conditions should check with their doctor about whether whey protein is safe for them.

Can too much protein make your joints hurt? ›

Dairy contains a high level of protein casein. This type of protein triggers inflammation and pain in the joints, and may even contribute to irritation around the joints.

Why do people take protein powder? ›

People drink protein shakes for multiple reasons, including muscle gain, weight loss, and injury recovery. While many foods provide you with a lot of protein — such as eggs, meat, poultry, milk, and legumes — protein shakes and powders have become a popular, high-quality source of this nutrient.

Is protein powder natural? ›

Protein powders are not naturally occurring, there is no protein powder tree, plant, or bush, rather, protein powders are dietary supplements made from powdered forms of whole foods.

Does protein powder give you energy? ›

Will protein powder give me energy? At the end of the day, protein powder contains calories and calories mean energy for the body to burn. If you're used to having no breakfast and start drinking protein shakes in the morning, you might feel a difference in energy.

Is peanut butter good or bad for cholesterol? ›

Due to its high amount of unsaturated fats, peanut butter may help reduce a person's LDL cholesterol levels. Having optimal LDL levels is linked with a lower risk of heart disease. A 2015 study found that people who had a high intake of nuts may have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease mortality.

Should I worry about cholesterol in protein powder? ›

Whey protein naturally contains cholesterol, and while levels of “bad” cholesterol in the blood, which have been linked to heart disease, are a health concern; modern science has shown that eating cholesterol-rich foods such as eggs or whey protein1 is not a primary driver of cholesterol and heart disease – and it may ...

Can protein shakes raise triglycerides? ›

Whey protein and serum lipoproteins

This meta-analysis showed that whey protein decreased triglycerides, total cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol and total cholesterol/HDL-cholesterol ratio in patients with MetS and its components, but did not have any effect on HDL-cholesterol levels.

What is the single best food to lower cholesterol? ›

Add these foods to lower LDL cholesterol
  • Oats. ...
  • Barley and other whole grains. ...
  • Beans. ...
  • Eggplant and okra. ...
  • Nuts. ...
  • Vegetable oils. ...
  • Apples, grapes, strawberries, citrus fruits. ...
  • Foods fortified with sterols and stanols.

What reduces cholesterol quickly? ›

  • Eat heart-healthy foods. A few changes in your diet can reduce cholesterol and improve your heart health: ...
  • Exercise on most days of the week and increase your physical activity. Exercise can improve cholesterol. ...
  • Quit smoking. ...
  • Lose weight. ...
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation.

Are eggs bad for cholesterol? ›

Chicken eggs are an affordable source of protein and other nutrients. They're also naturally high in cholesterol. But the cholesterol in eggs doesn't seem to raise cholesterol levels the way some other foods, such as those high in trans fats and saturated fats, do.

What meat is lowest in cholesterol? ›

Skinless, lean, and ground chicken or turkey breast are good low-cholesterol choices.

Can too much protein cause high cholesterol? ›

High protein diets, especially animal-based can increase the cholesterol levels in your body. The saturated and trans fats present in these foods are harmful to your health. The trans fats raise the level of the bad LDL cholesterol and lower the good HDL cholesterol.

Is shrimp bad for cholesterol? ›

Shrimp are notably high in cholesterol. You'll take in about 130 milligrams if you eat 12 large shrimp. But at only 2 grams of fat, shrimp are plump with B vitamins, protein, and the nutrients selenium and zinc. Check with your doctor, but you can likely enjoy them once or twice a week.

How do you know if protein powder is third party tested? ›

Products that have been third-party certified will have a certification stamp displayed on the label from the certification company. Certification stamps are proof that the product is safe and lives up to its claims.

Are any protein powders FDA approved? ›

Protein powder is not FDA approved. Although there are very few cases of protein powder causing or instigating harm, it is still worth considering the potential dangers of protein powder. Depending on your physical health, you may be more or less inclined to supplement your diet with protein powder.

Does protein powder go bad if not sealed? ›

Dry goods like protein powder don't have enough moisture to grow mold or bacteria, because there isn't much moisture present, salmonella and other bacteria aren't as much of a concern, Baum adds. But, there is a risk if the product isn't tightly sealed or is being stored in a humid environment, Schaffner says.

Is clumpy protein powder bad? ›

Most protein and pre-workout powders are susceptible to some clumping, especially if you store them for long periods of time. It doesn't mean they're bad or that you need to throw them out. Instead, shake your container or break up large clumps with a fork. You can also sift the powder before you add to your shake.

What are the red flags of whey protein? ›

Symptoms such as stomach cramps, diarrhoea, and feeling bloated or having excessive gas are all red flag signs of a whey protein allergy (Flom & Sicherer, 2019).

Does it matter what protein powder you use? ›

Answer: When it comes to protein powders, it definitely matters which protein you take. Whey and casein have different amino acid profiles and digestion rates and, as a result, have distinct metabolic effects on the body.

What color should protein powder be? ›

Protein powders come in a variety of colors depending on the ingredients the manufacturer uses. For example, if a protein powder contains cocoa, it will be naturally brown in color; likewise, powders made from pea protein often have a slightly green hue.

Which protein brand is best? ›

  • Dymatize Nutrition ISO100. Best overall protein powder. ...
  • Myprotein Impact Whey Protein. Best protein powder on a budget. ...
  • Bulk Natural Pure Whey Isolate. ...
  • Gold Standard Whey Protein. ...
  • Orgain Organic Protein. ...
  • Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides. ...
  • BSN True Mass 1200. ...
  • Science in Sport Whey Protein.
4 days ago

What is the difference between protein shake and protein powder? ›

A protein powder is a dietary supplement in powder form, while a protein shake is a drink made by mixing protein powder with liquid and other ingredients. So, a protein shake is a type of protein supplement, but not all protein supplements come in shake form.

Should you refrigerate protein powder after opening? ›

You shouldn't store protein powder in the refrigerator or freezer, as the frequent change from hot to cold as the container is taken in and out may cause condensation and cause your protein powder to go bad before its expiration date. Also avoid the other end of the temperature spectrum — warm or hot.

What are the black specks in protein powder? ›

Scorched particles are caused when the powder becomes overheated during the manufacturing process while being dried from a liquid to a powder. The powder turns brown or black as a result and appears in the final formula as small black or brown particles.

Can I use 2 year old protein powder? ›

Can protein powder be used after expiration date? Yes, out of date protein powder is safe to use. Since protein powder is such a dry substance there is very little risk of bacterial growth. This is applicable to both whey protein and casein protein.

Why you shouldn't dry scoop protein powder? ›

The risk of small particles from dry powder inadvertently being inhaled rather than swallowed can lead to coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, or even aspiration pneumonia, according to Rizzo. “This would be particularly a concern in someone who may already have underlying lung diseases such as asthma,” Rizzo said.

Is it a bad idea to dry scoop protein powder? ›

If your first lift for a workout involves raising a scoop of dry protein powder to dump in your mouth, it's time to rethink your routine. Researchers say the practice known as “dry scooping” qualifies as dangerous — and even potentially deadly.

Is it safe to dry scoop protein powder? ›

While some people choose to 'dry scoop' their protein powder onto their tongue directly from the container and then swallow it without liquid accompaniment, this practice is not recommended due to potential health risks associated with direct ingestion of large particles of proteins without first breaking them down ...


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