October 21, 2020

Protein Supplements: Beneficial or a Waste of Time?

by Lauren Hoover, MS RD
Why is protein important?

Protein, one of the three macronutrients, plays many important roles in the body:

  • Signals satiety and slows down digestion to keep you feeling full for longer
  • Improves immune function (antibodies made from proteins are vital to our immune system)
  • Promotes tissue repair, growth, and maintenance (especially muscle!)
  • Makes up the building blocks of enzymes, hormones, chemical messengers, and nutrient transporters. Given these salutary benefits, consuming an adequate amount of high-quality protein each day is vital not only to achieving body composition and performance goals, but also to maintaining overall health. Recommended optimal protein intake is 1.2-2.0 g/kg of body weight depending on the medical history, goals, and activity of the individual. Generally speaking, people should include a lean protein at each meal and snack. (Please reference the Food Groups List from the SHIFT Nutrition Handbook for options). Talk to your SHIFT Dietitian to find out more about what your own daily protein intake target should be.
    When should I incorporate a protein supplement into my diet?

    First and foremost, protein from whole foods (not supplements) is always preferred because eating protein-rich foods also means that you are consuming other nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, to name just a few. However, there are a few instances when protein supplements can help. (Note: The frequency of protein supplementation use is highly individual and should be discussed with your SHIFT dietitian).

      • Convenience- When we don’t have time to sit down and eat a meal or a snack, a protein supplement can be a functional alternative. Protein bars or shakes are also great to have when traveling or when in an environment with limited food options.
      • Low appetite- If an individual is trying to gain weight and struggling to increase calorie intake, a protein shake is an easy way to consume extra protein and calories.
      • Muscle mass gain- Adding protein supplements into a fueling regimen can ensure you are consuming protein needed for muscle gain. Pair the protein supplement with a carbohydrate post-workout for a balanced refuel that will replenish muscle glycogen and enhance muscle repair.


    Which protein supplement is right for me?

    While your personal preferences should be a part of your selection process, there are other factors to consider when choosing a protein supplement.

    Animal vs. Plant

    If an individual is allergic to dairy or lactose intolerant, then it is important to avoid whey, casein, and milk protein supplements. If vegan, or avoiding animal products altogether, also avoid egg white and collagen-based protein supplements.

    Protein Quality
    Complete vs. Incomplete Proteins

    A “complete protein” contains all nine essential amino acids (the nine amino acids that the body cannot make and therefore must be obtained through food). Not all protein supplements will contain all the essential amino acids (EAAs). Many plant-based proteins are incomplete proteins on their own, so we recommend choosing a protein powder that contains a blend (e.g. pea/rice protein blend) to ensure all essential amino acids are present at optimal levels.

    Protein Digestibility

    Some proteins are more easily digested and better utilized by your body than others. The Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS), with the highest possible score being 1, is a common method for making evaluations of this type. Animal proteins (except collagen) tend to score higher than plant proteins. For example, whey protein has a PDCAAS of 1, while hemp protein has a PDCAAS of 0.63.

    Other Ingredients
    If you have a known intolerance or sensitivity, avoid protein powders and bars that contain sensitive ingredients. If you are prone to digestive issues, try choosing more processed options, labeled “isolates” and “hydrolysates,” as they are digested more quickly and easily. Also, be aware that many protein supplements use artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, fibers, and other additives that could cause gastrointestinal upset.

    Comparing different protein types

    Protein Type Plant or Animal-Based? Complete Protein (Y/N)? PDCAAS? Additional Characteristics
    Whey Animal Y 1.0 Well-researched; digested quickly
    Casein Animal Y 1.0 Well-researched; digested slowly
    Egg white Animal Y 1.0 Dairy-free complete protein option
    Collagen Animal N 0 Not well-researched; expensive
    Soy Plant Y 0.98 Main plant-based complete protein; also a common allergen
    Pea Plant N 0.89 Good source of BCAAs
    Rice Plant N 0.37 Hypoallergenic, low in some EAAs
    Hemp Plant N 0.63 Also contains omega-3s, but overall lower in protein
    Pea/Rice Blend Plant N 1.0 (can depend on ratio of blend) Complete plant-based protein source


    How could a protein supplement fit into my diet?

    It is important to remember that protein supplements are meant to complement other foods in your diet. See below for some ways to use protein supplements to optimize your meals, snacks, and fueling routine.

    • Part of an on-the-go or quick and easy meal. Just add in a complex carbohydrate and a fruit/vegetable to complete the meal.
    • As a satiating, protein-rich snack. Protein shakes and protein bars can be great for travel or just general busy days. Keep some in your office, car, suitcase – wherever you need so that you always have a snack available when hunger hits.
    • Part of a balanced refueling routine. Pair with a carbohydrate (e.g. fruit, whole grain toast, etc.) to complete a refuel meal/snack that will help replenish glycogen stores and repair muscle fibers after workouts.

    Protein Powder Recommendations

    There are many factors to consider when picking the right protein supplement – if you are unsure talk with your SHIFT Dietitian. However, below are some our favorites! As with any supplement, these are third party tested so they can be trusted for purity and potency.

    • Garden of Life Sport Plant based or Whey Protein Powder®
    • Momentous Plant Based or Whey Protein Powder®
    • Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Whey®
    • Vega Sport Plant Based®
    • Vital Protein Sport or Collagen Peptides®

    Overall, we do not need protein supplements to be healthy. They are meant to be supplemental to a well-balanced diet. If you are struggling to meet your protein goals, protein supplements may be a helpful tool for you. For more information or help finding the right protein supplement for you, reach out to one of our SHIFT Registered Dietitians.

    In Real Health,
    Lauren and Tavierney



    The entire contents of this SHIFT material (“Content”), including all text, graphics, images, and other material contained herein are for informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice; the Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of the messages provided. SHIFT does not endorse or recommend any commercial products, processes, or services. Therefore, mention of commercial products, processes, or services cannot be construed as an endorsement or recommendation. 


fuel, nutrition, protein, protein supplement

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