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Protein Powders: Pick up or put down?

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Did you know that 99% of Australians meet their daily protein requirements through food? And yet, I am asked frequently in clinic about the uses and applications for protein supplements and powders. Let’s explore if there is a place for these much-hyped products in your pantry.

Why do we need protein?

Proteins are the ‘building-blocks’ for your body, and they grow, repair and build tissues, bones, cartilage, skin, blood, enzymes and hormones. Any excess protein not used for these purposes is sent to the liver and converted to glucose through a process known as gluconeogenesis.

Proteins are made up of chains of organic compounds called amino acids. Our bodies can make some amino acids, but other ‘essential’ amino acids must come from the food we eat. If you eat a variety of animal foods like meat, poultry, fish and seafood, eggs, and dairy, and vegetable products like tofu, legumes, nuts and seeds, you’ll most likely meet your recommended dietary intake for protein and essential amino acids.

How much protein do we need?

Marketing hype around protein powders is designed to make us think that extra protein is critical, especially if we’re active. But what do we really need? The table below outlines the recommended daily protein intake for the everyday, moderately active person, as well as endurance and strength athletes. Remember, this is grams of actual protein, not the grams of the protein-containing food you need to eat!

Serious athletes require extra protein because they are continually breaking down and repairing muscles during and after a workout. As an example, a 75kg woman working out at average intensity four times a week requires about 56 grams of protein per day. If this woman decided to train to swim to Rottnest and back again to raise money for people living with type 1 diabetes (an effort you can support here!) then she would require closer to 100 grams per day. 100 grams of dietary protein would look something like this: 2 eggs, 100 grams cooked chicken, 150 grams cooked red meat, 30 grams of almonds and a 100 grams of natural yoghurt. Most of us eat more of these foods than this each day.

So what are protein supplements?

Protein powders contain hydrolysed amino acids. This means the proteins are in their simplest form ready to be absorbed and used immediately. Protein powder can be made from a number of base ingredients including whey (which comes from dairy), egg white, collagen and plants like peas. Some also contain added sugars, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, vitamins and minerals.

Do I need a protein supplement?

It’s very likely that the average person who eats a varied diet and exercises regularly gets enough protein from food. People who may struggle to meet protein requirements through diet alone include athletes with heavy training loads, the elderly, people recovering from surgery and people following vegan diets. In these situations, a protein supplement may be useful.

How to use protein powders

If you really like using a protein supplement, use it wisely. Drinking a protein shake as a meal on the run is one way many people use protein powders. If you do this, remember that whole foods package up energy, vitamins and minerals along with their protein. Make your shake a smoothie, and add leafy greens or berries and some healthy fats such as avocado, nuts or seeds to get more goodness than protein only.

Many people trying to lose weight think protein shakes will help, but in fact they can hinder - even the low-calorie, carb-free versions. If you’re meeting your protein requirements with real food through your diet – and it’s likely that you do - then it is unlikely you need extra protein from a shake. The excess protein may be shipped to the liver and turned into unwanted energy. If you really want to include a protein powder, you could use it to replace a meal. Just don’t forget to add some healthy fats, green leafy veg and fibre!

If you are endurance training or lifting heavy weights, your body needs extra protein to repair damaged and stressed muscle tissue. It’s boring, but you already know the answer by now: you’ll get the best results through a varied diet of real food that supplies you with adequate energy and micronutrients. Sometimes, if it’s convenient, a protein supplement can help you meet your requirements – but it shouldn’t be your main source of protein. It’s also good to spread protein intake across the day, not just post-workout, to provide your body with a steady supply for round-the-clock tissue repair.

Wait! Will a protein powder impact my blood glucose?

Many of my patients are surprised by rapid spikes in their blood glucose levels immediately after they drink a protein shake that contains no carbohydrate. If the protein in the shake is not required for growth or repair it will be converted into glucose. Added to this, the protein in protein powders is hydrolysed so it’s highly bioavailable, which explains its rapid conversion into glucose.

I’m still keen to use a protein powder – how do I keep my blood glucose in check?

Many people with type 1 need insulin for protein powder. The dose and timing of insulin for protein powder is individual, and will also depend on when you drink it and what else you add to the shake or smoothie. To test the impact of protein powder, minimize your variables: drink a shake in a fasted, non-exercised state. Monitor blood glucose over the coming hours to see exactly how your blood glucose reacts. With this data, you can nut out an insulin strategy - or take it to your diabetes educator for advice.

If your protein powder causes a rapid blood glucose spike, try adding fibre or fat to slow the digestion and absorption of the protein, helping the protein spike line up with the peak of the bolus you’ve delivered for it. Try adding 2 tablespoons of psyllium powder for extra fibre without extra calories - but drink it quickly because the soluble fibre will turn your shake into a jelly if you don't! If you don’t mind the extra energy, start by adding a serve of fat, such as half an avocado, 8 macadamia nuts or 1 tablespoon coconut oil.

So, let’s go back to our swimmer: does she need a protein powder to swim to Rottnest and back? As her dietitian, I assessed overall energy expenditure, the type of training she does, and her overall energy and protein intakes. She’s meeting requirements with real food, and so I’m satisfied that her body is getting what it needs given her training load. As her training load increases before her double crossing, I’d advise her to increase her energy and protein intakes through slightly larger portions of meats, dairy, nuts, seeds and avocado.

Over to you - do you need a protein powder in your life? If you’re still not sure, chat to your dietitian. If the answer is yes, then get the help of a diabetes educator to ensure the addition of a protein powder won’t leave you chasing high blood glucose levels for hours afterwards.

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