Put Down the Protein Powder: Why Supplements Can't Replace Whole Foods

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Adam Lowry - Americans are busier and more fitness-focused than ever before. It's no wonder protein shakes have become the go-to snack for professionals on the move.

Some might say that being both busier and more health-conscious is a contradiction, but that doesn't make it any less true. People are prioritizing their physical well-being even as they jam their calendars full of social commitments, work obligations, and personal responsibilities. That's why protein shakes — which are quick and easy to make — are so appealing. But are they the right way to go?

The Power of Protein

Meal replacements constitute a $3 billion market in the U.S. alone, and 20 percent of American meals are eaten in cars. When you're short on time, whipping up a quick shake is preferable to swinging by the McDonald's drive-thru.

Running late for a meeting and don't have time for breakfast? Need something to fill you up between networking events after leaving the office? Protein shakes are a purportedly healthy meal replacement that make people feel like they're treating their bodies well even when they don't have time to sit and eat.

Protein powders are also useful when you're building muscle mass or training for an athletic event. These supplements speed up recovery times, helping you maintain the rigorous workout schedule required for tough competitions.

But protein powder should be used as just that: a supplement to a diet based on whole foods.

All Things in Moderation

The reality of modern life is that you occasionally need to skip meals. Protein shakes or bars can help you feel satiated and energized until the next time you eat. However, over-reliance on these products messes with your metabolism — and can have serious health consequences.

For one thing, powdered supplements don't offer as robust a nutritional profile as whole foods. Consuming too much protein can lead to nutritional deficiencies, cause digestive problems, and strain the kidney and liver. When these organs have to work overtime to process proteins, they become damaged and diseased.

If you're eating a balanced diet that includes meat, dairy, and legumes, you're probably getting plenty of protein. Besides, loading up on shakes and protein bars on top of regular meals can actually cause you to gain weight.

As with anything, moderation is key. Make sure you're getting protein from a variety of sources, including:

Meat and dairy. Just 3 ounces of meat equals 21 grams of protein, and 1 cup of milk provides 8 grams. Both are great nutritional sources, but they’re not for everyone — and they create enormous environmental footprints. Balance your meat and dairy intake with plenty of fresh vegetables, healthy grains, and other forms of protein.

Plant-based protein. One cup of legumes such as dry beans or lentils gives you between 15 and 18 grams of protein. Grains such as quinoa, sorghum, spelt, and kamut are protein-rich as well. Plant proteins are high in fiber, antioxidants, and phytonutrients and free of cholesterol.

Non-dairy beverages. Drinks made from legumes such as yellow peas or soy contain significant amounts of protein. You can easily add these to breakfast cereals, your mid-afternoon coffee, or a healthy snack to meet your daily protein needs.

Protein is essential to good nutrition, and protein supplements can help you bulk up and eat well when you're strapped for time. But protein powder is no substitute for more robust sources, such as plant and animal products. Focus on eating consistent, well-rounded meals, and incorporate protein powder in smart ways for maximum benefit.

Adam Lowry is the co-founder of Ripple Foods, a company that exists to make dairy-free foods as they should be: high in protein, low in sugar, loaded with nutrition, and delicious. Adam believes that business is our greatest vehicle for positive social and environmental change. Connect with Ripple Foods on Twitter.

More readings: 

What Do Probiotics Really Do and Do You Need Them?

The Best and Worst Foods for Your Thyroid

Study: Eat Whole Grains and You May Live Longer

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