There’s no denying that protein powder is convenient.
It’s made to be a tasty way to get the protein you need on the go — simply mix the powder with water, milk, or in a smoothie, and drink.
And is it just as good — or better — than protein that comes from food?
Here’s everything you need to know before you plunk down the cash on a massive tub of powder.
What Is Protein Powder?
Protein is one of the three vital macronutrients — along with fat and carbohydrates — that play a role in nearly every bodily function.
It’s in a wide variety of foods, like animal meats, dairy, eggs, legumes, and nuts, so it’s easy to get enough from food.
Protein powder is just a concentrated form of this protein taken from these foods.
While there are many different types of protein powder, the majority of protein you’ll find lining the shelves at the supplement store fall into four categories.
Whey Protein Powder
Whey protein is a fast-digesting protein made from milk — more specifically, it’s the liquid part that’s leftover during the cheesemaking process.
The liquid is then processed to turn it into protein powder.
“One benefit of whey protein is that it is a good source of branched-chained amino acids (BCAAs), which may play a role in aiding in muscle growth and recovery,” says Bansari Acharya, R.D.N., registered dietitian nutrition and creator of FoodLove.
Casein Protein Powder
Casein protein is also found in milk, but unlike whey, casein protein is “digested and absorbed at a slower rate,” says Acharya. “The result is a more gradual entry to your muscles, which may lead to muscle mass growth.”
Plant-Based Protein Powder
Pea protein is one of the types of plant-based protein powders and comes from the yellow split-pea.
“It contains all but one of the amino acids and is a source of BCAAs,” says Acharya.
And unlike whey and casein, pea protein powder also contains vitamins and minerals.
Hemp and rice protein powders are another option if you don’t like the taste of pea protein.
Both contain all but one essential amino acid, and hemp is high in omega-3 and omega-6 fats.
Soy Protein Powder
Soy protein powder is also plant-based, but like whey and casein, it contains enough of all the essential amino acids our bodies need to be considered “complete.”
Soy is naturally rich in health-promoting nutrients like isoflavones; however, research shows these benefits are more likely from whole food sources minimally processed.
This leaves the jury still out on if those same benefits can be seen from soy protein powder.
Is Protein Powder Good for You?
Protein powder is a solid option if you want to up the amount of concentrated protein you’re getting each day to help you meet health goals, like building more muscle or dropping a few pounds.
While downing a protein shake before or after a workout won’t automatically equal a lower number on the scale, it adds to the amount of protein in your diet.
We need to consume at a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight a day — that’s 54 grams for a person weighing 150 pounds.
Increasing that amount can help your body burn more calories a day, leading to weight loss.
Additionally, protein powder “may decrease your appetite and help you feel fuller for longer, which can aid in weight loss,” she adds.
Protein is shown to increase certain appetite-suppressing hormones in the body and decrease ghrelin, the hunger hormone.
That said, getting in your protein via a powder might not be a good choice if you’re sensitive or allergic to dairy or soy or have certain medical conditions that affect your body’s ability to digest extra protein.
And because protein powder doesn’t always taste good on its own, many companies add artificial sweeteners to make it taste better, so always check the ingredient labels.
“These man-made sugar alternatives have shown to affect gut health by altering healthy bacteria,” says Jeanette Kimszal, R.D.N., a registered dietitian nutritionist and co-founder of Thyroid Nutrition Educators.
Protein powders may also cause stomach discomfort and gas, “especially if your body is not used to consuming high amounts of protein,” adds Acharya.
How to Incorporate Protein Powder Into Your Diet
Protein powder supplements should be just a supplement to a healthy diet, not a replacement for nutrient-rich whole foods.
Getting protein from whole food sources is essential to get all the nutrients the body needs, says Kimszal.
“Relying solely on protein powder may limit the number of fresh vegetables in the diet leading to lower consumption of fiber,” she says.
So when should you use protein powder? Convenience.
“Protein powder can come in handy if you’re trying to build muscle” or regularly do high-intensity or endurance-based workouts, says Acharya.
While any source of protein can help with post-workout muscle repair and recovery, it’s not always easy to sit down to a full meal.
But mixing a scoop of protein with water — or indulging in a smoothie — after you towel off can quickly kickstart the process while you get on with your day.
Meagan Morris is the editor in chief of Celebribody. She's veteran health and wellness editor with over 15 years of experience. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, Yahoo Health, Cosmopolitan, SELF, and Women's Health, among others. She spends most of her time writing, but her favorite part of the day is spent under a barbell doing squats.