Remember the ’80s, when the hot diet trend was subsisting on a shake for breakfast and lunch, eating actual food only for dinner? I’ve got to admit, since then I haven’t been able to put any real stake in the whole shake-as-a-meal idea. Until recently, that is, when a friend of mine mentioned to me that her personal trainer had told her to invest in some protein powder to stay fuller longer and make more well-rounded meals. Yeah, yeah, I thought, I’ll be the girl eating the real food.
Then she gave me a taste of her nutty vanilla protein smoothie, and I began rethinking my stance immediately.
Today’s protein powder is a lot different than it was the last time I gave it a try. Not just for stuck-in-the-’80s dieters or calorie-packing bodybuilders, the lower-sugar, more natural powders have a lot to offer any average health-interested person trying to incorporate protein without having to handle actual meat.
I was intrigued, so I hunted down some nutrition experts and information to figure out if this powder really does offer worthwhile health benefits (since it can be pricey), and learn some creative ways to use it (because there’s no way powder and water will cut it).
Protein powder can incorporate protein into any meal in place of traditional eggs and meats. It also offers a range of other dietary and lifestyle pluses:
- It slashes fat: Powder adds protein to a meal without adding the saturated fat that’s found in most animal products.
- It’s convenient: I know I’m supposed to consume protein after a workout, but I rarely have time to roast a chicken. (And presliced deli meat? No thanks.) Add some powder to a cup of milk or water, or even into a bowl of cereal, to get those protein grams in. A scoop of powder is a lot easier (and less fragrant) to carry to the office, gym, and back than assorted meats or hard-boiled eggs are.
- It’s a healthy snack: Instead of eating the chips, crackers, or cookies lying around your office, try flavored protein powder to satisfy your midday sweet cravings for less than two hundred calories—as well as pack in some vitamins and nutrients.
- It makes meat-free options more interesting: For those lacto-ovo vegetarians out there, protein powder can add a little spice to the usual eggs-milk-and-cheese routine.
- It makes your workouts worthwhile: When you choose to lift weights at the gym instead of going home and plopping onto the couch for a reality-TV marathon, you’ve got to make it count. “Having protein within a half hour of finishing your workout is crucial,” says Sandra Morrison, a Los Angeles–based nutritionist. It repairs muscle tissues and replenishes energy, leaving you stronger than when you started.
Too Many to Choose From?
“Make sure [your protein powder is] natural, meaning it doesn’t have a lot of added sugar and tons of calories,” says Morrison. “Unless you’re a bodybuilder, you don’t need that.” Something simple will give you protein’s benefits without the caloric explosion. Morrison is a fan of Jay Robb–brand protein powders, since one scoop contains just a little more than one hundred calories.
Before you decide which powder is the right kind, there are a few types to consider:
- Whey protein: This powder is made from a byproduct of cheese processing, and it’s usually supplemented with minerals, vitamins, and a flavor, like vanilla or chocolate. This is the most popular and can be absorbed quickly, meaning it’s a good choice following a workout.
- Casein protein: Casein is known for being slow to digest, meaning it isn’t the best choice for right after a workout, when your body is craving protein. The most effective use for casein is as part of a meal or midday snack, instead of in partnership with a workout.
- Soy: Soy is the animal-free option of protein powders. Unfortunately, while unprocessed soy provides inarguable health benefits, scientific research (such as this study published by Oxford University Press) has linked processed soy—which powder classifies as—to some not-so-good issues, including cancer. Why risk it?
Creative Uses for Protein Powder
All right, all right, so I invested in a tub of the low-cal powder. I’ll definitely go crazy if I force myself to drink shake after shake, though—my mouth doesn’t salivate at the thought, it’s not what I think of when my stomach growls, and it certainly isn’t what makes me sit back in my chair and say, “Ahhhh.” So, can I use it to my advantage without feeling deprived?
It’s totally possible, says Morrison. That said, blending the powder with some ice cream and chocolate syrup and calling it a “protein shake” is probably not going to result in a toned physique. (Which is fine, but why bother with the protein powder in the first place if you’re after a sweet treat?) Still, according to Morrison, you can make a bevy of other truly yummy concoctions with the powder:
- Make shakes sweeter: Who says a protein shake has to be just powder and water? Blend in some (all-natural, organic) nut butter, like almond or peanut, or just nuts. Also try fresh fruit, like bananas, strawberries, or whatever is in season.
- Spice things up: Simple shake-ins, like vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, coconut milk, or agave nectar, can add fresh flavor to a shake without extra calories.
- Sneak it into food: Who says protein powder has to be in a shake? Many things we already eat are easy to stir some powder into. Try it with yogurt, the milk in your cereal, or even some (healthy) muffin batter.
Considering all the conveniences protein powder has to offer, Morrison emphasizes that any kind of nonfood product should be just a supplement to actual whole-food protein sources. “These actual foods, like chicken, fish, eggs, or even beans, offer a whole spectrum of nutrients that work together in ways we don’t even understand yet,” she says. And it’s all about balance—protein should be only part of a diet full of fresh produce and whole grains.
But we can all use a little help sometimes. Especially if it’s in the form of a nutty vanilla protein shake. Yum.