To protein supplement or not?: What you need to know about protein powders

February 13, 2016

Does grabbing a shake with protein powder classify as a healthy daily dose of protein for you?



Delivering protein through your food is a must. Your body can make proteins from substances called amino acids. There are 22 of these in total, but 8 of the amino acids (called essential amino acids), must be supplied through your diet in order to be used for protein synthesis.

Once formed in the body, proteins help to build important substances, such as hormones and systems like the immune system. Protein also works in the body to build, maintain and repair the body tissues. This includes your skin, hair, organs and muscles. As protein supplies a steady energy source, which your body can draw from, it also helps to promote balanced blood sugar levels and therefore stable, sustained mental and physical energy.


If protein powders make up a regular part of your diet, I encourage you to check out the ingredients label. Unfortunately many protein powders on the market are lacking in nutrition and worst, are full of nasties that can potentially cause health challenges. Read on, to get my low down on health giving v’s health damaging protein powder ingredients.   


What to avoid in a protein powder (and all food items)




Food Additives have been linked to many health conditions, including behavioural issues, hormonal imbalance, psychiatric problems, cardiovascular conditions, neurodegenerative diseases and cancer.  To truly nourish your body, avoid any protein powder containing these ingredients.


Artificial Colours

  • 102/ Tartazine

  • 129/ Allura Red

  • 104/ Quinoline Yellow

  • 132/ Indigotine

  • 107/ Yellow 2G

  • 133/ Brilliant Blue

  • 110/ Sunset Yellow

  • 142/ Green S

  • 122 Azorubine, Carmoisine

  • 143/ Fast Green FCF

  • 123 Amaranth

  • 151/ Brilliant Black

  • 124 Ponceau, Brilliant Scarlet

  • 155/ Brown HT

  • 127/ Erythrosine

  • 160b/ Annatto


  • 200-203/ Sorbates

  • 210-213/ Benzoates

  • 220-228/ Sulphites

  • 280-282/ Propionates


  • 310-312/ Gallates

  • 319-321 / TBHQ, BHA, BHT

Artificial sweeteners:

  • Saccharin

  • Cyclamate/ Sweet n Low

  • Aspartame/ NutraSweet/ Equal

  • Acesulfame-K/ Sunett

  • Sucralose

  • Alitame

  • Neotame

Unhealthy sweeteners:

  • Agave, brown sugar, beet sugar, cane sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, golden syrup, mannitol, raw sugar, sorbitol and sucrose.

Be mindful that large amounts of glucose, dextrose, fruit, honey, maple syrup, molasses and rice malt, can still cause issues with blood sugar levels. You’re better off sweetening a plain protein powder with your own fruit, or opting with small amounts of these natural sugars and/ or stevia. Cinnamon spice and vanilla powder can also improve the flavor of a plain protein powder.


Bad fats


Used to enhance the flavour, texture and shelf life of foods, trans-fats are an altered form of unsaturated fat, which the body cannot recognise. Known toxic effects in the body include heart disease, obesity, diabetes, age-related macular degeneration, Alzheimer’s, compromised immune system, cancer, fertility problems with both men and women and low birth weight babies.


You can identify trans-fats on the ingredients list of protein powders, with those containing highly refined industrial seed oils. This includes soy, vegetable, cottonseed, sunflower, safflower oil, wheat germ, corn and canola oil.


Soy Protein


Soy is a common allergen in the body, likely due to the recent increased use as a binding agent in processed foods, including protein powders (found on labels as Soy Isolate). Soy allergies can cause many side effects such as skin conditions (eczema), digestive upsets, behavioural issues, decreased mental function and respiratory congestion.


Soy contains high aluminium and chemicals, such as nitrates, due to a commercial wash procedure to make it into soy protein isolate.

Other reasons for avoiding soy, include it’s oestrogenic and thyroid disrupting effects in the body. More on that across in this blog post.


Whey Protein


In my clinic I do a great deal of food intolerance testing, for IgG and IgA antibodies. Dairy is among the most common foods that cause reactions, contributing to inflammation, digestive and respiratory health issues. As whey is the dried dripping of yoghurt, it‘s a form of dairy and therefore is best avoided if you suffer from dairy intolerance symptoms.


If you have no association with dairy and any health challenges, enjoy whey protein, which is and sourced from grass fed and organic cows.


Healthy Protein Powders.



Although I always recommend your first choice be protein sourced from fresh, whole foods, if you prefer to keep a protein powder in your diet, I do have a few exceptions. They must be free from the nasties listed above and preferably organic.

  • Hemp seed powder (for those outside of Aus and NZ)

  • Fermented legume (pea, lentil, bean), seed (quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth) and rice based powder.

  • Organic, grass fed whey (if you tolerate dairy).

Protein in Wholefoods.


Everyone’s needs for protein will vary on age, size, sex and activity levels (in cases of reproduction and growth, extra protein is required).


I find many of my patients work the optimal amount of protein out themselves, by listening to their body. The most obvious signs of inadequate protein are fatigue, imbalanced blood sugar levels, increased hunger, poor health and growth of hair, skin and nails, along with mood swings.


A bit of a guide, is  to consume .8gm- 1gm of protein per 1kg of ideal body weight, per day, but this will vary with each individual. Keep in mind; I’m talking about actual protein in the food, not the weight of the food item.  You don’t want to overdo the protein, as this will be converted into sugar (glucose), by a process called gluconeogenesis. Be in tune with your body and you will know what the right amount is for you.


Focusing on quality is also important. Opt for organic and grass fed when sourcing meats; organic when sourcing nuts, legumes and seeds; free range and organic when sourcing poultry and eggs; and wild caught when sourcing fish.


There are many whole food sources available that can be used in your daily diet, to enable you meet this requirement. My favourite sources include meat, chicken, turkey, fish, hemp seeds, chia seeds, activated nuts and eggs.  If well tolerated (some people with compromised digestion may experience digestive issues), legumes, quinoa, buckwheat, get the vegan tick of approval.  


Opt for Real Food over Powders


Although there are some protein powders on the market, which meet these standards, it is always best to opt for real, wholefoods as your first option. When wholefoods aren’t available, protein powders free from nasty additives and made of clean protein sources, may help deliver you your daily protein requirements.


What protein powders are you using? Are they truly nourishing you?


About Kasey:



Kasey Willson is a qualified Adelaide based Naturopath & Nutritionist. Kasey’s passion in her clinic and through her educational writing and speaking is to support women to experience balanced hormones, thriving digestion and vibrant energy levels. 





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