I love food! I love food shopping, cooking, eating, sharing it with other people, talking about it, learning new things, researching its health benefits, challenging myself to make tasty AND healthy dishes. That’s why I do what I do. But to me, food is first of all whole food (a piece of fruit, vegetable, nuts, grains…), or dishes made using whole ingredients, not just their components.
For example, sugar is an extracted carbohydrate part of the food. And we know it’s no good for us. Oil is another example of extracted substance – fat. It’s very high in calories (1 gram of oil contains 9 kcal, whereas 1 gram of carbohydrate or protein has 4 kcal) and most oils have low nutritional value (and possible downsides – I’ll tell you sometime later). When you think about it, protein powder is similar to those two in a sense that it involves a certain amount of processing and has lost its water, fibre and most nutritional value – vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.
I mean we could reconstitute them all into food: add sugar, oil, protein, fibre, water and some multivitamin, make a shake and have a “balanced” meal (and they do exist!). But doesn’t it make more sense to eat whole foods and enjoy their beneficial properties as they appear in nature (some of them can’t possibly be squeezed into those components)?
For some reason most people in our society believe that protein is somehow special and we need more of it than anything else. And we do need protein. A huge part of our bodies are made of protein – our skin, hair, bones, eyes, internal organs and structures, some hormones and enzymes etc. Well, to be more precise, it’s made of the amino acids, as body generates its own protein from dietary and recycled amino acids. And our clever bodies are actually very good at absorbing and then recycling amino acids!
OK, so how much dietary protein do we need? To be honest, no one knows for sure, and there are many theories, but the most accepted general rule is that we should get 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (or 0.36 g per pound) of body weight (maybe a bit more in recovery, for athletes, children or pregnant women – when there is more growth happening). It is very easily achievable, and most people eat in excess of that. If you’re eating whole foods and you’re getting enough calories, it’s almost impossible not to get recommended amount of protein. Every food contains protein, even potatoes, avocados or oranges, while beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds, mushrooms, greens and many vegetables have good amounts of it. And actually, too much protein can be a problem as your body has to get rid off it which creates toxic waste and puts pressure on your kidneys (I won’t go into acidity side of it just yet).
So, the big question: do we need protein powders?
Some of us might, for example, people with degenerative illnesses or in recovery, not able to consume enough calories and protein. Not getting enough protein means your body breaking down its own protein – starting with muscle and finishing with internal organs (heart is also made of protein!). Same can be applied if you’re eating lots of processed foods, mainly carbohydrates and fat (you’re probably OK for protein if all you’re eating is chicken nuggets or bacon and eggs; in that case, the question is, are you actually OK?).
Some of us could do without it, but it can be convenient in certain situations, for example, for people who want to build muscle and want to consume their protein at certain times when food might not be available (e.g. straight after workout). Or if you generally don’t have time to cook and eat. It’s not ideal but it’s better than nothing!
However, most of us probably don’t need extra protein. If you’re not sure, go to cronometer.com and check how much protein you’re already consuming. You can even expand and see if you’re getting enough of all essential amino acids.
Now here I have to acknowledge that I do use some processed foods, as it is hard to avoid them (and they make life easier). Flour is already processed (even if it’s buckwheat, quinoa or what not) and has lost some of its nutritional value (that’s why wheat flour in UK has to be fortified). Sundried tomatoes or dried fruit (or anything dried, really) is processed. It’s extremely difficult to avoid oil and quite hard not to have added sugar, both of which are heavily processed, as mentioned earlier.
So, some processed foods can still be incorporated into a healthy diet. For example, cold pressed flax seed oil contains beneficial omega-3 fatty acids (just make sure to keep it in the fridge or even freezer), and coconut sugar contains some vitamins and minerals (unlike cane sugar, beet sugar or heaven forbid high fructose corn syrup), extra fibre might help some people with their bowel motility, vegetable or green juice can give you a nutrient boost, and protein powder… well, it can have benefits too (for instance, protein brownies: if you’re going to eat this dessert, you might make it a little bit more complete).
It’s all about making choices, as they are so widely available in our world. Make sure to pick a good brand of protein powder, if you’re going to use it, and I of course recommend a plant-based one! Or maybe even some sort of green powder (e.g. spirulina is almost 60% protein)?