Why does the idea of consuming protein in the form of a powder, meal replacement, bar or pre-mixed shake have such an iron grip on people who eat? And how did selecting the perfect-for-you protein powder, meal replacement, bar or pre-mixed shake become so complicated and fraught with angst?
Even I, a dietitian, feel my head spin off at the bewildering array of ingredients, choices, and miraculous things these products are purported to do, and like I need to bring my biochemistry text with me to confirm fake vs. real nutrition claims. Would that be too weird? Maybe I could choose protein powder like I sometimes choose red wine – get the one with the coolest label.
For those in the breast cancer community, selecting a protein-based ANYTHING feels not only confusing, but a little dangerous. The lack of clarity on breast cancer nutrition leaves many women frozen in scary indecision, what with the well-intentioned yet outdated advice from doctors to avoid ingredients like soy and flax still all too common.
Recently I was tapped to provide guidance for a breast cancer survivor on selecting a protein shake, but rather than offer up any one particular brand as “the best”, I wrote up a quick six-point list of things to consider. In ALL areas of nutrition, the best choice for one person isn’t necessarily the best choice for another, although the protein product manufacturers would have you think so.
What’s The Appeal?
Protein shakes et al. fall under the “health halo” heading (see my July 7, 2017 blog on this topic), meaning the idea of consuming a protein shake confers that it’s a healthy or healthier choice. Here’s a surprise; there’s nothing “magically” healthy about protein replacements, they’re really all about convenience.
Getting 20-30 grams of protein via scoop/can/bar in a portable, non-perishable form makes protein powders and meal replacements extremely appealing in an eat-on-the-fly world; especially at breakfast when running out the door. For example, to get 20-30 grams of protein at breakfast through real food, you’d have to eat any one of the following:
- 4 – 5 eggs
- 1.5 – 2 cups plain Greek yogurt
- 1 – 1.25 cups cottage cheese
- 1.25 – 1.75 cups cooked lentils
- 2.5 – 3.75 cups cooked quinoa
- .33 – .75 cups peanut butter
Obviously you wouldn’t eat ONLY one food to get all 20-30 grams of protein! You’d combine foods, i.e. toast with avocado + two eggs to get closer to that 20 gram minimum suggested by protein supplement packaging. The example I shared shows how 20-30 grams of protein translates into a significant amount of any one “real” food, but not everyone has the appetite, calorie space, or NEED for that much protein at breakfast.
The average adult needs 0.8 grams protein per kilogram body weight. For a 130# woman, that translates to 47 grams of protein PER DAY, although chemotherapy, radiation or surgery could increase that recommendation. Generally, ~15-25 grams of protein per meal is a smart baseline amount, it’s enough to trigger fullness and satiety hormones, prevent insulin spikes, and support (normal) bodily repair functions.
What’s Protein’s Job, Anyway?
Regardless of the type of protein you eat (I’ll get to that in a moment), it ALL performs the same function in your body:
- provides amino acids that rebuild enzymes, muscles, tissues and the framework of cells
- supports a strong immune system by stimulating T-cells and other immune cells
- helps manage appetite by stimulating hunger and satiety (fullness) hormones
Your body requires a combination of 20 amino acids daily, from both essential (must get from food) and non-essential (your body makes them) sources, and the protein replacement world offers them in seemingly countless forms:
- Goat milk
- Sprouted-grain blend
- Pumpkin seed
Within each category there’s even more confusion, er, choice:
- Complete Amino Acid Profile
- Branched Chain Amino Acids
To help make things a little less confusing when choosing, I present my list of six points to consider:
- Is the product animal or plant-based protein, and what’s your preference?
- Animal: whey, casein, egg, goat milk
- Plant-based: pea, hemp, soy, sprouted-grain blend, rice, pumpkin seed, cranberry, artichoke, coconut
- What’s on the Ingredient List and in what order?
- Product contains the most volume of the ingredient listed first, with ingredient content decreasing in the order that follows.
- Protein POWDERS typically have a short ingredient list; they’re simply a way to add straight protein to meals/recipes. Protein MEAL REPLACEMENTS tend to have longer ingredient lists.
- Is there any ingredient you have an allergy, intolerance or aversion to?
- Are there unnecessary ingredients or “fillers” like corn syrup solids, artificial flavorings or sweeteners, thickeners, gums, vegetable oils or fats?
- Are there ingredients you can’t identify?
- Are there vitamins and minerals on the Nutrition Facts label you already get in a multivitamin or other supplement?
- Be aware of duplicate vitamins and/or minerals that could lead to high intake levels. The vitamins/minerals added to protein replacements are considered supplemental and add to the load you’re already taking.
- If you’re undergoing chemo or radiation, check with your oncology RD re: supplemental vitamins/minerals – yes, even from foods like this (but not real, whole foods – that’s preferred method of obtaining nutrients during treatment); some may interfere with treatment protocol/medication.
- Why are you purchasing this product?
- Little or no appetite for “real” food.
- Drinking nutrition is manageable, but chewing/swallowing is difficult.
- No energy to prepare food, using as meal “replacement.”
- Want more muscle from weight training efforts and heard protein replacements are the way to go!
- Any food made ready-to-eat for you, even outside the protein category, costs more than real food you prepare yourself. Due to the processing and (sometimes) quality ingredients, protein supplements are pricey. All the more reason to determine whether they’re a constant necessity or an occasional option.
- Less expensive protein supplements may contain more fillers and non-essential ingredients. You get what you pay for – stock up on the better quality products when they’re on sale.
- Temporary or Long-Term
- Temporary: You’re undergoing treatment for breast cancer and don’t feel like making or eating “real” food.
- Long-Term: You simply like the taste and convenience and intend to make them part of your daily diet.