Naturopath Dr. Doni explains the nutritional benefits of protein powders, how to calculate your protein needs, and how to choose the right protein powder for your body.
I believe it is important for people to understand what they’re getting into before they start using a product. So, in today’s article, we will explore:
- The many reasons for using protein powder. You might discover a few surprising facts you didn’t know about this nutritional supplement.
- How not all protein powders are the same. Proteins in powders are derived from many different sources, and can vary widely in quality and potency. That’s why it’s so important to know what to look for before you buy.
- How to make good protein shakes and smoothies. Without good recipes, your shakes and smoothies may lack taste and texture, putting you off protein powders without giving them a fair chance. They may also lack the full range of nutrients needed to serve as a full meal replacement, which defeats the object of including them in drinks.
8 Healthy Reasons for Including Protein Smoothies in Your Diet
There are many good reasons why you might wish to start using protein shakes or smoothies as meal replacements or supplements:
- To get protein and other nutrients before and/or after a workout. Before you exercise, it is important that your body has protein available for muscle strength, and that you have enough nutrients to maintain stamina. After a workout, your body also needs nourishment to recover.
- To decrease blood sugar levels (HgbA1c). High blood sugar is often the result of a diet too high in carbohydrates. Having a protein shake for breakfast is an easy and tasty way to decease your intake of carbs and sugars as you start your day.
- To stabilize blood sugar levels. Blood sugar can fluctuate when you are under stress or adrenal distress. Increasing your protein intake can help get your blood sugar back to normal levels.
- To help with weight loss. A good protein shake can replace high-calorie meals. The protein can also help curb cravings when changing your diet.
- To help with weight gain. Conversely, those who need to gain weight can add nutritious extra calories to their diet by having protein shakes as extra meals.
- When you are shifting to a gluten-free, dairy-free diet. There is often a learning curve when we change our diet. Using protein shakes can give you more meal options as you transition to a new way of eating. Shakes can also be a great way to address the underlying cause of food sensitivities, leaky gut.
- When you’re on the go. When you are on the road, rushing out the door, or at work, it’s easy to resort to fast foods or high-calorie snacks when you’re hungry. A well-prepared protein smoothie is a quick way to get a balanced, nutritious meal when you simply don’t have time to cook.
- To increase your overall nutrition. Our bodies get their nutrients from three things: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. These three building blocks are engaged in a continual balancing act: If our intake in one goes down, another must go up. For example, if you want to decrease your carbs (to help with elevated blood sugar levels), you will need to increase your intake of protein and/or fat. Sometimes, our modern lifestyles prevent us from eating as well as we should. To counter this, a single 8-ounce drink can be packed with nutrient-dense fruits, veggies, greens, oils, nuts, seeds and protein.
I also find that many people who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet often don’t get enough protein, and tend to consume a disproportionate number of carbs. If this is you, adding a plant-based protein shake can be very helpful in balancing your intake.
How Many Grams of Protein Do You Need?
Our bodies utilize protein in a variety of ways. It is used in the production of neurotransmitters that influence our mood and mental focus, and it helps provide energy. But while sufficient protein is crucial to our health, ingesting an excess of protein can put strain on our kidneys, as it forces them to work extra hard to process it. Like anything else in the body, you need just enough protein, but not too much.
The best way to know how much protein your body needs is to use this simple equation:
- Write down your weight in pounds.
- Divide that number by 2.2.
- Then, multiply that figure by 0.8 (if you don’t exercise regularly) or 1.4 (if you do exercise regularly).
- The answer will be the minimum number of grams of protein your body needs per day.
For example, a woman who weighs 140 pounds and does not exercise would calculate her protein needs like this:
140 / 2.2 = 63.6
63.6 x 0.8 = 50.9
If we round up 50.9 to the nearest whole number, we see she would need a minimum of 51 grams of protein per day to give her body what it needs to stay healthy. An active person would need to add more protein. Using the same formula, a person who weighs 140 pounds and exercises 30-45 minutes, 3 to 4 times per week, should eat 115 grams of protein per day. You would spread that total amount of protein throughout a day, in smaller meals or shakes.
This formula is just a guide and a starting point to give you a sense of your general protein needs. Your optimal intake will also be influenced by your body’s ability to digest and metabolize proteins. In addition, it is important to remember that professional athletes, children, teenagers, and pregnant or breastfeeding women need significantly more than this minimum amount of protein. You can read more about protein and protein sources in an article I wrote sometime back about the paleo diet.
The Many Different Types of Protein Powders
A protein powder can be made from any number of different sources, including:
- Pumpkin seed
Whey, which is from dairy (cow milk), and soy are two of the most common. Unfortunately, these are also two of the most common food sensitivity triggers. In people who are sensitive, the body can have an immune response to these ingredients (especially when leaky gut is present), increasing inflammation. In turn, this inflammation can cause many negative symptoms, such as sinus congestion, joint pains, fatigue, weight gain, and an increased vulnerability to infections.
Luckily, there are alternatives to whey and soy, including pea, rice, and hemp protein powder. All of these can be a great resource for people who have food sensitivities and reactions, as well as for people who prefer plant-based proteins.
It is important to bear in mind that the carbohydrate portion of these plants is NOT included in the powder – only the protein. So, if you are on a special diet (such as a low-FODMAP diet for IBS) where you need to avoid peas, a pea-sourced protein powder would still be suitable, as the protein itself will not trigger your symptoms.
Some protein powders contain combinations of protein. I have seen one, for example, that blends pea, rice, and hemp together. Combination powders can be a nice option for variety, but they can also be overwhelming to your digestive system if you are currently under digestive distress or if you have more severe leaky gut. Be sure to consider this before deciding to go with a combination powder.
No matter which powder you try, take care to notice how you feel after eating it – not just hours but days after. That way, you can identify whether the powder is right for your body. There are so many options available, so keep looking until you find the perfect fit for your needs.
Hidden Ingredients in Protein Powders
Some powders contain protein as the only ingredient. This can be very useful if you have severe IBS, leaky gut, and/or histamine intolerance, because it’s important to keep your diet simple, so you don’t accidentally trigger your symptoms. Unfortunately, most protein powders (especially those marketed as “shakes” or “smoothie” mixes) can contain anywhere from 3 to 30 ingredients! That’s why it’s essential to read the label carefully before choosing.
The ingredient I watch out for most is sugar. I strongly recommend choosing a protein shake without any kind of added sugar (including cane sugar and fructose), as it can negate the health benefits of your otherwise nutritious shake. Honey and agave both contain fructose, which is okay in small amounts, but for people with fructose intolerance, they could cause digestive upset. Stevia, on the other hand, is okay as a sweetener, as it is an herb and doesn’t negatively affect your blood sugar levels.
The next thing to watch for are other ingredients you might react to, such as added fiber. Fibers can be a really good thing (so good that I’m going to write a whole article about them soon), but they can also be hard on your digestion if you have issues with bloating and/or if you need to avoid FODMAPs. If this is you, you may need to address your digestive issues before adding fiber to your diet. When you do start to introduce fiber, you will have more control if you add your preferred fiber to your shake, rather than using a protein powder that may contain multiple fibers that might not be right for you.
It can be nice to have powdered greens in a shake, but again, for people with IBS or other digestive issues, it might be too much, too soon. I also tend to be very cautious with barley grass and wheat grass when working with people who have Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. Even though these greens are considered “gluten-free,” I find that many patients react negatively to them. So, again, sometimes less is more.
Some protein shakes will contain additional nutrients, like a multivitamin. The protein powder I carry in my online shop, for example, has many vitamins and minerals, which enables you to get your protein and multivitamin all in one shake. It can also be valuable if you are on a restrictive diet, or if you tend not to eat as well as you should.
If you decide use such a fortified powder, be sure to calculate the nutrient amounts carefully (in milligrams, not percentages), so you don’t exceed the desired daily dosage in combination with your other supplements*. That said, don’t get too hung up on “RDA” (recommended daily allowance). As a naturopathic doctor and clinical nutrition specialist, I like to help my patients determine what dosage works best for them.
One hidden ingredient you absolutely MUST watch out for is folic acid. If your protein shake powder has folic acid on its list of ingredients, throw it out! While folate (the active methyl-folate form) is a vital nutrient, folic acid is a synthetic form of the nutrient that cannot be used by over 50% of the population (those of us with an MTHFR mutation). Whenever I see folic acid on a list of ingredients, it tells me the company is not paying attention to details.
Other potential ingredients can include herbs and additional nutrients that help decrease inflammation and assist with liver detoxification. These can be great if you have these health goals, but be sure to work with a naturopathic doctor to help you choose the best option before using healing herbs.
Flavors can be okay in a shake if they are naturally-derived, such as vanilla or cocoa powder. If, however, you have severe leaky gut and/or histamine intolerance, be sure to choose a powder without any flavor. That’s the most important rule of thumb for healing leaky gut: Keep it simple, especially when you are just starting out. If you wish, you can add your own natural flavoring, as this will give you control over the quantity.
Lastly, watch out for any other non-essential ingredients, such as coloring, fillers, artificial sweeteners, gums, preservatives, or anything that looks like a chemical. There are so many good powders and shakes on the market that don’t contain these unwanted substances, so there is no reason to use ones that do.
Protein Shake Recipes: What to Add to Your Shakes and Smoothies
Once you have your protein powder, you’ll probably be keen to make a shake or smoothie right away. With some powders, you only need to add liquid and stir it with a spoon (or shake it in a bottle). Other powders require a blender to make a nice, smooth liquid. I like to use blenders (sometimes called “smoothie makers”) where the blender cup is also a drinking cup. Then, after I’ve had my smoothie, I put the blender cup in the dishwasher and it is ready to be used again. If you need to buy a new blender, I recommend looking for one where the cup is “BPA-free” (or even made of glass) to decrease exposure to toxins.
I use filtered water for my shakes and smoothies, but you can choose from many possible liquids. Some people prefer to use a nut-milk instead of cow milk, especially if they need to avoid dairy lactose, and proteins (whey and casein) due to food sensitivities. Just remember that the liquid you use could add unwanted calories to the shake (unless you use water, of course).
Then you can add fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, oils, and ice, and/or many other possibilities. The sky is the limit! Be as creative as you like to find your favorite ingredients. What you choose really depends on what you want to get from your protein shake:
- Adding fruits, greens, and veggies can help you optimize your intake of antioxidants. I like to add berries in the form of a liquid concentrate called ProBerry.
- Adding coconut oil, MCT or XCT oil, flaxseed oil, nut butter or avocado can help you increase your intake of healthy fats, which are very important for healthy skin, hormones, metabolism, and memory. Remember, not all fats are bad!
- Some ingredients will improve the texture. Ice, cashew butter, or avocado can thicken a shake, for example.
- Some ingredients help add flavor to your shake. Try adding a spoonful of peanut butter, a few slices of banana, or a handful of frozen berries or other frozen fruit (like pineapple and mango).
- Your preferred fiber. One of my favorites is arabinogalactan because it feeds healthy bacteria without feeding unwanted bacteria, and is least likely to cause bloating or bowel changes. Ground flaxseeds and chia seeds are also great fiber choices.
- Added powders for healing leaky gut or your health goals. For healing leaky gut you may want to add glutamine powder alone, or in combination with herbs that heal leaky gut, such as Leaky Gut Support. Collagen powder is another potential addition if you are looking to improve joint health, as well as hair, skin and nails.
Below are two of my favorite protein shake recipes. Just mix all the ingredients in a blender for 30-45 seconds and enjoy!
Protein Powder Recipe #1: Dr. Doni’s Simple Protein Shake
This fruity protein shake is easy to make and brimming with flavor, vitamins, antioxidants and healthy fats.
- 1 scoop Doni’s Pea Protein Nutritional Shake
- ¼ avocado, cut up in pieces (alternatively, use 1 tablespoon nut butter)
- ¼ cup frozen berries (I like blackberries and blueberries)
- 6 ounces filtered water or nut milk
Protein Powder Recipe #2: Dr. Doni’s High-Performance Protein Shake
This shake is my personal “secret weapon.” In addition to the protein boost, it’s super rich in fiber, healthy fats and antioxidants, as well as collagen for healthy joints and overall vitality. Also, the extra boost of XCT oil is great for energy and brain power.
- 1 scoop Doni’s Pea Protein Nutritional Shake
- 1 teaspoon collagen powder
- 1 teaspoon ARA6
- 1 teaspoon flaxseed oil
- 1 teaspoon ProBerry
- 1 tablespoon XCT oil
- 4 ounces filtered water
You can find all the ingredients for my high-performance shake here (at 10% off).
My Recommended Protein Powder
I believe using a high-quality protein powder can help many people improve their nutrition and achieve a healthy balance between carbs, fats and proteins. That’s why I carry a variety of protein powders in my online shop. You can check out all the protein powders we carry by clicking here.
Of all the choices, I personally feel pea protein powder has many advantages over other choices. It blends easily in liquids and provides a nice, creamy texture. It tastes good, and it is less likely to trigger food sensitivities, allergies or other intolerances. That’s why I chose pea protein when I developed my own brand of protein powder:
It comes in three natural flavors (chocolate, vanilla and berry) and is sweetened with Stevia. It is free from wheat, yeast, gluten, sugar, soy, eggs, dairy, and artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.
Sometimes when you’re just starting out on a healing regime for leaky gut or another digestive issue, it can feel like you can’t eat anything without feeling worse afterwards. That’s why I often recommend my protein shake to patients with digestive problems, as it can help ensure they get their necessary protein and nutrients, without triggering an immune response (in most cases).
As everyone has different tastes, I offer free samples of my protein shake, so you can try it out before buying a whole container. You can get your free sample here:
It’s important to remember that everyone’s dietary needs are different, and there is no “one size fits all” answer to protein powders. Whichever protein powder or shake combination you choose, be sure to use only ONE product at a time, to see whether it agrees with you. If you decide to switch products, wait a few days in between them. And ALWAYS make an appointment with a naturopathic doctor if you find you feel WORSE after using it. If possible, bring the product with you to your appointment, as it may help your doctor determine what is triggering your symptoms.
I hope this article has given you a better understanding of protein and protein powders. If you have any comments or questions about protein powders (including the ones we offer in our shop), feel free to leave a comment below, or drop me a line via the contact form on this site.
And if you suffer with leaky gut, digestive issues, or food sensitivities, you may also wish to check out my 6-month Leaky Gut and Digestive Solutions Program.
21st February 2017
*Please keep in mind that any and all supplements—nutrients, herbs, enzymes, or other—should be used with caution. My recommendation is that you seek the care of a naturopathic doctor (with a doctorate degree from a federally-accredited program) and that you have a primary care physician or practitioner whom you can contact to help you with individual dosing and protocols. If you ever experience negative symptoms after taking a product, stop taking it immediately and contact your doctor right away.