In my paleo diet, the answer is “no.”
Like most all guys who do any weight training, I used to do whey protein, because that was what you did if you were a dude who lifted weights. I even kept taking it after going paleo — it was the only real dairy product I consumed on a regular basis.
And then I had one of those self-analysis sessions where you look at your behaviors and see if they line up with your philosophy. Protein powder is heavily processed. I’m going to say no proteins naturally occur in a powdered form. Didn’t at all jive with my definition of “paleo.”
So I cut it out. My digestion improved amazingly; I had less nasty whey gas, and I had to eat little more protein to compensate. I felt no drop off in my musculature, only the ability to train harder because my digestion wasn’t being compromised.
Whey powder can be made from grain-fed cows, and be pasteurized, which means growth factors, amino acids, enzymes and other nutrients are nowhere near levels occurring in raw dairy. In short, many protein powders are just bad sources of protein at best.
The processing has also been linked to the creation of MSG, and there have been heavy metal tainting scares with certain products. At worst, there is an off chance protein powders can hurt your body.
So what if you get quality whey protein powder, made from grass-fed cows and minimally processed and pasteurized. Well for starters, it’s likely to cost you as much or more than a more complete whole protein source. So what’s the point of paying as much money for as good or inferior quality?
Which gets at one of my grounding nutritional philosophies and the reason I don’t supplement at all — why choose a synthesized source over a naturally occurring one?
Which leaves the only remaining argument for protein powder: post work out recovery. If you’re really into work out physiology nerdery, “Nutrient Timing” by John Ivy Ph.D and Robert Portman Ph.D is excellent — although with the caveat of being geared toward body builders. As such I don’t agree with some of the premises and conclusions, although the science itself seem complete and spot on.
Protein synthesis is around three times higher when taking a protein-carb supplement directly after working out compared to three hours later. This is the scientific reason people go to protein shakes. But there are another 45+ hours your body recovers from a weight training workout, right?
This means we’re only talking about a little more than 6% of total recovery time. Makes the post-workout-efficiency argument much weaker, especially when you consider there are way better naturally occurring alternatives, like egg white and sweet potato shakes.
We also have to think about why we focus on this post-workout period. The answer here is again clear: increased muscle mass. Is taking advantage of that small percentage of recovery time to add more muscle really our goal?
There is a reason it is difficult and people use whatever supplements and nutrient timing they can to add excess muscle — it’s not our bodies’ natural state. With the exception of body builders, I feel people should either be training to compete in a sport, or looking to be lean, muscular and healthy. Too often the things we do to get bigger just aren’t healthy.
So my overall take is that protein powders are poorly digested, incomplete sources of protein with poor cost efficiency that have little net effect on post-work-out recovery and can easily be replaced by naturally occurring sources.
But that’s me. We do have some recipes using protein powder in moderation uploaded by friends on the site. And if you are really into protein powders and are indeed getting a quality protein powder and digesting it well, then go for it.
I will also say if you have been taking protein powder for a while, it may be worth it to go off of it for three weeks and see how your body reacts. Like me, you may find you’re better off without it.
So decide for yourself whether protein powder is “paleo” for you, but do so through honest analysis