How to Use Protein Powder So It Actually Works

By Kate Davis | March 10, 2015, 2:29 p.m. (ET)

protein powderOf all the supplements I see in my office, protein powder is the most common. But like all products, even the best powder can fail if not used correctly. So, what should you do to make sure your powder does what it promises to? Follow these steps.

1. Assess your reason for using it. Are you trying to lose weight? Bulk up? Lean out? Are you a vegetarian or vegan needing to up your daily protein intake for overall health? Figuring out why you think you need a protein powder is an important step before you buy a powder. This is because powders are often formulated for specific reasons, from different protein sources and with different additives. Using a good powder for the wrong reasons makes it the wrong powder.

2. Buy a good product. Once you determine your reasons for buying a powder and that you actually need it (note: often protein powders are unnecessary), buy a good product. Pick a product that is certified as clean and safe. Visit nsf.org, usp.org or informed-choice.org to view certified products. These products are certified to be free of illegal and banned substances and to actually contain what the label says. Whether or not you are an athlete being drug-tested, it is nice to know that you are using a clean product. Also, realize that often companies put a lot of extra "stuff" into protein powders when you really just need protein. More is not better when it comes to the ingredient list.

3. Time it correctly. The best time to incorporate a protein powder is post-workout because this is when liquid calories are most important. Using liquid calories post-workout assures the nutrients get to your muscles fast for efficient recovery. However, many athletes also like to use protein powders in smoothies for breakfast because it is fast and easy. This is the second-best time of day to incorporate protein powder.

4. Don't go overboard. When it comes to protein powders, many athletes believe that more is better. However, I have had athletes put on body fat instead of muscle because they were using protein powders three or four times a day and/or double the dosage recommended. Too much protein intake can just as easily lead to body fat gain as too much fat or carbohydrate intake. Use protein powders no more than once daily to leave room for protein intake from real foods such as meats, poultry, fish, nuts, nut butters, dairy, beans, soy/tofu and legumes. Protein powders should really only be used for convenience; there is nothing magical about protein in powder form and you won't get everything from protein powder that you can get from food protein sources.

Katie Davis MS, RD, CSSD, LDN has a mission to help ordinary athletes become extraordinary competitors by using whole-food based nutrition to improve athletic performance. She is the owner of RDKate Sports Nutrition Consulting, based out of Naperville, Illinois, where she offers expertise in sports nutrition, eating disorders/disordered eating, intuitive eating and weight management for sport. Katie holds a master’s degree in nutrition with an emphasis in exercise physiology. She is both a registered dietitian and one of only 550 RDs in the United States to be board-certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. As a runner, triathlete, snowboarder and rock climber, Katie understands the physical and mental challenges of being a top athlete. Katie has previously consulted with NCAA Division I and Division III, NFL and NBA athletes; she truly brings both her knowledge and experience to the table as sports dietitian. Katie is available for individual consulting, team talks and group seminars. Visit her website at RDKate.com; from there you can navigate to her weekly blog, Eat to Compete, and connect with her on Twitter or Facebook. Contact her directly at YourRDKate@gmail.com. 

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.