Are Protein Shakes Healthy?

protein_shake_health.jpgHopkins Health Watch Q&A

Q: I have friends who have a protein powder shake for breakfast and they say it’s healthier than a “real breakfast,” an easy way to take vitamins, low-calorie, and that I should try it. The protein comes from soy and I know you and Dr. Lee wrote about “The Dark Side of Soy,” so please share your thoughts on protein shakes.

A: First and foremost, keep in mind that protein powders, whether marketed to body builders, busy mothers, or health food enthusiasts, are highly processed fast food. They are usually a protein powder mixed with a wide variety of nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, sometimes with added bells and whistles such as flaxseed, spirulina and various herbs. What ends up as protein powder started out as soybean, milk or egg, and was then defatted, extracted with chemicals and heated. The final product resembles nothing found in nature. Yes, technically speaking it’s protein, but not as mother nature has ever packaged it.

Protein powders have their place for some people, some of the time, but are no substitute for a healthy breakfast of whole foods. If you need to eat soft foods for awhile, a protein shake might have a place. If  you’re a professional athlete or training for the Olympics, your need for protein may be very high, and a protein shake might be a helpful between-meal snack. If you’re absolutely not going to eat a healthy breakfast or lunch of whole foods, a protein shake may be better than a doughnut or a bag of chips.

If you’re going to use a protein powder, there are a few things to keep in mind. One is that that many health care professionals who recommend protein powders also recommend getting out the blender and adding real foods such as milk, fruit, eggs, various healthy oils or some type of nut butter. If you’re going to go to all that trouble anyway, why not have a piece of sprouted whole grain toast with a nut butter, an egg and a piece of fruit?

Be wary of protein powders that add large quantities of amino acids, as is popular with body builders. As Dr. Russell Blaylock likes to point out, individual amino acids behave very differently in the body than whole proteins, and in excess, some can be toxic to the brain. Dr. Blaylock singles out soy protein isolates, frequently found in protein powders, as being especially villainous when it comes to tweaking the brain.

And yes, whole soy does have anti-nutrients that block the absorption of minerals and proteins, and isoflavones such as genistein that can act like estrogens, but it’s unclear how much if any of these substances are left by the time the protein is extracted from the soybean. Some sources say they are removed during processing, leaving 90 percent protein, and some say these anti-nutrients are also proteins so they are included in the soy protein isolate or soy protein concentrate products.

The other common source of protein in powders is whey, which is a protein extracted from milk. Unless you’re very lactose intolerant, it’s probably safer than soy, but it’s more expensive and eating too much of it can damage your liver.

I know that I frequently go on about the liver, and it is an amazingly strong and resilient organ, but in Western cultures we tend to overwork it, asking it to detoxify every manner of pesticides, plastics, chemical fragrances, toxin-laden cosmetics and lotions, prescription and over-the-counter drugs and alcohol. Like vitamin tablets and capsules, protein powders contain intensely concentrated and isolated nutrients, which puts the liver into overdrive. Concentrated, isolated nutrients also concentrate and isolate impurities and toxins; last summer Consumer Reports found heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and cadmium in protein powders.

Like all highly processed foods, protein powders tend to be loaded with artificial flavors and colors, stabilizers and preservatives. Some even contain artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, corn syrup and hydrogenated oils—I kid you not! Read the label before you buy.

Pregnant women and young children should not use protein powders or meal replacement powders.