Do You Need Protein Powder For Muscle Gain?

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Do you need to spend all that money on protein powder? Find out if you really need a protein shake before or after a workout to gain muscle!

Protein powders are a convenient way to get protein into your system fast, especially on a plant-based diet. But do you actually need to spend $30+ on a tub of protein powder for muscle growth? Let’s take a look at protein needs for plant-based athletes and if protein powders fit into their diet.

protein powder

How much protein do you need?

Although protein is most known for its role in muscle building, it’s also a major component of the skin, hair, teeth, nails and organs. Proteins also plays a role in antibodies, messengers, enzymes, transporters and storage.

The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein for most people is 0.8 grams per kilogram (0.36 grams per pound) of body weight per day. That said, research spanning the past 30 years has indicated that athletes engaging in intense training may benefit from ingesting anywhere from 1.2 to 2.0 grams per kilogram (0.45 to 0.9 grams per pound) of body weight per day to maintain muscle mass.

Although each athlete is different, higher intakes are generally recommended for shorter periods of intense training or when cutting calories. A recent meta- analysis found that most athletes benefit from a protein intake around 1.6 grams per kilograms (0.72 grams per pound) per day.

Although protein is crucial, it’s even more important is make sure you take in enough calories each day. If you burn more calories than you consume, your body will start to break down lean muscle for use as fuel. Over time, this may lead to muscle wasting, injuries, illness, and training intolerance

How protein powder compares to whole foods

Protein is in many foods, but many people associate it with meat. But it’s also prevalent in plant-based foods, like beans, legumes, soy foods, nuts, seeds and whole grains.

Protein powders have become a popular option, especially among plant-based athletes, because they offer a large source of convenient protein. Who wouldn’t want to put two scoops of a powder in a glass and add water for 20+ grams of protein?

But one of the problems with protein powders is that most of them are only protein. As compared to whole foods that contain other nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, antioxidant, carbs and fiber, protein powders don’t always offer as much benefit.

For example, many protein powders have about 20 grams of protein per serving. The below graphic shows other plant-based foods that also have 20 grams of protein, and they naturally contain other nutrients.

In other words, you can get the same amount of protein from other whole plant-based foods without spending the extra money on a tub of protein powder.

When protein powder is helpful

There’s no denying that protein powder is super convenient, and many athletes turn to it for that reason. Why spend 30 minutes cooking lentils when you can stir up a protein shake in a flash?

Protein powder also helps athletes who need to consume a ton of calories on any given day. One of my clients is a male, vegan, triathlete, who is 6’4”.  He needs about 4,000 calories per day because of his activity level, and his diet consists of mostly vegetables, potatoes, rice, nuts and peanut butter. Protein shakes help him get the protein and calories he needs to recover from a tough workout.

I recently had a Frances Largeman-Roth on the Greenletes Podcast to chat all about protein powders. We discussed:

Natalie and Frances discuss:

  • who protein powders are right for
  • research on the difference in bioavailability between whey protein powder and plant-based protein powder
  • the different sources of protein powder, like whey, soy, pea, hemp, rice. Is one considered best?
  • what ingredients should people avoid/ look out for in protein powders
  • sweeteners in protein powders 
  • how to use protein powders

If you’re still unsure about whether or not you need a protein powder, listen to this episode to clear up all your confusions.

How plant-based protein powders stack up

If you’re a plant-based athlete and choose to use a protein powder to help with recovery, you may be wondering what type to buy. Not too long ago, the only protein powders you could get were whey and soy.

Now there are so so so many varieties, including these six plant-based proteins. Each one has its own benefits. For example, soy and pea protein have both been studied extensively and have been found to be as effective at stimulating muscle growth as whey. Plus, they contain all of the brached-chain amino acids.

Hemp protein is high in healthy fats, like omega-3 and omega-6, so it may keep you full longer. But hemp protein also has a somewhat grassy taste.

Almond protein has a neutral taste, as well as healthy fats, calcium and potassium. And brown rice protein is also neutral and easy to drink.

Lastly, chocho is new to the plant-based protein space, and it’s rich in vitamins and minerals. But it’s also very sustainable! Do you have a favorite from the list below? Let me know in the comments.


  1. Nutty Nutritionist

    Love this post Natalie! I’m going to direct all my protein shake loving athletes/gym goers to this blog.

  2. nutritioulicious

    Love this Natalie! I’m not a fan of protein shakes made with protein powders either. Love the chart you made too!

    • Nutrition a la Natalie

      Thank you! I love my charts… I’m glad other RDs agree with my protein powder sentiment.

  3. Be Truly Nourished (@TrulyNourished)

    I love this! You did such a good job explaining the benefits of eating whole foods rather than using protein powder. It’s true that some people may need protein shakes, but generally you can get enough and more from food!

    • Nutrition a la Natalie

      Thank you! I wanted people to really see how they can get protein easily from foods. Glad I conveyed that message

  4. Amber @ Homemade Nutrition

    Love the food comparisons and all of the information here!! Excellent post, Natalie! 🙂

  5. Bob

    I am a personal trainer. It amazes me how many people, including other trainers and sports professionals, recommend and use protein powders themselves. Great article. Thanks.

    • Nutrition a la Natalie

      I completely agree, which is why I wrote this article. Thanks for reading!


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I’m Natalie Rizzo, an NYC-based Registered Dietitian.

My mission is to help everyday athletes fuel their fitness with plants.

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