The Paleo diet is focused on eating real food that has gone through as little processing as possible. Those following the lifestyle do their best to avoid chemicals, additives, preservatives, refined sugar, hydrogenated oils and highly processed foods.
Protein powder is not a naturally occurring food. In order to extract protein from the real foods that contain them, the product would be required to go through a certain amount of processing. That protein is often then combined with a few (or more) other ingredients in order to make the powder which you use in your blender for your daily smoothie. Clearly, egg white protein powder is not the same as the egg white in your frittata; the whey protein powder is not the same as eating a piece of beef or fish; and the hemp or pea protein powder are not the same as eating fresh garden peas or munching on hemp seeds.
Although not in its whole form, it is important to look at these products in context. Bottles of olive oil don’t grow on trees; someone actually has to extract the oil out of the fruit before it ends up in your salad dressing. Coconut flour or date paste also go through a certain amount of processing before they can be packaged for purchase and consumption.
Protein powders, like many other processed products you are able to safely consume when following a Paleo diet, are not created equal. When determining whether you should add protein powder to diet and which type you should choose, there are a few factors to consider.
I am in no way advocating for all or even the majority of the protein in your diet coming from protein powder. It’s always a good rule of thumb to get the largest amount of your nutrients as possible from real, whole foods.
There may, however, be some circumstances where protein powder can be beneficial.
- If you are an athlete, or someone who is extremely active, protein powder is an easy way to quickly get protein to your muscles to help the recovery and rebuilding process.
- Modern life gets busy. Sometimes it is simply not feasible to sit down and eat each meal every day. If you are on the go, protein powder can come in handy – blended up with greens, some non-dairy milk, maybe some fruit and a little nut butter and you have an on-the-go meal that is nutrient dense, protein-packed, and very portable.
- A well-formulated, high quality powder added to a shake or smoothie may provide much needed protein for those having challenges chewing and swallowing.
- There might be an occasion where you want a protein rich breakfast (as you should) but you need a break from eggs, meat or seafood. Having a protein smoothie or some protein pancakes might be a good choice.
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Whatever your reason is for consuming it, protein powder can be considered Paleo-friendly, when the circumstance calls for it and when chosen wisely and diligently.
Types Of Protein Powder
There are many options for the sourcing of your protein powder, including whey, casein, egg white, soy, hemp, pea, and brown rice. Some are more paleo friendly than others which will impact your options along with your personal framework, health, sensitivities and wallet. The source of the protein in the powder, however, is often not the ingredient you should be concerned with the most.
When choosing protein powder, make sure to read the labels to make sure that the powder contains natural ingredients, no added sugar (safer sweeteners like stevia can be acceptable if you choose to consume them) and no strange chemically sounding additives, preservatives or flavorings. Do a little research on anything you may be unsure about and consider emailing the company to find out more about the ingredients or the processes involved in manufacturing the product. You might also consider the sources of the ingredients (e.g. organic, GMO, fair-trade, local) and even how sustainable the packaging is.
The most popular protein sources include:
Whey protein is a mixture of globular proteins isolated from whey, the liquid created as a by-product of cheesemaking. After milk has been curdled and strained, a semi-white watery liquid remains. This liquid is made up of proteins that contain all essential amino acids.
Whey contains traces of lactose (sugar in the milk) and can be problematic for people who are intolerant to it. Casein (another protein in the milk) that some people are sensitive to is almost entirely absent in whey as casein is what whey separates from during the curdling process of the cheesemaking.
Whey protein can be concentrate (less processed but with less protein percentage), isolate (higher protein percentage and less traces of dairy), or a higher priced hydrolysate (pre-digested and more easily absorbed).
Due to the fact that whey is derived from dairy, it is technically not paleo but does provide a good source of protein for those who can tolerate small amounts of lactose. Choose whey isolate if you can afford it due to its lower in lactose content, and if not, opt for concentrate.
When it comes specifically to the protein, there are no significant benefits from choosing a whey sourced from grass-fed cows, however, living a Paleo lifestyle means ensuring your food source has been well taken care of and is sustainable raised for both the benefit of the animal and the environment.
Casein is the other protein derived from milk. It is absorbed slower than whey, supplying amino acids to the muscle over a prolonged period of time making it a popular protein with body-builders, who often take it before bed. Casein is more problematic than whey for those with dairy allergies or autoimmune conditions. Some believe that combining both casein and whey is the optimal way to consume protein, which is why milk (which contains both) is so popular in body-building. This is a less Paleo friendly option than whey.
Egg white protein is another great source of protein containing all essential amino acids. Albumin (the protein found in egg whites) is naturally lactose free making it suitable for those avoiding dairy. If produced purely from egg whites it may, suite those following an autoimmune protocol, however egg whites can also be allergenic so proceed with caution. Egg white protein is highly bioavailable, low carb and contains about 24 grams of protein per 30 gram scoop. Look for egg white protein from free range eggs and avoid whole egg protein to avoid any oxidised yolk cholesterol. Look for egg white protein from pastured chickens raised without hormones, steroids and antibiotics. This is a Paleo friendly choice.
Generally, plant-based protein powders are slightly lower in protein that the animal-derived sources and are not as efficiently absorbed by the body. Individual plant derived protein powders might not contain all essential amino acids (except for hemp), that’s why you will often see them combined in a powder blend. However, they can be an alternative for those avoiding dairy and/or eggs.
You will typically find protein powders derived from pea, rice, hemp, quinoa or soy on the market. These are all forms of legumes, grains, seeds and pseudo-grains. While the Paleo diet shuns the consumption of most grains and legumes due to the toxic antinutrients they contain (phytates, lectins, saponins, and trypsin inhibitors), there are a few caveats.
Legumes from edible pods like green peas and green beans are generally accepted as part of a Paleo protocol as they contain lower concentrations and fewer toxic antinutrients than other grains or mature legumes. Any present toxins are also less stable in young pods and are typically deactivated or negated during the cooking process.
Soaking and sprouting legumes and grains before cooking also helps to reduce the amounts of above mentioned antinutrients, and increases the bioavailability of beneficial nutrients. Fermentation is even more effective in deactivating toxins and improving the digestibility of these foods.
Pea or hemp protein, or protein powders from grains and legumes that have been soaked, sprouted or fermented are probably your best options. Soy protein is best avoided entirely. If you are looking for 100% pure Paleo ingredients, then stick to eggs and meat, but if you feel you need one and are unable to tolerate other protein powders, then a good blend of proteins from quality sources, preferably pre-soaked, sprouted or fermented grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes might be your ticket!
Protein powders on a paleo diet are a matter of choice, there are a number of more Paleo friendly alternatives available or you might just adjust and personalize ‘your’ Paleo diet to allow for protein powders. Eating real food, from real sources should always be your priority, but it may not be an option all of the time. Supplementing with protein powder can be an extremely easy and convenient source of protein to aid in your nutrition and fitness goals and there is little point in restricting yourself from consuming something that will aid in your goals simply because it does not conform to a strict Paleo philosophy. You need to work out what is best for you.