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If you go to a gym, you’ve probably heard the guys by the weight machines talking about the protein shakes they drink after a workout and what kind of shake they prefer. Protein powders -- made into a shake or consumed however you like -- are getting more and more popular as a nutritional supplement.

You can buy protein powders in every nutrition store and all over the Internet. You can even find pre-mixed, ready-to-drink protein shakes in many stores. But are protein powders just for bodybuilders, or can the average everyday athlete benefit from them as well?

What Are Protein Powders?

Protein powders come in various forms. The three common ones are whey, soy, and casein protein. “Whey is the most commonly used, because it’s a water-soluble milk protein,” says Peter Horvath, PhD, associate professor in the department of exercise and nutrition sciences at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “It’s also a complete protein, so it’s got all those advantages.” (Complete proteins contain all nine of the amino acids necessary for human dietary needs.) People who are vegan may prefer soy protein, although Horvath notes that its taste is sometimes considered to be more unpleasant, and it doesn’t dissolve as well in water.

Protein powders also come with widely varying price tags. “For the casual athlete who doesn’t have a specific need at a certain time of their training, the cost is not that important,” says Horvath. “So if you’re going to use them, you can get pretty much the same benefit out of the less expensive, more commercially available proteins.

In very specific circumstances, protein powders can be useful. “They’re an easy and convenient source of complete, high-quality protein,” says Carole Conn, PhD, RD, CSFD, associate professor of nutrition at the University of New Mexico. But remember: Most people, even athletes, can also get everything they offer by eating sources of lean protein like meat, fish, chicken, and dairy products.

So when might you want to use them? There are a few reasons why an ordinary athlete might want more protein in their diet, says Barbara Lewin, RD, LD, a dietitian and sports nutritionist who has worked with NFL, NBA, and NHL athletes and trained Ironman competitors:

  • When you’re growing. A teenager needs more protein to fuel his workouts because his body is still growing and uses more protein in general.
  • When you’re starting a program. If working out is new to you and you’re trying to build muscle, you’ll require more protein than you normally would.
  • When you’re amping up your workouts. If you normally work out for half an hour a few times a week, but now you’ve decide to train for a half-marathon, your body will need more protein.
  • When you’re recovering from an injury. Athletes with sports injuries frequently need more protein to help them heal.
  • If you’re going vegan. People who pursue a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle eliminate a number of common protein sources from their diet, including meat, chicken, and fish, and sometimes dairy and eggs as well.

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