Food and Nutrition

Should You Be Drinking Protein Water? A Registered Dietitian Weighs In

Emily Laurence

Photo: Getty Images/Thomas Barwick
It's human nature to want our foods and drinks to do The Most. It's why we herald foods that cover several nutrient bases at once (like protein- and omega-3-rich eggs or protein- and fiber-filled beans) such healthy wins. So it makes sense that if there was a way to hydrate and meet our protein needs at the same time, it would be worth sipping on, right?

That is certainly the mentality behind the latest crop of protein water drinks that are popping up on grocery store shelves. It's a trend that's been revving up the past several years and doesn't show signs of slowing down. One of the first on the market was Protein20 ($2), which came out in 2013. Since then, brands including Trimino ($2), Dirty Lemon ($6), and Vital Proteins ($4), have all come out with protein water drinks. Most recently, Vita Coco joined the club with their launch of Pwr Lift ($2).

Before you swap your regular old H20 with these protein-infused versions, it's worth getting some nutritional intel from a registered dietitian. Here, Valerie Agyeman, RD, weighs in on the growing trend—and if protein water is something we actually need.

What a registered dietitian thinks of protein water drinks

Of all the nutrients, protein is the one that Americans tend to be obsessed with the most. (Disagree? Take a casual stroll through the aisles of your local GNC and count the number of protein powders, bars, and supplements.) Despite this, Agyeman says the average person actually gets plenty of protein. For the record, that amount is roughly 50 grams if you’re not very active, 75 grams if you’re moderately active, and 100 or more to put on muscle. "If you do consume more than that, it isn't necessarily going to hurt you—unless you have a medical condition you need to be mindful of—but it's also not necessary," Agyeman explains. To find your body's specific protein needs, you can tally it by using this intake calculator.

As the recommended protein requirements show, the more active you are, the more protein you need. This is one reason why many of the protein drinks on the market are geared specifically toward athletes. "If you do a workout and have a protein drink afterwards, that is going to help with hydration and protein needs," Agyeman says, adding that it is important to refuel with water and protein as well as carbs after a workout. "However, you can also meet your protein needs by having a post-workout snack," she says. In fact, getting your protein from food will ensure that you're getting other important nutrients along with it too, such as carbs, fiber, and unsaturated fats.

Some protein waters—specifically ones with collagen protein like Dirty Lemon's collagen water and Vital Proteins—aren't targeted specifically for athletes, often playing up the beauty benefits of collagen instead. "Collagen is a type of protein that the body makes," Agyeman says. "Over time, the amount of collagen we have diminishes, and there is some really interesting research being done on how consuming collagen can help benefit the skin," she says. Still, she emphasizes that while collagen water may be beneficial, it is not necessary.

Whether it's a protein water for athletes or one with collagen for beauty benefits, Agyeman comes to the same conclusion about them: "If you want to drink it, it's not going to hurt anything. But it's also not something you need to drink," she says. She adds that what is most important is to be mindful of your overall protein requirements and make sure you're hitting them in some way, which for most people is through food. If you do think you could be deficient in protein (though it's unlikely), consult with a doctor or dietitian as soon as possible.

If you do want to drink protein water, here's what to be mindful of

Want to give this souped-up water a try? Agyeman says there are a few factors to consider, starting with the type of protein that is being used in your beverage. Besides collagen, whey is the other primary protein that is used in protein water drinks—particularly the ones that are geared toward athletes. Agyeman says that what she likes about whey is that it's a complete protein, which means it has all nine essential amino acids. But she also points out that, for some people, it can be hard to digest, especially people who have a sensitivity to lactose. (Label reading tip: whey isolate is lactose-free, but whey protein has lactose.) So if you're sensitive to dairy and want to try protein water, she says going for one with collagen may be a better bet.

Agyeman also points out that both whey and collagen are not vegan options. While there aren't very many vegan protein waters on the market yet, that's starting to change. Last year, Protein20 came out with one made with pea protein and with plant-based eating taking over the wellness world, you can bet that more options will enter the market soon enough.

Besides the type of protein that's used, Agyeman says it's important to pay attention to the other ingredients, too. "Some are full of added sugars and artificial ingredients that are nutrient-void," she says. While drinks with sugar can be beneficial after a super intense workout—like running double-digit miles—she says for the average workout, you don't need it.

Again, it bears repeating that Agyeman says we don't "need" protein waters; the vast majority of people are hitting their protein requirements just fine with food. But if you want to go for it, she says it certainly won't hurt (unless you have an underlying medical issue to be mindful of). Hydration is important. So is protein. It turns out they just don't need to be combined in the same bottle to meet both needs.

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