What About Protein Powders?

Would You Eat This TV?

I get this question a LOT.  “What protein powder is best?”  It’s like asking me which black and white TV is best – the 12″ or the 15″? Neither – they’re black and white TVs.  And they’re small.  What we all want is a Samsung 65″ 1080p / 240Hz / 3D LED-LCD HDTV, right?  That’s what I want, anyway, and if anyone has $6,000 to spare you can get me that for my birthday next week.  To be perfectly clear, in this analogy the Samsung is real, unadulterated, unprocessed, high quality food.  The black and white TVs, in all their splendid sizes, are protein powders.

Excuse my idealism, but I believe there is enough real food in America that you should be able to find a way to put some veggies, fruit, eggs, nuts, seeds or meat in your mouth, instead of a completely wrecked, processed, food-like powder. I do realize that there are situations when a protein powder is much easier, more affordable and faster than making or buying an entire meal, but in my opinion the better choice is always real, whole food.

Whole foods like raw or lightly cooked veggies, fruits, nuts, eggs and meats have nutrients in them that work synergistically with each other to nourish you in many different ways.  When you process soy, whey, rice, etc. to make protein powders out of them, a lot of their nutrients are stripped away with heat, chemicals and dangerous heavy metals.

Today we’re going to talk about soy protein’s misgivings and merits.  Soy, much less soy protein isolate, is not a part of the Paleo diet.  Never was, never will be.  It’s on the anti Paleo diet.  But I know that some of you Paleo eaters make certain concessions in your life for certain conveniences.  Like soy protein shakes.  This post is for you.

Soy protein comes in several different forms – soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, and sometimes just soy flour.  They are all soy beans processed in some way – some more than others.  No matter what type of soy protein it is, it’s all soy.  You’ll find these products not only in tubs of soy protein powder, but in everything from Odwalla drinks to Clif bars, cookies, soups, cereals, bread – you name it.  Because it’s so ubiquitous, I thought it deserved a post of its own.

There is an UNBELIEVABLE amount of research and contention surrounding soy.  I considered trying to lay it all out there for you, but quite honestly the thought of that made me nauseous and grumpy.  I’m just going to make myself useful by pointing you in the direction of some good sources of info on the topic.

The Bad

Dr. Mercola, alternative medicine’s monger of fear and anxiety, had this to say about soy.  A lot of his information was taken from the Weston A. Price Foundation, which has Sally Fallon at its helm.  Sally Fallon, in a word, hates soy.

Here are some highlights:

1. Soy is very hard on your digestive system.

2. The phytates in soy inhibit your body’s absorption of calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc.

3. Soy contains isoflavones that are phytoestrogens (literally “plant estrogens”), which act like estrogen in your body.  One researcher “estimated that an infant exclusively fed soy formula receives the estrogenic equivalent (based on body weight) of at least five birth control pills per day.” (1) This, they argue, can cause anything from smaller testicles in males to earlier puberty in females.

4. “Soy phytoestrogens are potent anti-thyroid agents that cause hypothyroidism and may cause thyroid cancer.  In infants, consumption of soy formula has been linked to autoimmune thyroid disease.”(2)

If that’s not enough to make you think twice about consuming soy regularly, think about this:  Soy is the second most common food allergen in this country.  I do a lot of food sensitivity blood testing using the LEAP test by Signet Diagnostic Corporation, and almost all of my LEAP clients are sensitive to it.  Not to mention that most of the soy out there is genetically modified. Soy also has one of the highest pesticide contamination levels of any crop.

The Good

To be fair, even though I’m having to force my fingers to type the following, I’ll give you some links to articles on the benefits of soy.  That sounds like an oxymoron to me.  These days, though, there always seems to be at least one caveat to every pro-soy study, like “Soy is good, soy is great, but it MIGHT cause thyroid cancer…” or “You should stop eating meat because soy is better for you, but it MIGHT give your baby C cup breasts by the age of 3…”

Here’s one link at Livestrong.  Here’s one more with a list of references.  The pro soy camp claims that soy has a positive effect on high blood pressure, some cancers and weight loss, among other things.

For every study out there saying good things, there is another study debunking it and vice versa.  There are so many variables, dubious practices and faulty reporting with academic research – I don’t really give half the studies I read much credence.

That’s why I always ask myself, ‘What would our ancestors do?’ Even without the internet, our predecessors somehow magically knew what to do with food.  When soy was first introduced as a food in China about 5,000 years ago, they would have fermented it (miso, tempeh, soy sauce) to make it easier to digest and to lower the phytoestrogen content before they even thought about putting it in their mouths.   It’s known in Asian countries that if you want your husband’s libido to decrease, you feed him a lot of tofu. By the way, soy wasn’t even considered a food in the U.S. until the 1920’s, before which time it was used here for things like painting Fords.

So, if you want protein, please think twice about that Odwalla Super Protein drink or GNC’s super discounted soy protein “Get Ripped” formula.  Try eating whole foods instead.  Meat has lots of protein in it.


  1. This seriously freaks me out because when I had my first daughter, I was a vegetarian. I had a terrible time breast feeding and ended up feeding her exclusively soy formula from about 4 months. At 4 years old I started noticing signs of puberty and at just after 5 years old, she was diagnosed with precocious puberty. I had to have the period talk with my 6 year old. She is currently on injections to prevent her from going into full puberty. She is almost 9 and I have to shave her armpits and we’ve recently bought her training bras.
    Reading your article really clarifies some things for me. I think I inadvertently damaged my child.
    My husband and I have recently started eating paleo, we got rid of all the junk food, bread, pasta, crackers but we’re definitely running into resistance from the kids, especially my daughter. I’m hoping to lead by example, but do you think some of these symptoms might be reduced by eating paleo? She’s very resistant to this diet because she likes bread so much, but we’ve just stopped keeping it in the house. Unfortunately my mother loads her up with carbs (bread, goldfish, pastries, sugar in the form of chocolate etc) and tells me it’s ‘memory building’.
    Anyway, I’m frustrated and I really want to help my daughter, I just need to figure out some meals and snacks that she can take to school.

    1. Hi Nathalie,

      I’m sorry to hear about your situation – your daughter’s condition, your mother’s noncompliance with your wishes, and your daughter’s resistance. I do think the diet might help, although some of her symptoms might be irreversible. It’s hard to say. It’s definitely worth a shot. Try to be firm with your mother and your daughter, telling them this is for her own good. Try it out for a good 6 months and see if her condition changes. If nothing else, get her off the dairy (tons of hormones in there, too), soy and grains to try to remove the hormones and gut destroyers. We definitely specialize in adult meals at Paleo Plan, and they’re of course fine for children, too. If you just put any of these meals in tupperware and send her off to school with them, she’ll be eating solid Paleo lunches. But for more info on kid ideas for food, go to http://www.everydaypaleo.com and buy Sarah Fragoso’s book, Everyday Paleo. Good luck to you!


  2. can we not acknowledge that there are protein powders available made from organic sources that do not involve the use of chemical solvents? For example i just bought Jarrow Brown Rice protien – it’s not genetically modified and the only ingredients are non GMO organic brown rice protein, ultra smooth gum colloid and natural flavor – is this a safe option for someone who can’t get by without a protein shake option?


    1. @Jamie – Yes, we can acknowledge that. We’re actually looking into a whey protein powder that is minimally processed and comes from grass-fed cows that were hugged every day. Well, maybe not every day :) Anyway, I don’t really like the fact that it’s made from rice, since so many people not only have problems with gluten, but also proteins in grains in general. I don’t know what ultra smooth gum colloid is or what the natural flavor was derived from, plus it’s not organic, so no, I don’t think it’s the safest option.

  3. I am trying Dr. Mercola’s whey. Tastes good for whey and supposed to not have undergone heating and processing. It uses luo Han for a slight sweetness. I got it from I herb. Com. It says it’s from grassed cows on the back.

    1. KW – That protein powder is actually not paleo at all, just FYI. Millet, rice, pea protein, and oats are all grains and legumes…

  4. Hi Neely,

    I am very new to Paleo and so wondered if you could please give me your thoughts on the below protein product I have been taking (and enjoy) for a while now. I have read some of your thoughts about whey protein.. The makers of this product say it is compatible with paleo.. I would really appreciate your thoughts.


    Grass Fed Whey Protein Isolate
    Almond Meal
    Sunflower Kernels
    Coconut Flour
    Cocoa (Chocolate flavour only)
    Chia Seeds
    Pepita (Pumpkin seeds)
    Sesame Seeds
    Psyllium Husks
    Inactive Brewers Yeast

    (Information from Suppliers website)

    How Does 180 suit those following the paleo diet?

    • It’s 100% natural and raw
    • High in protein
    • High in fibre
    • Contains all your natural omega 3′s & 6′s
    • It’s free of all processed sugars and sweeteners
    • It’s free of all artificial flavourings/preservatives
    • It Increases metabolism due to it’s high fibre content contributing to weightloss
    • All it’s nutrients are derived from raw natural ingredients
    • The whey isolate protein powder is cold filtered ensuring the highest quality
    • Free of any bulking agents and thickeners

    1. AJA – It looks pretty good, actually. Just make sure you can actually tolerate whey. A lot of people can’t. I always suggest that people take all dairy out of their diet for the first month of Paleo and then add it back in if you want to see how it affects you.

  5. Hello there,
    I’m trying to gain weight and was told that protein shakes in between my paleo meals would help. I went paleo for health reasons but immediately lost 10 lbs on an already ecto frame. Most paleo approved protein powders seem to increase metabolism resulting in weight loss. Any rec’s on a product to help gain weight? Even if it’s not protein powders… Thanks!

    1. Victoria – Check out this article I wrote: http://www.paleoplan.com/2011/03-23/qa-gaining-weight-on-paleo/

      If that’s still not enough, let’s set up a 30-minute chat so we can get to the bottom of your issue. Too much weight loss is nothing to play around with and you may have some underlying issues that need attention. Or you just might need help figuring out how much and what kinds of foods to eat for you in particular.

  6. I am on the edge of trying this diet after eliminating every other common food allergen and still struggling with gut issues literally for the last 10 years. I did not know the connection between legumes and leaky gut :(
    I had heard about the Paleo diet, but never really went in depth to read about it.
    Not really sure why, but mostly followed Hyman and Amen and their principles.
    I have a very hard time with blood sugar regulation,resulting in fatigue, foggy headed feeling and feeling down, even when I eat protein powders.
    I do not eat any processed sugar , only fruits and veggies ,and even mostly low glycemic ones at that,
    although I eat plenty of nuts and seeds and also the legumes. I also eat meat, fish and eggs, but because of the leaky gut and poor digestion, I cant tolerate a lot of meat and have not taste for it.
    I tried Atkins and South Beach at the beginning of my problems but that was a disaster for me, ending up with thyroiditis and more gut issues from all the protein.(low hcl)
    Any ideas?
    I am beginning to wonder if the lectins present in my diet have been contributing to these problems even thought I have been off dairy and wheat and sugar for years.
    How can I regulate blood sugar, or will I just have to get past the first few days and it will balance itself?

    1. Katie Kelley – Most of these questions require long, in-depth answers, and unfortunately I don’t have the time to do that in this forum. If you’d like to set up an appointment with me, I’d be happy to help. I think your issues are definitely workable – I’d just need to get more information from you about what’s going on.

  7. thank you Neely
    I will probably do that, right now trying to read everything I can get into my head I can
    Fascinating stuff!!

  8. hi Neely,

    i have been on the paleo diet for 2 weeks now but have not had any changes in weight loss. I actually have started eating meat again since being vegetarian for 14 years. growing up i have suffered from IBS, very slow digestive system resulting in me throwing up a lot of my food when i was younger, its since stopped but flares up when i eat milk/ice-cream (so i don’t) and when im stressed or anxious. If i don’t eat well it flares up. As a result of my IBS and vegetarian diet in the past I eat very well and am very interested in nutrition. However i cant seem to loose any weight despite running, hot yoga, personal training etc. I am not a heavy person but I am not the size i should be/used to be and feel very frustrated considering how well i eat and the exercise i do…. Any ideas?

  9. Hi I’m new to the paleo diet and I looked up and bought a protein powder that even calls itself “paleo protein”. Here is a link to the product: http://www.vitaminshoppe.com/store/en/browse/sku_detail.jsp?id=WT-1099&sourceType=sc&source=FG&adGroup=40-60&keyword=WT-1099&cm_mmc=Google+Shopping-_-Product+Listing+Ads-_-40-60-_-WT-1099&gclid=CK3WrZXo8bkCFeHm7Aodfz0Axw#.Uki_TT920TI

    I usually take a scoop of protein powder and combine it with a cup of almond milk, 5 almonds, 1 & 1/2 tablespoons of psyllium husk and a banana in a blender every morning after my workout.

  10. A lot of good information on soy here Neely. I do think that as a society we’ve begun to consume much more soy than we ever used to…mostly because it’s promoted as super-healthy – ironic I guess since it can be problematic as you’ve laid out here.

  11. I cannot digest whey and I find meat and eggs gross. I eat meat once a day and any more than that grosses me out. But since i have hypoglycemia i need to increase my protein intake. Tofu is very expensive. That leaves me with soy.

    1. Julie,
      I totally empathize with you about finding “meat and eggs gross.” I was a vegan/vegetarian for many years, and learning to eat meat again was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. However I can tell you that after several months of eating meat 3x/day despite being grossed out by it, that my mentality towards meat and eggs both changed. I don’t remember when it happened exactly, but I went from being grossed out by these foods to craving them, because these foods truly do contain the types of proteins that are our bodies need to thrive. Soy has a lot of detrimental health effects, and it is definitely not a part of the Paleo diet. Weston Price Foundation put together a great resource called Soy Alert that explains the dangers of soy, with links to research. I wish you the best of luck and wholeheartedly encourage you to keep giving meat and eggs a chance!

      In good health,
      Kinsey Jackson, MS, CN
      Paleo Plan

  12. I think that If you have an aversion to all animal products, soy protein is really your best choice. But it’s important to understand that soy protein does carry certain risks. Anyone with thyroid disease or a predisposition to thyroid dysfunction, however, should limit the intake of soy-based protein food, due to its potential to affect hormone balance. Dairy-based proteins like whey and casein are the best choices for their muscle-building benefits as well as their bio-available zinc and iron, if you’re not a vegan or suffer from dairy allergies. Source: http://bodybuilding-wizard.com/soy-protein-supplements/

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