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What You Need to Know About Protein Supplements

Adults need more protein as they get older, and many experts say whey powder is the way to go​

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Photo: Peggy Cormary; Styling: Lisa Cherkasy

As we hit middle age, we start to have more difficulty turning the protein we eat into muscle. Adults who don’t engage in regular strength training can lose 4 to 6 pounds of muscle per decade, reports Harvard Medical School.

By exercising regularly and boosting your protein intake throughout the day, you can slow, and even reverse, this process, says Kyle Timmerman, associate professor of kinesiology, nutrition and health at Miami University. “Adequate protein intake helps maintain muscle mass and reduces the risk of falls, fractures, frailty and loss of independence in older adults,” he says. 

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A 2023 study of more than 800 healthy people in their 80s found that among those who are independent and active, “protein intake is associated with a reduced risk of all-cause mortality.”

Most older adults consume 50 to 70 grams per day, says ­Donald Layman, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at ­Urbana-Champaign. That’s not enough. ​“Target getting at least 90 grams per day, to protect muscle and bone health,” he says. The easiest way: protein supplements.

Why powders are best

Though premade protein drinks and bars are more convenient than powders — you just open and consume — they’re generally ultraprocessed foods, often containing plenty of sugar and other additives. 

Some popular brands can have nearly twice as many ingredients when they come as a premade drink instead of as a powder. And bars can have as many grams of sugar as they have protein. A scoop of whey protein powder delivers around 25 grams of protein (depending on the brand) with far fewer additives.

What kind of protein?

The particular powder to look for is whey protein powder, which is derived from milk. One review in the journal Nutrients found that whey appears to be better at stimulating muscle growth in older adults than either plant proteins or casein, another milk-based product.

“Premade liquids are OK options for older people, ” Layman says, “but I would recommend buying whey protein powder and mixing that into milk or yogurts or even oatmeal.” 

You can add flavored whey powder to anything from pancake mix to cookie dough; unflavored whey powder can boost soups, mashed potatoes or scrambled eggs.

Find the right whey

There are two main types of whey: concentrate and isolate. Whey isolate has been stripped of the milk’s lactose and fat, so it’s up to 95 percent pure protein. It’s best for those looking for more protein without more calories, says Gabrielle Lyon, founder of the Institute for Muscle-Centric Medicine and author of Forever Strong. Because the natural ­sugars have been taken out, it’s the best option for those who are lactose intolerant.

“Whey concentrate, on the other hand, is typically more calorie-dense and also contains carbohydrates and fat,” Lyon says, so it’s the best choice for people who are looking to keep their weight up — a common problem for people in their later decades. Regardless of which you choose, “search for a product with the fewest ingredients possible,” Lyon says. Make sure the very first ingredient listed on the label is whey protein.

Supplement — don’t replace

Many stores have “adult nutrition” aisles, where protein supplements are sold as “meal replacements.” But these are ultraprocessed foods and often too low in protein, says Stuart Phillips, director of the Physical Activity Centre of Excellence at McMaster University. 


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Referring to one popular meal replacement drink, Phillips points out, “The number one ingredient on the label is water. Number two is maltodextrin, which is a highly processed starchy powder.”

“I would not recommend them as a true meal replacement,” Lyon agrees.

“My mom asked me about those, and I told her to get some yogurt,” Phillips says. “You’ve got a blender, throw some blueberries in, some yogurt, a little protein powder. That’s all you need.”

Recipes: Ready for a smoothie?

For a quick morning boost of protein, try these simple smoothie recipes, reprinted with permission from AARP’s The Whole Body Reset: Your Weight-Loss Plan for a Flat Belly, Optimum Health, and a Body You'll Love at Midlife and Beyond (Simon & Schuster, 2023).

The Green Like Money Smoothie


  • ½ cup water
  • 2 tablespoons orange juice
  • ½ cup plain low-fat Greek yogurt
  • 1 cup frozen spinach
  • ⅓ cup blueberries (fresh or frozen)
  • ¼ cup fresh kiwi (about 1 kiwi)
  • 2 tablespoons ground flaxseeds
  • 1 scoop vanilla whey protein powder (at least 25 grams of protein per scoop)

Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.

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Pom-Pom Smoothie


  • 1 cup frozen mixed berries
  • ½ cup plain low-fat Greek yogurt
  • ¼ cup pomegranate juice
  • 1 scoop vanilla protein powder
  • 2 tablespoons hemp seeds
  • ⅓ cup ice

Place all the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.

Orange Crush Smoothie 


  • ½ cup water
  • 3 tablespoons orange juice
  • 1 cup plain low-fat Greek yogurt
  • ½ cup frozen peaches
  • ½ banana (fresh or frozen)
  • 2 tablespoons ground flaxseeds
  • 1 scoop vanilla protein powder
  • Handful of ice

Place all the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.

“Dessert for Breakfast” Smoothie


  • ½ cup 1 percent milk
  • ½ cup plain low-fat Greek yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1½ tablespoons peanut butter
  • 1 small fresh or frozen banana
  • 1 tablespoon avocado
  • 2 teaspoons hemp seeds
  • Handful of ice (more based on preference)
  • Dash of ground cinnamon

Place all the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.

Super Immunity Smoothie


  • 1 cup plain vitamin D–fortified kefir
  • ½ medium fresh or frozen banana (for sweetness and creaminess)
  • 1 cup frozen strawberries (or use mango or pineapple instead, or in combination)
  • 1 tablespoon almond butter
  • 1 cup fresh spinach leaves
  • 1 teaspoon chia seeds
  • 1 scoop whey isolate protein powder (you can use plant-based instead)

Place all the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.

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