Protein is an important macronutrient for losing weight, building muscle and recovering from tough workouts — and many people don’t get enough. Because protein is viewed as healthy, many companies are marketing packaged desserts, like cookies and muffins, fortified with protein. At home, it’s become trendy to make mug cakes with protein powder.
But before you jump on the bandwagon, here are three important things to keep in mind:
DO YOU NEED EXTRA PROTEIN?
If you find you’re not getting enough protein regularly, then adding protein powder to a smoothie or dessert can help you get in that final dose, says Lauren Antonucci, RDN, a certified specialist in sports dietetics and owner of Nutrition Energy in New York City. But consider looking elsewhere first. The best sources of protein are whole foods, which also contain vital nutrients and vitamins. For example, try adding in Greek yogurt or a hard-boiled egg as a snack.
PROTEIN ISN’T A PANACEA FOR HEALTH
Protein isn’t a free card to eat whatever you want,” says Antonucci. “Just because it has protein in it, it’s still a cookie,” she says. If you look more closely, you’ll see that these packaged protein cookies are somewhat large in size and often contain two servings per cookie, topping them off at more than 400 calories. “If weight loss or maintenance is your goal, eating a higher calorie product because it sounds healthier isn’t the way to go,” says Antonucci. What’s more, it is possible to overdo it on protein and any excess will be stored as fat.
IS DESSERT WHAT YOU REALLY WANT?
“My initial thought about a cookie you’d buy at a vitamin store is this: I’d rather have a real dessert,” says Monique Ryan, a Chicago-based board-certified sports dietitian. The World Health Organization advises capping sugars at 10% of your calories per day, so if you follow a 2,000-calorie diet, that means you could have a 200-calorie dessert. Plus, treating yourself to the real deal means you’re more likely to satisfy a sweet-tooth craving and prevent overeating in the long run, adds Ryan.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Antonucci recommends filling your plate with real, fresh food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. That gives you space for sugar from dessert (especially if you’re not getting hidden sugars from packaged foods throughout the day). Feeling satisfied is a big part of eating well; otherwise, you run the risk of eating a protein cookie you really don’t like, and reaching for snack after snack to try to scratch that craving itch. “Under the guise of eating clean, we can make bad decisions if we take it too far,” she says.
Ultimately, it’s time to check-in with yourself about why protein desserts appeal to you. If it’s out of a restriction mentality, remember this: “Over the thousands of people I’ve seen, those who are the most inclusive of foods do the best long-term. When you put up rules about certain foods you can and cannot eat, you put up barriers that, in the end, make it harder to maintain a healthy diet,” says Antonucci.