Are protein bars and powders damaging to gut health?


The high-protein food trend has become hugely popular with consumers, in recent years, leading to the launch of a whole host of high-protein products. From high-protein yoghurts to high-protein shakes, food and beverage manufacturers have fully embraced the high-protein trend.

โ€œProtein is a major focus for consumers,โ€ said a spokesperson for market insight provider, Innova Market Insights.

But is the high-protein food trend potentially damaging to the other major food trend sweeping the market, gut healthโ€‹?

Are high-protein products damaging to gut health?โ€‹

Recent years has seen the food and beverage market flooded with high-protein products, satisfying growing consumer demand. However, some health professionals believe some protein foods and beverages, such as protein bars and protein shakes, are damaging to gut healthโ€‹. So why is this?

โ€œHandy but harsh on your stomach, protein bars are often packed with isolated fibres and sugars that don’t digest well and instead ferment in your gut to cause bloating, gas, or diarrhoea,โ€ explains Chris Dubberley, a gut health expert from Incontinence Shop. โ€œIngredients like chicory root fibre and maltitol, commonly found in these bars, are notorious for unsettling more sensitive stomachs.โ€

Protein bars, in particular, have been marketed as an energy-boosting snack for before, during or after exercise. But Dubberley says itโ€™s important consumers ensure they choose their protein bar carefully.

โ€œAthletes should be particularly mindful of eating protein bars to avoid digestive issues during exercise. I suggest trying protein bars with whole ingredients and minimal added sugars to help your gut health.โ€

Are protein bars and powders damaging to gut health?ย GettyImages/skynesher

How is the sugar in some protein bars damaging to gut health?โ€‹

Consumption of sugar has been linked to a number of health issues, including weight gain and diabetes. In particular, โ€˜free sugarsโ€™, which are any sugars added into a product rather than naturally occurring in it, are cause for concern.

โ€œFree sugars contribute to the overall energy density of diets and higher intakes of free sugars threaten the nutrient quality of the diet by providing significant energy without specific nutrients, leading to unhealthy weight gain and increased risk of obesity and various noncommunicable diseases,โ€ said a spokesperson for the World Health Organization (WHO).

Furthermore, sugar can have a very specific impact on the gut microbiome.

โ€œSugar consumption causes changes in the gut microbiota that can lead to inflammation and decreased immune-regulatory properties, which can pave the way for more serious health problems such as metabolic disorders and inflammatory bowel diseases,โ€ said Jack McKenna, communications associate of scientific journal publisher, MDPI.

Gut health - Protein shake - GettyImages-Kindamorphic

Are protein bars and powders damaging to gut health?ย GettyImages/Kindamorphic

How is protein powder damaging to gut health?โ€‹

While overconsumption of โ€˜free sugarsโ€™ is generally acknowledged to be detrimental to health, protein powders should be observed in more detail. The reason for this being that the ingredients they contain can vary significantly.

โ€œSome protein powders have little added sugar, and others have a lot (as much as 23 grams per scoop). Some protein powders wind up turning a glass of milk into a drink with more than 1,200 calories,โ€ said a spokesperson for Harvard Medical School.

And, as with protein bars, protein powders can also be detrimental to gut health.

โ€œThe vast majority of protein powders, drinks and bars all have refined sources of protein (protein isolates) along with several food additives such as sweeteners and emulsifiers meaning they are all ultra-processed and may have a negative impact on the gut,โ€ said a spokesperson for The Gut Health Doctor Clinic.

In addition to this, there are concerns that consumers could become reliant on protein powders for their daily protein intake, rather than eating natural foods such as meat, fish, nuts and seeds. This could be damaging to the gut and overall health.

โ€œA varied diet is key to maintaining healthy gut flora, so overloading on protein powder can throw off your gut’s microbial balance. Some protein powders’ added sugars and flavourings might also disturb your blood sugar levels and balance, promoting harmful bacteria growing in your gut,โ€ says Dubberley. โ€œWhile protein is needed for muscle repair, relying too heavily on supplements could lead to a fibre-deficient diet and poor gut health.โ€

On a more positive note, many protein powders do contain vitamins and minerals such as creatine.

โ€œCreatine is like a guardian for your gut cells,โ€ explains Dubberley. โ€œIt provides the energy they need to fend off damage from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), reducing inflammation and bolstering the gut’s defences. This support can mean less discomfort and a healthier gut, keeping the barrier strong and preventing unwanted substances from entering the bloodstream.โ€



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