Do you really need a protein powder to increase your muscle mass and strength?
The research is very clear (from 32 different studies): if you happen to strength train at all; you'll gain significantly more muscle mass and strength if you take a protein powder. (1)
You might be wondering, what kind of protein powder should you take? Whey protein, casein protein, veggie protein, or beef protein powder?
Unless you're a vegan or vegetarian, (in which case you should definitely consider a veggie protein), I highly recommend a whey protein for everyone else for two reasons.
Reason 1: It's cheap!
Whey protein is by far the cheapest protein powder out of all protein powder. It can even be money-saving compared to expensive protein sources like fish, steak, and wild-caught sources of protein.
Reason 2: It ramps up muscle building big-time!
Whey protein increases protein synthesis probably more than any other protein.
I'll be honest with you, I don't like promoting certain brands of supplements. However, my clients sometimes ask me, "What brand do you recommend?"
My official recommendation right now comes from consumerlab.com which is a great resource and independently tests for claimed ingredients and contaminants in supplements. Their top picks for supplements always have three qualifications:
1. It's the most economical or cheapest.
2. It has what it say it has.
3. It doesn't have heavy metals like lead or cadmium.
Their top pick is: EAS 100% Whey Protein
I definitely like the chocolate flavor, but I do not like the vanilla flavor. Most people I know like the chocolate too.
I have to level with you. Most protein powders do contain the claimed ingredients and do not have contaminants. This begs the question, "what should you look for in a basic protein powder? "
Fat: It should have 3 grams or less of fat.
Carbohydrates: It should have 5 grams or less of carbohydrates.
Protein: It should have 18 grams or more of protein in a serving.
(Please note this only applies to non-veggie protein powders.)
Remember that really cool research I mentioned above which showed that muscle mass and strength is significantly increased if you take a protein powder? Do you want to know the real reason why those individuals in those studies gained more strength and muscle mass?
They simply got in more protein. That's why you should ask yourself, "Do I really need a protein powder?" Let's answer that. The guidelines I'll give are the litmus test to see if a protein powder will actually help you out.
If you're maintaining your weight, or gaining weight, and you're getting in less than 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight, you could benefit by using a protein powder. (2) Let's break that last sentence down.
Take your bodyweight (i.e. 200 pounds). Multiply it by 0.9. 200 x 0.9 = 180. If I'm getting in less than 180 grams of protein per day, I can use a protein powder.
If you're getting in 180 grams of protein per day or more, you don't need a protein powder (unless you want to save your jaw muscles a lot of work by chewing on so much damn protein).
By the way, getting in this much protein and a lot more is completely safe. (3) Unless you have kidney disease, don't worry about it.
However, let's assume that I'm getting in 140 grams of protein from my regular food sources which includes chicken, beef, cottage cheese, etc. I could then take 40 grams of a protein powder which would help me reach 180 grams (since 140 plus 40 equals 180) which is my ceiling for how much protein is useful to my body.
But, what if I'm dieting or dropping weight?
This is a little different, but basically the same. You should get in 1 gram per pound of body weight. (4) If I weight 200 pounds, that's how many grams of protein I can use, 200 grams. If you weight 150 pounds, get in 150 grams of protein per day.
If you're dieting and not even close to 1 gram per pound of body weight, you'll definitely benefit by taking a protein supplement. Remember that it's usually much more appealing to lose fat mass since it occupies more space than the equivalent weight of muscle mass. The more protein you take, the most muscle mass you will hold onto.
Does it matter when you take your protein powder?
Nope. We used to believe that timing was everything, but research is not showing us that it comes down to how much total protein in a day which is the real key. (5)
Before I sign off, I have a real pet peeve that I want to share with you. I see a lot of people mixing in milk, soy milk, guacamole, peanut butter, almond butter, seeds, nuts, and whatever other high-calorie stuff (even if it's healthy) into their protein powder. This is okay if you're 130 pounds and skinny as I was growing up.
However, mixing in all this stuff makes the pure protein powder a meal replacement. If you're not replacing this as your breakfast or lunch, don't add in the extra stuff. If you're trying to lose weight, ditch the extraneous ingredients, and use water.
A protein powder can benefit most people. Protein powders are economical and help you build more muscle or preserve it and help you lose more fat. It'll also help you gain more strength. If you do take a protein powder, I highly recommend using minimal ingredients.
1. Pasiakos SM, McLellan TM, Lieberman HR. The effects of protein supplements on muscle mass, strength, and aerobic and anaerobic power in healthy adults: a systematic review. Sports Med. 2015 Jan;45(1):111-31. doi: 10.1007/s40279-014-0242-2. Review. PubMed PMID: 25169440.
2. Campbell B, Kreider RB, Ziegenfuss T, La Bounty P, Roberts M, Burke D, Landis J, Lopez H, Antonio J. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2007 Sep 26;4:8. PubMed PMID: 17908291; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2117006.
3. Schwingshackl L, Hoffmann G. Comparison of high vs. normal/low protein diets on renal function in subjects without chronic kidney disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2014 May 22;9(5):e97656. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0097656. eCollection 2014. Review. PubMed PMID: 24852037; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4031217.
4. Phillips SM, Van Loon LJ. Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. J Sports Sci. 2011;29 Suppl 1:S29-38. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2011.619204. Review. PubMed PMID: 22150425.
5. Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA, Krieger JW. The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013 Dec 3;10(1):53. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-10-53. PubMed PMID: 24299050; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3879660.