protein-powder-necessary-build-muscle

Is Protein Powder necessary to Build Muscle or Lose Weight?

I think this is a very legitimate question, as protein powder seems to be all the rage when we are first introduced to the world of fitness. Everybody seems to be consuming it – and there are a ton of different brands.

And I mean a ton, marketed towards highly specific niches; vegan lifters, female lifters, elderly lifters and the list goes on.

But is protein powder actually worth it?

Navigating through this jungle of protein can be confusing. What if you’re a pink haired elderly vegan former spelling competition champion.. lifter?

Well, there’s probably a protein powder brand targeted towards you as well, promising rapid protein synthesis increases and extra spelling capable muscle mass. Maybe healthy hair even.

But how necessary is protein powder, and what are the benefits of this insanely popular supplement for building muscle or losing weight?

What is Protein Powder actually?

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Chocolate is the preferred taste for many, most high selling Protein Powder brands having at least one chocolate variation.

Almost all protein powders contain 9 amino acids which are deemed essential, as they are not naturally synthesized by the body on its own. Now, this doesn’t mean powders are the only way to get them.

Most high-quality protein foods, chicken, lean meats, fish, daily etc. also contain these 9 amino acids.

Now, most industry protein powders usually fall within one of two categories; casein protein or whey protein.

  • Casein is slowly digested, resulting in a lower initial spike of amino acids in the bloodstream, but a longer, more gradual release.
  • Whey is quickly digested, resulting in a big initial spike of amino acids in the bloodstream, with a shorter, more dramatic release.

It is estimated that around 80-90 % of today’s protein powder products are whey protein. Why? Because most food protein sources are rich in the slowly digested casein variant.

The idea behind adding whey supplementation is thus to be able to add a quick influx of amino acids on-demand, like after a hard workout.

How it is made

Whey protein is actually made through a special way of processing fresh milk, as milk is one of the most efficient protein sources available.

In the process, the casein which makes up the majority of the protein content of milk is removed as well as a good deal of fat. With the fat removed, next up in the process is getting rid of the majority of the lactose.

The resulting product is highly concentrated whey protein, which is further refined until the desired concentration is achieved. This concentration can vary quite a bit from product to product.

The amount of fat and carbohydrates (lactose aka milk-sugar) left over in the final product also varies.

How much protein do we need?

As I intend to explore this topic more in-depth, I’ll just provide a quick, rough answer. According to the latest meta-analysis covering 49 studies with 1863 participants, any intake above 1.62 grams/kg/day, or 0.74 grams/lb/day will not result in any further muscle gains.

This equals 130 grams of protein for an 80 kg / 176 lb person. A lot less than ridiculous claims of needing 250+ grams per day, don’t you think?

If you are following a harsh weight loss diet, having a caloric deficit in excess of 600-700+ calories per day, then I suggest upping your intake beyond these numbers, but not by much.

150 grams of protein per day will really fit most peoples needs.

How to use Protein Powder – usual approaches

A few decades ago, I would just have written “Add protein powder scoops to bottle/container with water. Shake it. Consume. That’s it“.

Today, things are a little different – protein powder is being added to everything. There is barely a single good-tasting “sinful” food today, which hasn’t been tarnished by at least one person trying to fit protein into everything.

Okay, tarnished is me being a bit tough. But honestly, while there are good uses for protein powder in some foods, this modern notion that it can be added to EVERYTHING, while still retaining the original foods’ good taste, is just crazy.

Protein by default isn’t exactly tasty. And while I appreciate experimentation, sometimes it’s just not gonna work. Trust me, I have been there.

Had I offered my first batch of high protein low-fat low carb pancakes to other human beings, it would have resulted in a large scale lawsuit, major bodily harm, and possibly both.

Those things were not meant for human consumption…

Anyways, my point is that there are a multitude of ways to use protein powder. The most common way is to drink a shake containing a scoop or two right after your workout.

The rationale behind this is straightforward. You’ve just hammered your muscles during the workout – now they thirst for high-quality amino acids.

What better way to provide those amino acids than with a whey protein shake rich in just that, while also being quickly digested and thus delivering those amino acids rapidly.

But, the biggest question of course is, is it actually worth it from a scientific point of view?

Building Muscle with Protein Powder

Let us begin with the super common scenario I just mentioned – drinking a whey protein powder shake immediately after your workout.

To expand a bit on the reasoning, we need to talk about the “Anabolic Window” hypothesis.  This hypothesis has been around for decades but really rose to prominence during the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Coincidentally (?), the fitness supplementation industry experienced enormous growth during these decades. Selling protein powder on the basis of the Anabolic Window theory was bulletproof.

And the industry is still growing, in fact, almost every niche of the dietary supplement industry is growing.

So, the Anabolic Window hypothesis stipulates that there is some sort of “window of opportunity” lasting approximately 30 or so minutes, opening RIGHT after you finish your workout.

This window represents a physiological state where the ingestion of protein and carbohydrates will be most effective at repairing and adding new muscle tissue, filling up glycogen stores, and speeding up recovery.

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I am so funny…

However, this idea is anything but bulletproof. A major landmark meta-analysis covering a plethora of studies on nutrient/protein timing (aka the Anabolic Window) found that there is little reason to believe this window exists in most scenarios.

Highly esteemed authors Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld notes that;

… evidence-based support for such an “anabolic window of opportunity” is far from definitive. The hypothesis is based largely on the pre-supposition that training is carried out in a fasted state.”

Which makes sense – if you work out fasted, your body has no dietary protein circulating to utilize for muscle tissue repair and growth. Thus, muscle protein breakdown could seemingly be an issue.

Net muscle growth only occurs when muscle protein synthesis, or MPS, exceeds muscle protein breakdown, or MPB.

In this highly specific case, a whey protein powder shake would thus be beneficial to consume post-workout. But what is “post-workout”? Is it right after you finish your last set?

Well, no. Even in a fasted state, this study shows it took more than 3 hours before notable muscle protein breakdown occurred.

But we’re not trying to avoid muscle protein breakdown as much as we’re trying to achieve muscle protein synthesis, so in the case you workout fasted, I recommend consuming a whey protein shake.


For most other people who workout with a decently protein rich meal consumed for upwards of 3 hours prior to their workout, a protein shake will likely not make much of a difference when compared to other high quality protein sources.

Because as this study indicates, the breakdown of muscle protein following a fed-state workout is really very limited.

However, as the authors of the meta analysis also note, if you’ve just completed a workout and it’s been 4-6 hours or more since you have had a meal, post-exercise protein consumption will likely be beneficial.

And while this doesn’t have to be in the form of a whey protein powder shake, it’s fast digestion attributes could lead to superior muscle growth and recovery.

Of course it needs to be mentioned that protein powder is actually cheap when compared to other high quality sources of protein on a gram-to-gram comparison.

And additionally, a protein shake is for most people just a lot more convenient that carrying a Tupperware box of chicken or eggs with you to the gym. Convenience is one of my favorite factors of protein powders.

Summary of Protein Powder muscle building capabilities

So, to summarize the role of consuming a protein powder shake post-workout for muscle growth;

  • If you workout fasted, it can be very beneficial, most people will enter a fasted state after 8-10 hours following a regular sized meal.

  • If you workout in a fed-state (meal with at least 20-30 grams of protein upwards of 3 hours prior to the workout), it will likely be much less beneficial.

  • If it’s been 4-6 hours since you’ve had a meal, and you just finished your workout, it is likely beneficial, as food digestion and nutrient uptake will soon end.

 

That’s basically it – but remember, If you are looking for a cost-effective and convenient way of getting in your protein while on the move – a good quality protein powder is your best bet.

I always end up recommending Optimum Nutrition’s Gold Standard 100 % Whey, as it has just been the established go-to product on the market forever, having nearly 17.000 customer reviews netting a 4.4 out of 5 star rating.

Losing Weight with Protein Powder

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Is protein powder worth it for weight loss goals?

A less commonly explored topic is the effects of protein powder in relation to losing weight. Likely because losing weight isn’t seen as related to building muscle.

It is however VERY related to maintaining muscle mass, which I expand on in-depth in my post Overweight? Lifting weights is crucial to your weight loss journey!

In that aspect, the benefits to protein powders, and your decision on if they are worth it should be based on the same summary I listed above for muscle growth.

But there is an additional benefit to protein powder for weight loss: Their macronutrient profile. By having a high ratio of protein to fat and carbs, many protein powders are quite low in calories.

If your alternative would be even a healthy meal, it’s very likely that to reach eg. 30 grams of protein for that meal, the total calories would be much higher than if you just consumed a shake.

Unless you decide to cut out all fat and carbs and just eat plain chicken breast with veggies (which there is absolutely nothing wrong with!)

Satiety is an important aspect of long-term weight loss

Now an obvious issue here can be satiety. A whey protein shake mixed with water is not exactly the most fulfilling thing to consume, even though protein provides the most satiety of the three macronutrients.

But that is mainly when comparing meals, and we can’t argue that for most people, a watery shake won’t make them feel very full for long.

So for most nutritional scenarios in relation to weight loss, I would honestly steer away from protein powder IF and only IF you intend to use it as a meal replacement tool.

As a tool for getting in more high-quality protein than you otherwise would, I can recommend getting a good quality protein powder. But I will also recommend you take a good look at the nutritional info, as some powders will vary a lot in regards to carbohydrate and fat content.

Personally, I consume protein powder year round, regardless of physical goals. For weight loss phases, I love how it easily enables me to hit protein targets.

After a lot of research, I stumbled upon a pretty unique protein powder for weight loss oriented periods.

It’s this Naked Nutrition Egg White Protein, whereby using egg whites as the protein source for filtering as opposed to milk – they have managed to push the calories down to just 110 for a serving (containing 25 grams of protein)!

Protein Powder side effects

Remember that most protein powder is created by processing milk. This also means that people who are allergic to milk may have issues digesting whey protein.

If that’s the case, an egg white based protein like the one I just recommended, is likely a much better choice.

I will address the biggest side effect rumor first, which is about a link between protein powder/muscle building supplements and testicular cancer.

With the current scientific literature available, then no, there is no reason to fear for increased risk of testicular cancer in relation to protein powder consumption.


On various fitness and bodybuilding forums, you’ll find (in particular) young guys questioning whether frequent protein powder intake can result in acne.

As far I am aware, no direct link has been established, but seeing as studies have suggested a link between milk consumption and acne, the idea is not completely crazy.

This might once again prompt you to look into egg white based protein powder, should you be fighting with acne while insisting on frequent protein powder consumption.

Protein Powder and potential stomach issues

Finally, some people can experience stomach issues when utilizing protein powder as part of their workout and dietary routines. At times, I have experienced a bit of an upset if I have consumed more than one shake on a given day.

Generally, though, I recommend not to do this anyway. Don’t let protein powder become a replacement for several of your meals. I know it can be tempting to some, because of pure convenience.

For more info on potential side-effects – you can read more here.

Alternatives to protein supplementation

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The best alternative to protein powder is lean meats and dairy products.

Now, with side effects being covered, what are the alternatives if you for whatever reason wish to not use protein powder?

Well, regular food. You are not going to miss out if you eat high-quality protein-rich meals throughout your day. The same nutrient timing applies here.

So if you’ve had a fasted workout, make sure you get a good protein rich (25-40 grams) meal in you relatively fast. If you had a workout in a fed-state with a prior protein-rich meal, you don’t have to rush anything.

Having the majority of your protein intake consist of food will most likely improve satiety, especially when dieting.

The roundup – Protein Powder is just fine

Don’t buy into health gurus claiming that protein powder is “unnatural” and does the body bad, instead suggesting you should get all your protein from “natural” sources.

First off, what is a natural source? Most whey protein is literally a bi-product of fresh cow milk or fresh egg whites. Where is the limit between natural and.. unnatural? or perhaps processed is the better antagonist?

Everything in moderation. There is scientifically nothing wrong with consuming protein powder shakes, even daily.

Whether protein powder is a good purchase for you? Well, I hope this post has helped you a bit on making that decision.

Feel free to share this post, as it would help me reach more people, and thank you for reading!

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