Lifters and athletes have been preaching the gospel of protein for decades, and the rest of the world has been catching up in the last few years. Today, it's common to see protein products being sold pretty much everywhere, and to hear everyone from your grandma to your teenage nephew talking about trying to get more of it in their diet.
Here's everything you've been asking us, and everyone else on the internet, about the mightiest of macronutrients. If you're a serious lifter or athlete, are chasing gains or weight loss, or are just trying to eat healthier, this is where the conversation starts!
What Is Protein?
It isn't just part of what's on your plate or in your shaker bottle. It's a major part of who you are, and the same goes for every other living thing.
Proteins have existed on earth for billions of years and are the primary building blocks of most forms of life, from the simplest bacteria to the most sophisticated life forms.
In fact, it isn't really a thing, as much as it is a category of things. There are millions of different types of protein molecules, all containing different combinations of 20 standard amino acids. But proteins are also by far the most complicated molecules in the human body, and can contain anywhere from 50-2,000 amino acids including the essential 20. To date, about 10,000 different proteins have been identified in the human genome. There are thought to be nearly one trillion different variations on earth.
The body of a 154-pound man contains about 24 pounds of protein. Almost half is in the form of skeletal muscle, with another 3-4 pounds in the form of skin and blood. Bone and organs make up the rest.
In nutritional terms, protein is one of the three primary macronutrients our bodies need to survive. It is a "macro" nutrient because, like carbohydrates and fats, we consume a significant amount of it and use it for fuel. We need a comparatively small amount of vitamins and minerals every day, so they are referred to as "micronutrients."
Protein is contained in various combinations and quantities in every food we eat—even vegetables. Unlike all these other macro and micronutrients, your body can't store it, so you have to get it consistently through the foods you eat, and/or the supplements you take.
What Do Our Bodies Use Protein For?
It plays a role in virtually everything that goes on in your body. In your blood, it transports oxygen throughout your body. It builds and repairs tissue (including muscle tissue) and makes enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. It is also a fundamental building block of bones, cartilage, organs, skin, blood, hair, and nails.
The antibodies our bodies use to ward off disease and infection are made of protein, as are the enzymes that read the genetic information in our DNA to make new molecules. Messenger protein molecules transmit signals between cells, tissue, and organs, and transport protein molecules carry atoms and small molecules throughout the body.
What Are The Benefits Of Dietary Protein?
You probably associate high-protein eating with people trying to gain mass. And that's because it works! Diets that are rich in high-protein foods, in combination with resistance training, have been shown repeatedly to help athletes add or retain lean mass.
However, diets that include moderate or high-protein foods have plenty of other advantages. For one, as Jose Antonio, Ph.D., writes in the article "3 Myths about High-Protein Diets Debunked," "It's very difficult to get fat if the only thing you overfeed on is protein."
Most high-protein foods are themselves very low in fat and carbs. Chicken breasts have 2-3 grams of fat per serving, while cottage cheese has only 1-2 grams. Egg whites and fish are virtually fat-free, and in the case of fish, the fats they contain are often healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
High-protein diets can also help you lose unwanted weight. "Not only will this extra protein help you build more lean muscle mass, but it will also diminish your appetite, making you less apt to cave in to cravings," says Jose Antonio, Ph.D. "[It] can help you lose weight because of its ability to act as a potent thermogenic agent. That means your body burns more calories digesting protein foods than it takes to digest an identical amount of carbohydrate and fat."
How Much Protein Do I Need?
The short answer: More than a food label will tell you. Maybe as much as double.
The U.S. government sets the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein, as well as for vitamins, minerals, fiber, fats, and carbohydrates. The RDA starts at a low of around 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight for sedentary adults 18 and over, or about 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. (The RDA for children is higher, at 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.)
This translates into 60 grams per day for a 150-pound person. But that doesn't mean that's the target you should be aiming for. For most active people and athletes, these guidelines are considered by most experts to be too low.
"A majority of researchers have been saying for decades that the RDA is well below where it should be—even too low for non-active people, let alone active people," says Douglas Kalman, Ph.D., RD, the co-founder of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
In Bodybuilding.com's Foundations of Fitness Nutrition Course, Douglas Kalman, Ph.D., recommends a baseline intake of 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight for everyone, or 0.6 grams per pound, for all people. For a 150-pound person, that equates to 90 grams per day.
Of course, getting all of those grams in a single meal would likely leave you with a stomachache. For this reason, our experts recommend spreading them across several meals containing at least 20 grams, and as much as 40 grams. Once you calculate your ideal daily intake, you can work backward to plan out your meals. You can also use our guide to show you what 30 grams of protein foods looks like from common sources.
Do Athletes Need More Protein?
Yes! The amount you consume should definitely go up to match increasing levels of activity.
If you're an active person and not into doing complicated math, Douglas Kalman, Ph.D., recommends aiming for somewhere around 1 gram per pound.
Krissy Kendall, Ph.D., says that 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight is far too low for lifters and pretty much anyone else who exerts themselves regularly.
"Whether you're an endurance runner or a gym rat, you need more than the average amount to support the recovery and repair of your muscles. In fact, studies overwhelmingly suggest that athletes need more than twice the amount than sedentary people," Krissy Kendall, Ph.D., says in the article "How Much Protein Should You Consume Every Day?"
In a position statement, the International Society of Sports Nutrition says an intake of between 1.4-2.0 grams per pound of body weight for active people is "not only safe, but may improve the training adaptations to exercise training." In a joint position statement, the Dietitians of Canada, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend that some athletes can benefit from much as 2.3 grams per kilogram of body weight, or around 1 gram per pound of body weight.
"The more intensely you exercise, the more you should aim for the high end of that range," Kendall says.
Do Men And Women Need The Same Amount Of Protein?
Men often consume much more per day than women, but this is generally due to the fact that men tend to weigh more than women. A 150-pound woman would need to consume the same amount of protein as a 150-pound man, assuming they both had the same physical goals in mind.
Women and men are far more similar than they are different, both genetically and in terms of their nutritional needs. This applies to all other nutrients as well.
Bill Campbell, Ph.D., the director of the Performance & Physique Enhancement Laboratory at the University of South Florida, has studied how varying amounts of protein in the diet influence body composition in resistance-trained women. In the article "How Much Protein to Women Really Need?" he explained that adding an additional 400 or more calories of protein foods to the diets of women who were strength training several times a week had a surprising effect.
Not only did the women gain lean weight, but as Campbell writes, "The women on the higher-protein diet actually lost more body fat than women on the lower-protein diet, even though they consumed more calories!"
That said, women may have different goals and want different things from their protein powder, like lower carbs, extra collagen, and so on. The best protein powders for women are created to address these other nutritional considerations as well.
Do I Need A Protein Supplement?
Some people can get all they need from food alone. But many others find it's expensive, inconvenient, or just uncomfortable to eat that much. That's when it can be helpful to use shakes, powders, and bars to help.
"Consider powders and drinks to be supplements of convenience—and use them that way," Douglas Kalman, Ph.D., recommends. "If a shake after training is the only way you're going to get protein at that time, have the shake. If you're trying to gain weight—or lose weight—and you're in a position where you'd either have a shake or miss a meal entirely, have the shake."
If you're aiming to increase your intake, a shake or smoothie is an easy way to get 25 grams per serving, or more, as a snack or alongside your breakfast. Protein powder also works surprisingly well in many recipes for cooking and baking.
In the past, shakes were something most people associated with bodybuilders or athletes. Today, they're far more common, and everybody from young people to the elderly regularly use them.
How Much Protein Is Too Much?
In the past, some studies concluded that high-protein diets could pose a number of health risks, such as fat gain, potential kidney damage, and even danger to bone health. However, Jose Antonio, Ph.D., says in his video "3 Myths about High Protein Diets Debunked" that all three of these threats have been discredited in more recent research.
However, this isn't necessarily a reason to simply take a "more is better" approach, as some bodybuilders have been known to do.
"There are definitely plenty of people in the strength and bodybuilding community who push their intake well beyond 2 grams per kilogram," explains Douglas Kalman, Ph.D. "Even if it's not hurting anything, it may not be helping enough to justify the expense and possible stomachaches. Plus, past a certain point, each gram you're taking in also means you'll have less room on your plate, and in your stomach, for nutrient-rich plants and other foods."
A simple approach is to first make sure you're getting enough. If you hit 1 gram per pound of body weight and still feel like you could benefit from more, slowly increase it from there.
Protein and Aging
Do You Need More Or Less Protein As You Age?
More. In his article "How to Eat for Maximum Muscle at Any Age," researcher and world-class powerlifter Layne Norton, Ph.D., recommends aiming for these daily standards over the course of your life:
- Under 18 years: 0.6-0.8 grams per pound of body weight
- 19-40 years: 0.8-1.1 grams per pound of body weight
- 41-65 years: 1.1-1.3 grams per pound of body weight
- Over 65 years: 1.3-1.5 grams per pound of body weight
"Even if you don't measure it out to the gram, the lesson here is that as you age, you need more protein," Layne Norton, Ph.D., says.
As we age, our bodies become less efficient at using dietary protein. Over time, this deficiency, or "anabolic resistance" as it is also known, can lead to decreased strength and loss of both lean mass and mobility.
But staying physically active and eating adequate protein foods can help you stay in shape well into your golden years.
A common problem among elderly people is sarcopenia, or loss of muscle tissue. Protein can help reverse this natural process. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association recommends that people over 65 years of age consume a minimum of 1-1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day to maintain and regain lean body mass. The same study recommends that older people continue to regularly perform endurance and resistance-type exercises, and notes that most older people with acute or chronic diseases need even more of the macronutrient each day.
Types of Protein
What Foods Are High In Protein?
The most concentrated forms of dietary protein are animal-based foods like fish, meat, and dairy products. Some of the most popular sources for athletes include lean steak, skinless chicken or turkey breast, tuna, eggs, and cottage cheese or yogurt.
On average, beef steak contains about 23 grams per 3-ounce serving, while the same amount of pork provides 26, and chicken provides about 24. Meat normally contains all nine of the essential amino acids our bodies need to get from food.
Fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds contain significant amounts, but individually usually lack one or more of the nine essential amino acids. Experienced vegans and vegetarians make a practice of combining these incomplete protein sources to form what are known as “complete proteins.”
Bodybuilding.com's article "Simple Guide to Choosing Complementary Proteins" can show you the most common ways to build complete proteins from plant-based sources
However, as long as you eat a diet with a wide range of vegetable sources, you probably don't need to worry about creating complementary proteins at every meal. High-quality vegetarian sources include quinoa, buckwheat, hempseed, chia seed, soy, Ezekiel bread, mycoprotein (Quorn), rice and beans, seitan, spirulina, many grains or nuts, hummus and pita and, last but far from least, the good old peanut butter sandwich. Even green vegetables like broccoli and asparagus offer a decent amount.
Many vegetarians and vegans also use plant-based powders to help ensure they're getting adequate amounts of essential aminos, and protein in general.
What Types Of Protein Powder Are There?
Powders enable people to quickly and easily consume this essential macro, and there are varieties on the market to match almost every dietary preference, food allergy, or flavor inclination.
But as Robert Wildman, Ph.D., RD, co-author of the textbook "Sports and Fitness Nutrition," says in his article "How to Pick the Perfect Protein Powder," "Not all are created equal. There are several protein supplement types to choose from, each with their own unique aspects and potential benefits."
Whey concentrate is the most popular form of protein powder, because it's easy to find, mixes well, and gets absorbed quickly. It is usually between 70-80 percent protein, with the rest of the mass coming from carbs, fats, and moisture. It can also be used before or after exercise and as a protein-rich snack between meals.
Whey isolate has little to no fats and carbs, and is usually around 85 percent protein. It is absorbed very quickly, making it a good choice immediately before and after physical exercise. It is also usually among the lowest-calorie protein powders
Whey hydrolysate is a supplement that has been partially broken down before you drink it. Your body is able to quickly absorb it to immediately start rebuilding damaged muscle tissue.
Casein is a popular choice for a nighttime protein drink because your body absorbs it more slowly than whey. Whereas whey gets absorbed in as little as 20 minutes, casein takes more like 3-4 hours.
Milk protein isolate contains both whey and casein proteins, since both of those are present in milk. It is a common ingredient in ready-to-drink (RTD) proteins, and can help provide your muscles with amino acids both in the short term, and for several hours after you drink it.
Egg protein concentrate is a popular ingredient in blends, because it takes longer than whey protein to digest, but not as long as casein. Many athletes also get their egg protein from liquid egg whites, or of course, eggs! A medium-sized egg contains around 7 grams.
Does Protein Powder Contain Animal Products?
Some contain animal products like milk and eggs, but no actual meat. Others, like beef or chicken isolate, do contain meat derivatives. Plant powders are vegan (no animal products) and made from sources like rice, pea, and soy.
Is Some Protein Powder Dairy Or Lactose-Free?
While most are made from milk, lactose-free proteins have been developed for people who have milk allergies. Some are made from lactose-free dairy. Others are completely dairy-free, like plant proteins and products made from eggs and beef.
If you're looking for a vegan or vegetarian products, there are more options than ever. Some of the most popular plant proteins include:
Soy is unique because it is one of the only complete vegetarian proteins. Soy products are rich in the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) which also help your body recover and rebuild after physical activity. It is also high in glutamine, which helps your body recover after exercise, and arginine, which helps dilate blood vessels to get nutrients to your muscles more quickly.
Pea is an increasingly popular option, usually made from yellow split peas. It does not have the same amount of the three BCAAs as whey, but has a more complete amino acid profile than many other vegetarian options. It is a common ingredient in vegetarian blends, but also popular among people with dairy allergies.
Brown rice isn't a complete protein, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's not worth taking—as long as you take enough. A prominent study found that resistance-trained men who took a hefty 48 grams of rice isolate on training days experienced similar muscle gains to men taking the same amount of whey.
Hemp is an increasingly popular choice because of its high digestibility. Hemp is also higher in fiber than animal-derived powders, which means it can help reduce hunger sensations, and it also contains omega-3 fatty acids.
Blended plant proteins combine different incomplete plant sources to form complete proteins, while also capitalizing on the high amount of nutrients in many plant-based sources. Many high-quality plant powders include the other ingredients listed here, as well as more exotic plants such as buckwheat, amaranth, and all manner of vegetables.
What Is Whey Protein Made Of?
Whey is derived from milk, which actually contains two proteins. Casein makes up approximately 80 percent in milk, and whey makes up the other 20 percent. When milk is turned into cheese, whey is separated from the solid curds and can be found in the liquid that is left behind.
Once separated, the whey goes through several more processing steps to become the product most people recognize. In this final form, it is a relatively tasteless powder that can be added to shakes, bars, or even baked goods. It's a common ingredient in commercial smoothies, bars, cereals, and plenty of other foods, but can also be taken on its own.
Like all proteins, whey is composed of amino acids, which the body can use for growth and tissue repair. But whey's high concentration of BCAAs, especially leucine, set it apart.
Whey is by far the most popular protein supplement because it has been shown to promote muscle growth and fat loss. It is digested and absorbed faster than other sources, in as little as 20 minutes, making it the ideal choice to consume either immediately before or after a workout.
But not all whey is equally great for you. Many are packed with sugars or other ingredients you may not want. You can’t go wrong by choosing from the best whey proteins.
Want to know more? Krissy Kendall, Ph.D., shares all the science behind this staple supplement in the article "Your Expert Guide to Whey Protein."
Are Protein Bars Good For You?
These popular bars certainly can be good for you. They can also be little better than a candy bar. It depends on the ingredients.
Food manufacturers often create products they call "protein bars," but which don't offer much protein, and contain plenty of ingredients you may not want. Choose bars that provide an ample amount of high-quality protein without high amounts of calories, carbohydrates, and fats to help you lose weight, build lean tissue, and control hunger. If the bar has a very poor protein-to-carb ratio, meaning there are far more carbs than protein, you may be paying premium prices for what is basically junk food.
Pick from this list of the best bars to make sure you're not just eating candy bars in disguise. You can also make your own! By using the right ingredients, you can rest assured that the bars you eat are good for you.
- Is Protein Powder Good For You?
- Is Protein Powder Safe For Kids?
- Is Protein Powder Safe During Or After Pregnancy?
- How Do You Make A Protein Shake?
- How Important Is Protein For Breakfast, And What Are Some Good High-Protein Breakfasts?
- What Are The Best High-Protein Recipes?
- When Should I Take Protein Powder?
- Should I Take Protein After Working Out?
- What Is The Best Protein Powder?
Is Protein Powder Good For You?
This is a complicated question. Sure, there are powders on the market that aren't good for you—maybe they're packed with extra sugar, or don't contain as much of their namesake as they claim. But there are also more high-quality products available today than ever before. Especially if you've been consuming a lower-than-optimal amount of protein, the simple addition of an extra shake or two a day could be just the thing to help you see positive changes in your body, your overall fitness level, and your ability to achieve athletic or physique goals.
If you're wondering if a particular powder is good for you, Douglas Kalman, Ph.D., shares his tips for shoppers in the video "3 Top Tips for Picking Protein."
He offers these additional considerations in Bodybuilding.com's Foundations of Fitness Nutrition Course: "First, be wary of crazy claims with any product—especially if it comes from a brand that looks new or, shall we say, amateurish. Many brands now willingly submit their products to third-party tests or purity certifications. If a brand contains one of these seals, it's a good sign that it contains what it says. However, don't simply trust that a store brand from a drugstore chain has followed any sort of third-party testing. These types of supplements have been some of the biggest offenders when it comes containing far less of an ingredient than they claim."
Is Protein Powder Safe For Kids?
Children need lots of protein to grow, but this doesn't mean they necessarily need a supplement. Remember that the 7 grams in an egg, for instance, represents a far higher percentage of body weight for a 35-pound body than for a 150-pound body.
However, as long as a child has a healthy, balanced overall diet, there is no risk in giving them a moderate amount of a high-quality powder. For instance, if you are already making shakes or protein-rich baked goods for yourself, it's safe to share them with your children.
Unfortunately, most of the foods kids snack on are usually high in sugar and simple carbohydrates, which is one reason childhood obesity is such a problem. By creating more balance in their diet and tilting the scales slightly toward a higher protein intake, you'll not only help fuel their physical activities, but also promote a leaner body composition in their formative years.
Is Protein Powder Safe During Or After Pregnancy?
Research has shown that proper protein powder supplementation during pregnancy is not only safe, but can improve fetal growth, increase birth weight and height, and decrease the number of low-weight births.[8,9]
However, because everyone's body is different and the body's protein requirement changes throughout the pregnancy, consultations with a physician are highly recommended.
Once your baby is born, you need extra calories, usually at least 200-500 per day, to maintain milk production. In terms of protein, the USDA's recommended daily allowance for nursing mothers is a minimum of 71 grams, but again, this doesn't take the differences in body types and activity levels into account.
If you decide to start exercising again after your child is born, you may very well benefit from having some supplemental protein, says Sheila Dugan, MD, a consultant on the Bodybuilding.com All Access program Jamie Eason's Post-Pregnancy Fitness Trainer.
"Ideally, you get your macronutrients from real food and whole foods," Dr. Dugan says. "But if you aren't able to, for a variety of reasons, you can supplement with a shake, you can use protein powder in baking, and there are other ways to make sure that you're getting that crucial nutrient."
Of course, safety is an extra concern in the case of nursing mothers, as Dr. Dugan explains. "One idea would be to bring your supplements in with you to the physician to say, 'Hey, I used these before I was pregnant. I'm back working out again. What are the pros and cons of me using them?'"
How Do You Make A Protein Shake?
A few years back, the most important thing to prioritize in a shake recipe was hiding the awful taste of the protein. Not any longer! Today, you can just mix a scoop with water in a shaker bottle, and more often than not, it'll taste great.
But that's not your only option. In the place of water, you could use milk, almond milk, or any other fluid that matches up with your goals. You could also blend it with fruit, nut butters, vegetables, or anything else that will keep your taste buds entertained and your body fueled with the nutrients it needs to stay healthy. Our "50 Best Protein Shake and Smoothie Recipes" give you dozens of options, to match specific goals and situations, like when you're looking for a solid breakfast, to gain or lose weight, or just to add more nutrients and flavor to your life.
How Important Is Protein For Breakfast, And What Are Some Good High-Protein Breakfasts?
There are a number of great reasons to prioritize dietary protein early in the day. For one (or two), "Research has shown that consuming higher-protein breakfasts makes individuals feel fuller throughout the day, all while burning more fat," explains Jacob Wilson, Ph.D., in the article "What Are the Ideal Macros for My Breakfast? "
Wilson suggests having 30-40 grams at breakfast, and prioritizing fat more than carbs with the rest of what's on your plate. That may sound like a lot, but getting it could be as simple as having three whole eggs instead of two, a piece or two of bacon, and some yogurt with low-sugar fruit like berries on the side.
Bacon and eggs not your speed? There are a million ways to prepare a high-protein breakfast, some of which rely on the natural protein content of familiar foods, while others incorporate powders.
A great place to start for those who don't want to slave in the kitchen at the crack of dawn is with the article "3 High-Protein Breakfasts On The Go," by registered dietician Paul Salter, MS, RD.
These quick-and-not-very-dirty dishes all deliver a solid dose and plenty of nutrients in no time flat.
What Are The Best High-Protein Recipes?
That's a huge question. Where do we start? How about with Bodybuilding.com's free recipe database, which contains more than 1,600 delicious recipes. The vast majority of the recipes are for high-protein main courses, breakfasts, lunches, snacks, baked goods, vegetable dishes, desserts, and drinks.
Each recipe includes an ingredient list, instructions, preparation time, number of calories, and the amount of each of the macronutrients per serving.
The best thing about our database? It's got a great blend of crazy-easy recipes, as well as fancier dishes you'd be proud to share with anyone.
When Should I Take Protein Powder?
The post-workout shake is a great ritual of the fit life, but if you're just trying to make sure you're getting all you need each day, there is no specific time to take it. Many people start the day with a shake, or even mix a scoop into their cereal or yogurt. But dietary protein is healthy no matter if you have it at breakfast or dinner—or in between.
However, there is also a case for taking protein before working out, particularly if you're on a low-calorie or low-carb diet.
"Taking it alone before a workout is extremely beneficial during a low-carb diet," explains nutritional consultant Mike Roussell, Ph.D., in the article "Should I Drink Protein Before or After a Workout?" Taken at this time, he says, the supplement "leads to an increase in fat oxidation (fat burning) during high-intensity exercise like interval training or metabolic resistance training."
If you're living the low-carb life, there are even low-carb protein powders specifically made to match up with your dietary preferences.
Don't like having that shake sloshing in your stomach during training? Roussell recommends taking isolated BCAAs instead.
Should I Take Protein After Working Out?
The idea of an "anabolic window," or a small period of time post-workout when protein foods will translate more directly into gains, has been popular among bodybuilders for decades. However, recent research suggests that it's not as short, or as important, as once thought.
"Even if you delay your post-workout meal for a couple of hours, your body is still using the amino acids from your pre-workout meal to stimulate maximal growth and recovery," explains Krissy Kendall, Ph.D., in the article "Is the Anabolic Window Real?" "It certainly doesn't hurt to throw back a shake immediately after your workout, but you can still gain a substantial amount of strength and size even when delaying post-workout nutrition."
However, especially if you tend to train in a fasted state, where you haven't eaten for several hours before training, there's an argument for having that shake as quickly as possible after training.
"If the ritual of having a shake right after exercise helps you remember, then do it!" recommends Douglas Kalman, Ph.D., in Bodybuilding.com's Foundations of Fitness Nutrition Course. "If you can have both a shake and a solid meal in that so-called 'anabolic window,' all the better. By contrast, waiting for several hours doesn't offer any benefits."
What Is The Best Protein Powder?
Instead of asking this hard-to-answer question, consider asking a slightly different one: What is the best protein powder for you?
The best is the one that tastes the best, gives you the amount you're looking for, and helps you reach the goals you've set for yourself. Your goal might be to just add some extra dietary protein to your diet, to bulk up and add mass and strength, or to lose weight. Some products are made with fast-digesting protein for use right after a workout; others use slow-digesting casein to give your body the nutrients it needs while you sleep.
Finding the right protein supplement is a matter of what you want—whey, casein, a blend, or plant-based—the flavors you enjoy the most, the right consistency, and the right price.
Can Protein Powder Help You Build Muscle?
Jim Stoppani, Ph.D., a researcher and the owner and founder of JYM Supplement Science, says that whey powder is as close as it gets to a "required supplement" for anyone looking to build muscle, gain a performance edge, support weight loss, or enhance overall health and wellness.
As he explains in the article "Whey to Transform: Your Expert Guide to the Premiere Muscle-Building Supplement," piles of research suggests whey is incredibly effective at stimulating muscle protein synthesis—the process that ultimately produces bigger and stronger muscles.
Whey is so good for muscle-building because of its rapid rate of digestion. Whey is the fastest-digesting protein powder, and once you consume it, its amino acids rapidly break down and are absorbed into the bloodstream. Your blood then carries these amino acids to tissue, where they can quickly initiate protein synthesis.
Whey also boosts protein synthesis because it's an extremely rich source of BCAAs, the branched-chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Research suggests that the leucine in whey acts much like the key to your car, turning on the powerful engine of protein synthesis.
However, whey is just one option. Any protein with adequate BCAAs—and leucine in particular—will help you boost protein synthesis and build muscle. Here are some of our favorite muscle-building protein powders.
What Is Muscle Protein Synthesis?
Scientifically speaking, protein synthesis is the process by which cells build protein molecules using DNA, RNA, and enzymes. Practically speaking, it's a process during which your body uses the amino acids found in protein to build new muscle.
Over the course of a day, your body fluctuates between two processes: building, also known as protein synthesis or "anabolism," and breakdown, also known as "catabolism."
After taking a protein supplement, there is a short period during which you have elevated amounts of amino acids in your blood. This period, known as hyperaminoacidemia, stimulates greater than normal amounts of muscle protein synthesis.
Hard training is catabolic, in that you inflict damage on your muscles and break them down. But after training, your body almost immediately becomes anabolic and starts healing up that damage. Having a pre-workout or post-workout shake, or a solid meal with adequate carbs and dietary protein around training, helps kick-start this process. The amino acid leucine, which is plentiful in powders and high-protein foods, is fundamental here.
In "Mass Class Nutrition: The Fundamentals of Eating for Growth," researcher Jacob Wilson, Ph.D., outlines a simple plan to get the most protein synthesis possible over the course of a day.
"To maximize the muscle-building response, you need about 3 grams of leucine per serving, and that's actually what the 30-40 grams of dietary protein in your meals gives you. Add in a few BCAA "snacks," either with food, shakes, or supplements, and you're good to go."
How Much Protein Should I Take To Build Muscle?
If you're training hard or looking to get larger, aim for around 1 gram per pound of body weight, or around 2.3 grams per kilogram. No, it doesn't have to be exact, but even if dietary protein is the only thing you measure in your diet, it could be what you need to finally see the serious results you've been wanting.
Remember, lifting weights stimulates muscle synthesis or growth, but it also increases muscle breakdown—so much so that when you exercise in a fasted state, you can break down more muscle than your body is building. Consuming protein foods immediately before or after working out can help you balance breakdown with growth.
Can Protein Powder Help You Lose Weight?
The short answer: yes, but you still have to work.
Krissy Kendall, Ph.D., says this macronutrient is worth prioritizing first in your diet, and should make up at least 30 percent of your total calories when weight loss is the goal.
"Meeting your protein requirements in your diet is especially important when you increase your activity level (through exercise)," she says in the article "How to Lose Weight." "Not only does it help your body build and maintain muscle mass, it may help to facilitate weight loss, and can increase your feelings of fullness. So, while you may associate a protein shake primarily with getting bigger, it can be just as important an ally when weight loss is the goal!"
Dietary protein can also help you lose weight because it has a higher thermic effect than carbohydrates and fat combined. This means your body burns more calories to digest, absorb, and distribute nutrients from protein than with carbs and fats.
That's why the number of calories in your shake doesn't tell the whole story. Boost just this macro first, and you might be surprised by the results you can achieve.
How Much Protein Should I Take To Lose Weight?
The amount that we've advocated throughout this guide, 1.0-1.25 grams per pound of body weight per day, works just as well for weight loss as it does for weight gain. If you're otherwise restricting your calories, it's even more important to make sure you get enough protein!
You can use Bodybuilding.com's calculator to estimate how much protein to consume every day, and the calorie and macronutrient calculator for added information about what your overall diet should look like.
To get maximum body-composition and appetite-management benefits, consume 20-40 grams of high-quality protein every few hours, rather than having just one or two massive meals a day.
What Is The Best Protein Powder For Losing Weight?
Simply getting enough protein is more important than which variety you choose. However, if your dietary preferences allow it, whey is tough to beat.
This fast-digesting protein supplement has been shown to positively impact the hunger hormones in your gut, the appetite control center in your brain, and to have a helpful impact on blood glucose levels, which has a positive impact on appetite and, in turn, on weight loss. Check out our guide to the best protein powders for weight loss for more suggestions.
Reviewed by: Douglas Kalman, Ph.D., R.D. and Susan Hewlings, Ph.D., R.D.
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