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 protein in their diet.
Here's everything you've been asking us, and everyone else on the internet, about protein. If you're a serious lifter or athlete, are chasing muscle gains or weight loss, or are just trying to eat healthier, this is where the conversation starts!
What Is Protein?
Protein 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. And once you step away from the nutritional label and look at a microscope, you see that "protein" isn't even a thing, but rather, a category of things.
There are millions of different types of protein molecules, all containing different combinations of 20 standard amino acids, and all having different functions and effects in the body. These are 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 proteins 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. Connective tissue and organs make up the rest of the protein.
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 protein, 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?
Protein plays a role in virtually everything that goes on in your body. Protein in your blood transports oxygen throughout your body. It builds and repairs tissue (including muscle tissue) and makes enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Protein is a fundamental building block of bones, muscle, 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 proteins transmit signals between cells, tissue, and organs, and transport proteins carry atoms and small molecules throughout the body.
What Are The Benefits Of Dietary Protein?
You probably associate high protein intakes with people trying to gain muscle. And that's because it works! High-protein diets, in combination with resistance training and adequate calories, have been shown repeatedly to help athletes add or retain muscle 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."
Many high-protein foods are themselves very low in both 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.
Protein-rich 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 Antonio. "Protein 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 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 for protein is 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 of protein per day for a 150-pound person. But that doesn't mean that's the target you should be aiming for. For active people, athletes, and elderly people, these guidelines are considered by most experts to be too low.
"A majority of researchers have been saying for decades that the protein 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., RD, recommends a baseline intake of 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for everyone, or 0.6 grams per pound. 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 20-30 grams, and as much as 40 grams.
"If you're looking for one protein number to shoot for per meal, make it easy and go for 30 grams," Kalman says. 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 looks like from common foods.
Do Athletes Need More Protein?
Yes! The amount of protein you consume should definitely go up to match increasing levels of activity.
Krissy Kendall, Ph.D., says that 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which is the United States government's recommended daily allowance, is far too low for lifters, athletes, and pretty much anyone who exerts themselves regularly.
"Whether you're an endurance runner or a gym rat, you need more than the average amount of protein to support the recovery and repair of your muscles. In fact, studies overwhelmingly suggest that athletes need more than twice the amount of protein 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 a protein 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 as much as 2.3 grams of protein 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," Krissy Kendall, Ph.D., says. If you're an active person and not into doing complicated math, Douglas Kalman, Ph.D., RD, recommends in Bodybuilding.com's Foundations of Fitness Nutrition Course to aim for somewhere around 1 gram per pound.
Do Men And Women Need The Same Amount Of Protein?
Men may consume much more protein per day than women, but this is generally due to the fact that men tend to weigh more and have more fat-free mass 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 not only to protein, but 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 do Women Really Need?" he explained that adding an additional 400 or more calories of protein—in other words, 100 grams of pure protein—to the diets of women who were strength training several times a week had a surprising effect.
Not only did the women gain muscle, 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 will address not just protein needs but other nutritional considerations.
Do I Need A Protein Supplement?
Some people can get all the protein 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 protein shakes, powders, and bars to help. However, it should be noted that there is no magic to consuming a protein powder, compared to a glass of skim milk or an egg. All three are great sources of protein.
"Consider protein powders and drinks to be supplements of convenience—and use them that way," Douglas Kalman, Ph.D., RD, 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 protein intake, a protein shake or smoothie is an easy way to get 25 grams of protein 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, protein 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 to protein, because past a certain point, it comes at the expense of other nutrients, and may have the effect of diminishing returns.
"Think about your diet as a pie chart: x percent of that pie will be made up of protein, y percent fat, and the remainder carbohydrates. Regardless of the percentages you pick, they will always add up to 100 percent. You can never eat above 100 percent, so increasing one nutrient source will always decrease your intake of another," explains Mike Roussell, Ph.D., in the article "How Much Protein is Too Much?" While that protein may not be hurting anything, it may not be helping enough to justify the added expense and possible stomach aches.
A simple approach is to first make sure you're getting enough protein. 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?
In a word: 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 protein 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 out your protein to the gram, the lesson here is that as you age, you need more protein," Layne Norton, Ph.D., says.
Why so much? As we age, our bodies become less efficient at using protein. Over time, this protein deficiency, or "anabolic resistance" as it is also known, can lead to decreased strength and loss of both muscle mass and mobility.
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 of protein per kilogram of body weight per day to maintain and regain lean body mass, and research has also suggested that it is best for elderly people to consume their protein evenly throughout the day, with 25-30 grams at each meal as a general goal.
Recent research by leading protein researcher Robert Wolfe, Ph.D., provides similar protein recommendations for the elderly, at a range of 1.2 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, a number that's right in line with International Society of Sports Nutrition's recommendations for athletes.
This benchmark can be challenging to meet for many older people who feel full quickly, which is where protein shakes may come in handy. "Liquid does tend to empty out of the stomach faster, and this may help with that early onset fullness," explains Douglas Kalman, Ph.D., RD.
However, eating right isn't enough. Studies also uniformly recommend that older people continue to perform endurance and resistance training. The upshot for older people: You may not always feel like an athlete, but an athlete's protein intake is exactly where you should set your sights, and training is just as important to your livelihood as it is to theirs.
Types of Protein
What Foods Are High In Protein?
The most concentrated forms of protein in the human diet are animal-based foods like fish, meat, eggs and dairy products. Some of the most popular protein sources for athletes include lean steak, venison, skinless chicken or turkey breast, ostrich, tuna, eggs, and cottage cheese or yogurt.
On average, beef steak contains about 23 grams of protein per 3-ounce serving, while the same amount of pork provides 26 grams of protein, and chicken provides about 24 grams. 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 of protein, 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 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 that contains a wide range of vegetable proteins, you probably don't need to worry about creating complementary proteins at every meal. High-quality vegetarian protein 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 of protein.
Many vegetarians and vegans also use plant-based protein powders to help ensure they're getting adequate amounts of essential amino acids, and protein in general. However, for them, it may be beneficial to occasionally use blended vegetarian protein sources, such as a powder that contains both pea protein with a rice protein, to cover all their amino acid needs.
What Types Of Protein Powder Are There?
Protein powder enables people to quickly and easily consume protein, 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 proteins are created equal. There are several protein 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 protein 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 protein 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 of protein.
If you're looking for a vegan or vegetarian protein, there are more options than ever. Some of the most popular plant proteins include:
Soy protein is unique because it is one of the only complete vegetarian proteins. Soy products are rich in the three branched-chain amino acids, 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 protein is an increasingly popular option, usually made from yellow split peas. It does not have the same amount of the three branched-chain amino acids as whey, but has a more complete amino acid profile than many other vegetarian options. It is a common ingredient in vegetarian protein blends, but also popular among people with dairy allergies.
Brown rice protein 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 ingested 48 grams of rice protein on training days experienced similar muscle gains to men taking the same amount of whey. A second study in professional mixed martial artists also found muscle benefit similar to whey with the daily ingestion of brown rice protein isolate.
Hemp protein is an increasingly popular choice because of its high digestibility. Hemp is also higher in fiber than many other proteins, which can help reduce hunger sensations, and contains omega-3 fatty acids.
Mixed-plant proteins combine different incomplete plant proteins to form complete proteins, while also capitalizing on the high amount of nutrients in many plant-based proteins. Many high-quality plant protein powders include the other plant-based proteins listed here, as well as more exotic plant proteins such as buckwheat, amaranth, and all manner of vegetables.
Does Protein Powder Contain Animal Products?
Some protein powders contain animal products like milk and eggs, but no actual meat. Others, like beef or chicken isolate, do contain meat derivatives. Plant protein powders that are vegan (no animal products) are usually made from proteins like rice, pea, and soy. Therefore, if trying to avoid animal sources of protein, read the product ingredients label to understand the protein sources in the product.
Is Some Protein Powder Dairy Or Lactose-Free?
While most protein powder is 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 animal proteins such as eggs and beef. "Whey protein in isolate and hydrolysate form tend to be very low to nearly no lactose in the product, and often these are well-tolerated by those with sensitivity," recommends Douglas Kalman, Ph.D., RD.
What Is Whey Protein Made Of?
Whey protein is derived from milk, which actually contains two proteins. Casein makes up approximately 80 percent of milk protein, 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 what most people recognize as "whey protein." In this final form, whey protein is a relatively tasteless powder that can be added to shakes, protein bars, or even baked goods. It's a common protein-boosting 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 muscle growth and tissue repair. But whey's high concentration of branched-chain amino acids, especially leucine, set this protein apart from the others.
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 proteins, 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. Make sure you get a good one! We've listed some of the best whey proteins for you.
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?
Protein bars certainly can be good for you. They can also be little better than a candy bar. It depends on the ingredients. And if you compare a few protein bar labels, you'll probably be amazed at how widely they can vary in terms of the calories they contain.
Food manufacturers often create products they call "protein bars," but which don't offer much protein, and contain plenty of non-protein ingredients you may not want. Choose protein bars that provide an ample amount of high-quality protein without high amounts of calories, carbohydrates, and fats to help you lose weight, build muscle mass, 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.
A solid benchmark to aim for: If it doesn't have at least 10 grams of protein per serving, don't consider it a "protein bar." If it has a full 20-30 grams per bar, even better.
Pick from this list of the best protein 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 protein 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 protein powders on the market that aren't good for you—maybe they're packed with extra sugar, or don't contain as much protein as they claim. But there are also more high-quality proteins 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 protein 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 protein supplement. Remember that the 7 grams in an egg, for instance, represents a far higher percentage of body weight for a 50-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 protein powder. For instance, if you are already making protein shakes or protein baked goods for yourself, it's safe to share them with your children.
Unfortunately, most of the foods kids snack on aren't high in protein at all. In fact, they're 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 your protein with a shake, you can use protein powder in baking, and there are other ways to make sure that you're getting that nutrient that will help you build your muscle."
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 protein shake recipe was hiding the awful taste of the protein powder. Not any longer! Today, you can just mix a scoop or two of protein 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 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 of protein at breakfast. That may sound like a lot, but getting it could be as simple as having three whole eggs instead of two and some yogurt with low-sugar fruit like berries on the side.
Eggs not your favorite? 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 protein 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 of protein 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, and number of calories, carbs, protein, and fats 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 taking protein powder just to make sure you're getting all the protein you need each day, there is no specific time to take it. Many people start the day with a protein shake, or even mix a scoop into their cereal or yogurt. But protein is protein, 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 protein 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 branched-chain amino acids instead. A number of other experts also recommend essential amino acid (EAA) blends, which contain the three branched-chain amino acids as well as the other six essential aminos, but Chris Lockwood, Ph.D., CSCS, says that EAAs and BCAAs should have similar effects in most people.
Should I Take Protein After Working Out?
The idea of an "anabolic window," or a small period of time post-workout when added protein will translate more directly into muscle 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 protein 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 protein shake right after exercise helps you remember to consume that protein at all, then do it!" recommends Douglas Kalman, Ph.D., in Bodybuilding.com's Foundations of Fitness Nutrition Course. "If you can have both a protein-rich shake and a solid meal in that so-called 'anabolic window,' all the better. By contrast, waiting for several hours before having any protein 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 protein powder for you is the one that tastes the best, gives you the grams of protein you're looking for, and helps you reach the goals you've set for yourself. Your goal might be to just add some extra protein to your diet, to bulk up and add muscle mass and strength, or to lose weight. Some protein powders are made with fast-digesting protein for use right after a workout; others use slow-digesting protein to give your body the nutrients it needs while you sleep.
Finding the right protein powder is a matter of choosing the kind of protein 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., the owner and founder of JYM Supplement Science, says that whey protein 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. However, remember that the body needs food more than it needs supplements. Using a "food first" approach with supplemental proteins such as whey will help ensure you are hitting your overall protein goals, as well as feeding your metabolic engine.
Whey is so good for muscle-building because of its rapid rate of digestion. Whey is the fastest-digesting protein powder available, 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 muscle 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: muscle building, also known as protein synthesis or "anabolism," and muscle 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 resting 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 protein shake, or a solid meal with adequate carbs and protein around training, helps kick-start this process. The amino acid leucine, which is plentiful in protein powders and protein-rich foods, is fundamental here.
In "Mass Class Nutrition: The Fundamentals of Eating for Growth," 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 protein in your meals gives you."
How Much Protein Should I Take To Build Muscle?
If you're training hard or looking to build muscle, be sure to get around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, or near the upper end of the recommended range of 1.4 to 2.0 grams per kilogram. No, it doesn't have to be exact, but even if that's 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 immediately before or after working out can help you balance muscle breakdown and muscle growth.
Can Protein Powder Help You Lose Weight?
The short answer: yes, but you still have to work.
Krissy Kendall, Ph.D., says protein 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 this macro 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!"
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 protein shake doesn't tell the whole story. Boost your protein 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 muscle 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 protein intake 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 muscle-maintenance and appetite-management benefits from the protein, consume 20-40 grams of high-quality protein every few hours, rather than having just one or two protein-rich meals a day.
What Is The Best Protein Powder For Losing Weight?
As with building muscle, simply getting enough protein is more important than which protein you choose. However, if your dietary preferences allow it, whey protein is tough to beat.
This fast-digesting form of protein 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.
- Alberts, B., Johnson, A., Lewis, J., Raff, M., Roberts, K., & Walter, P. (2002). The shape and structure of proteins.
- Trumbo, P., Schlicker, S., Yates, A. A., & Poos, M. (2002). Dietary reference intakes for energy, carbohydrate, fiber, fat, fatty acids, cholesterol, protein and amino acids. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 102(11), 1621.
- Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, L. M. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and athletic performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(3), 501-528.
- Campbell B, Aguilar D, Vargas A, Conlin A, Sanders A, Fink-Irizarry P, Norton L, Perry R, McCallum R, Wynn MR, and Lenton J. Effects of a high (2.4 g/kg) vs. low/moderate (1.2 g/kg) protein intake on body composition in aspiring female physique athletes engaging in an 8-week resistance training program. Presented at the 2016 International Society of Sports Nutrition Annual Conference, Clearwater, Florida, June 2016.
- Bauer, J., Biolo, G., Cederholm, T., Cesari, M., Cruz-Jentoft, A. J., Morley, J. E., ... & Visvanathan, R. (2013). Evidence-based recommendations for optimal dietary protein intake in older people: a position paper from the PROT-AGE Study Group. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, 14(8), 542-559.
- Baum, J. I., Kim, I.-Y., & Wolfe, R. R. (2016). Protein Consumption and the Elderly: What Is the Optimal Level of Intake? Nutrients, 8(6), 359.
- Kalman, D., Escalante, A., Hewlings, S. J., & Willoughby, D. S. (2018). The Body Composition Effects of Extra Protein in Elite Mixed Martial Artists Undergoing Frequent Training over a Six-Week Period.
- Liberato, S. C., Singh, G., & Mulholland, K. (2013). Effects of protein energy supplementation during pregnancy on fetal growth: a review of the literature focusing on contextual factors. Food & Nutrition Research, 57(1), 20499.
- Elango, R., & Ball, R. O. (2016). Protein and Amino Acid Requirements during Pregnancy. Advances in Nutrition, 7(4), 839S-844S.
- Anthony, J. C., Anthony, T. G., Kimball, S. R., & Jefferson, L. S. (2001). Signaling pathways involved in translational control of protein synthesis in skeletal muscle by leucine. The Journal of Nutrition, 131(3), 856S-860S.