Protein powders: What they do and don’t do

One of the most widely used sports supplements by far is protein powder. Generally consisting of either dehydrated whey or casein, protein powder is featured in the routines of bodybuilders, runners and everyone in between. And while the research bears out the usefulness of protein powder in certain situations, it has also been promoted as being an effective weight loss aid. Since so many people use protein powders in their workout regimens, it makes sense to consider what it truly can and cannot do for the athlete. Do protein powders improve athletic performance? Can they help you gain muscle mass? Do they really help you lose weight? How much do you really need to feel its effects?

What It Does

Proteins are made of amino acids, which are commonly referred to as the building blocks of life. In various forms, these proteins are vital to the composition of every cell, tissue and organ in our bodies. Protein is also used in building and repairing muscle fibers. This is especially useful after your workout, when muscle fibers are damaged and left in need of repair. That reparation process is what causes muscles to grow. Most people satisfy their protein needs through their diet, but if you find that you have difficulty fulfilling those requirements, protein powders can come in handy.

What It Doesn’t Do

Even though protein has such a direct, logical link with muscle, there is no evidence to prove that protein supplementation can actually improve performance. In fact a 2007 study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine showed that protein supplements did nothing to increase upper body strength, lean muscle mass or total anaerobic power in college athletes. There was a small improvement in lower body strength, but not enough to recommend protein powder for athletes. The research is still inconclusive as to whether or not protein powders can actually increase lean muscle mass, though. It’s a difficult thing to prove or disprove, since everyone gains muscle differently. One study did find that supplementation with whey protein, compared to soy protein, did encourage weight loss in obese individuals. The researchers give credit for this change to low levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin that was found in the whey group. It should be noted that the weight loss was only about two pounds over six months and that the entire mechanism at work here is not yet fully understood. More research is needed to really support the use of whey for weight loss. The use of protein powders, whey or any other, really isn’t supported by science, despite this study. Most protein powders are high in calories, including calories from fat, so taking large amounts can actually lead to weight gain.

How Much You Need

As stated, most people get all the protein they need from a healthy diet. Still, teenagers who are growing rapidly, vegans, people recovering from sports injuries or those embarking on a new, more difficult workout plan, will all have increased protein requirements. Talk to your doctor to see if you could benefit from protein supplementation. To calculate how much protein you need, you’ll first have to classify your activity level. Casual exercisers need about 0.5-0.7.5 grams of protein daily per pound of body weight. Competitive athletes need 0.6-0.9 grams per pound. Again, there are dangers associated with protein supplementation, so discuss it with your doctor. Too much protein in your diet can cause digestive problems, heart disease and gout. Soy protein supplements have even been shown to increase the risk of certain cancers in men by decreasing testosterone levels.