Of all the supplements out there, protein powders are clearly the most ubiquitous. You see them everywhere; in health food stores, in gyms, in supermarkets. It’s highly likely that a number of your friends have some kind of protein supplement sat in their cupboard right now. It’s not unlikely that you do too. It’s almost certain that you’ve used one at some point, and that at least one of your co-workers is using one right now.
Yes, the world today is protein obsessed.
Protein powder is the first supplement people will buy when they start working out. Today the two actually tend to happen at the same time; people sign up to the gym, then go out and buy protein powder. The assumption is that supplementing with extra protein is necessary for building serious muscle mass.
But is it?
Are protein supplements really necessary for building muscle?
Does the average guy really need to be using them? Who does need to be using protein supplements?
In the article below, we’ll answer each of these questions in turn. We’ll look at what protein powders do, why people tend to use them, and whether or not they have been proven to work by scientific studies. We will explain why we think most people don’t need to be using protein supplements, and when we think people can benefit from them.
Do you use protein supplements? Do they work well for you? Or do you get better gains from real food? Let us know in the comments!
What Do Protein Supplements Actually Do?
This might sound like a stupid question, but it isn’t. Not in our experience.
A lot of people starting out in the gym get seriously confused about what protein supplements do.
Protein powders do not deliver some kind of special muscle-growing cocktail.
They are not ‘miracle grow’ for muscle fibres.
There is absolutely nothing special about whey protein, or the way it is delivered, that means it is particularly adept at triggering muscle growth.
All protein supplements do is provide you with extra dietary protein.
They are a source of protein just like milk, nuts or fish. They do provide a different type of protein – like milk is different from fish – and in a different form: powder.
But they don’t do anything aside from giving you extra calories in the form of protein.
Claimed Benefits Of Protein Powders
The claims people – read supplement manufacturers – make about the special benefits of protein shakes are pretty spectacular. It’s not an accident that people believe protein powders possess special, muscle-building powers.
According to some, the bioavailability of whey protein makes it superior to foods for increasing protein synthesis, and therefore muscle growth.
Well, here is a table showing the relative “value” of different forms of protein (source):
And here’s a list taken from Wikipedia (individual sources given on the page):
As you can see, there is nothing particularly special about whey protein. Casein (found in cheese), egg, milk, black beans and beef all have the same or a very similar bioavailability.
The people pushing whey protein supplements don’t say that beef is worthless as a protein source because it has a net protein utilization score of ~74. Yet they will tell you that soy protein products or grains are poor protein sources because they have lower bioavailability than whey.
So as far as we can tell, the whole bioavailability thing is completely overblown.
It is a good PR angle, but when you actually compare the BV of different foods, you find that the difference between whey and, say, rice, cheese, and soy is very low. According to some measures, rice has a higher biological value than beef, yet the supplement manufacturers would be loathe to admit this is a meaningful fact in the context of building muscle.
It’s also worth noting that you can dramatically increase the BV of proteins by combining them (you know, as we usually do when we eat normal food) (source).
For example, if you eat rice with soy bean curd (tofu), you can get a far higher BV than you get from eating these foods alone.
However, there are other benefits of protein powders that stand up to scrutiny.
One is that they are a low calorie, low cholesterol source of protein. This is definitely true. If your only other option is beef or cheese, then getting more of your protein from shakes is probably going to be better for your waistline and your heart.
Another obvious benefit is convenience. Many people work long hours during the day and then train for a couple more hours in the gym at night.
For them, hitting their daily caloric intake might be difficult, especially if the job is physical demanding.
If someone like that was looking to put on size and they need to hit their calories for the day, then having a protein shake would definitely be better than having a Snickers or a can of Coke!
They are also very cheap compared to meat and fish in some parts of the world. For people struggling to pay for the food they need to be eating every month to gain size, then protein powders are indeed better than not getting enough protein – or worse, not getting enough calories.
Problems With Protein Supplements
One big problem with protein supplements is the fact that they are heavily manufactured.
We’re not saying manufacturing is inherently bad. But the manufacturing process does decrease the quality of the product in this instance.
We’ve already mentioned this study, which looked at protein bioavailability. Well, it contains a very interesting passage on whey protein isolate supplements:
“Although the concentration of protein in this form of whey protein is the highest, it often contain proteins that have become denatured due to the manufacturing process. The denaturation of proteins involves breaking down their structure and losing peptide bonds and reducing the effectiveness of the protein.”
Another problem was hinted at in the last section.
When consuming whey protein supplements instead of eating an actual meal, you are probably consuming protein that is of a lower biological value because you are not taking advantage of the combination effect.
When we consume grains, beans, and fish in the same meal, the biological value of the protein we consume will be immense. The different sources of protein will provide very different amino acid profiles. The total amino acid “package” will be far more varied, and far more substantial, than we get from whey alone.
But the biggest problem with protein supplement in our opinion is the simple fact that they don’t work as advertised. When it comes to building mass, or more specifically building good quality muscle mass, protein supplements perform far worse than regular, normal food!
Do Protein Supplements Work For Building Muscle? – A Look At The Science
The studies here speak for themselves so we’re just going to run through some of the key ones.
Obviously, studies have shown that protein supplementation significantly enhances muscle growth and strength gains.
But we’re not interested in whether they work better than no food at all.
We’re interested in seeing whether they work better than simply eating regular, normal food.
The answer, it seems, it no.
A good place to start when looking at this is the following BBC documentary called Addicted To Protein:
Here, the filmmakers follow a man who has been obsessively drinking protein shakes in place of meals in the belief that they are better able to help him build muscle. When experts at John Moores University make him replace the shakes with real food, his muscle mass starts immediately rising.
Studies directly comparing protein shakes with food for stimulating muscle growth are few and far between. There are some, however, that suggest the best way to maximize protein synthesis is to eat a healthy, balanced diet full of whole foods (ref).
Indeed, the mantra followed by most experts is “real food first and foremost, supplements if necessary”. A lot of bodybuilders promote supplements, of course. But they certainly didn’t use them to build their physiques; they invariably focused much more on their diet than on supplements.
Are They Necessary? – A Look At Dietary Protein Intake
Finally, we come to the most damning point of all; the fact that most people consume more than enough protein than they need every single day.
By a serious margin too.
In fact, for the average person, the problem isn’t that they don’t get enough protein, it’s that they get FAR TOO MUCH.
The average person consumes well over their recommended 40-50g of protein per day.
If you have two eggs and two slices of bacon for breakfast, that’s already 21g of protein. If you have two slices of wholemeal toast and some coffee with milk on top, then your breakfast has given you the best part of 30g of protein.
If you have a grilled chicken breast for dinner and nothing else, your total for the day is already at 84g.
To build muscle, it’s generally thought that 1g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight is sufficient. The supplement brands say otherwise, but they would wouldn’t they?!
So if you weigh 80kg, you have already reached your target protein goals for the day, and that’s assuming you are trying to build muscle. We highly doubt this is all you would consume that day either; the copious amounts of protein you get from rice, bread, nuts, milk, and pasta probably push your total up to above 100g.
If you weigh something like 200kg and you still want to build more muscle, then it’s conceivable that you need to start thinking about protein shakes. But we doubt that this applies to any of the people reading this.
To quote Anna Daniels, spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association in 2016: “People have a misconception they do need more protein whereas actually the majority of us are getting adequate protein – our requirements are quite low. If you’re an athlete you will have higher requirements but you can still get it from eggs, yoghurt, meat. The majority of us who go to the gym for an hour a couple of times a week, there’s no need to be having additional protein we [already] get from a balanced healthy diet.”
As you can see, protein supplements are far from necessary.
They’re certainly not necessary for the average gym-goer. Most people eat too much protein; the last thing they need to be doing is scrambling to get more. They are usually lacking in other macronutrients, like fibre and healthy fats. Yet they prioritize protein above all else.
We don’t even think serious athletes or aspiring bodybuilders need to be using protein shakes at all. It’s easy to get more than enough protein through diet. It also seems to be the case that real food is significantly better than protein powder if you want to maximize protein synthesis and athletic performance.
For instance, the combination effect of food pairing – where different protein sources produce a much higher BV than any of them alone – is lost with protein shakes. Rice and beans together provides a better amino acid profile than whey protein, and that’s just one example.
So in conclusion, no. protein supplements are not necessary for the vast majority of people.
They are useful for people with serious time or logistical restrictions. They can be useful for people who live in areas where lean protein sources are expensive, or for people with restricted diets (e.g people who want to avoid cholesterol, fish, lactose, etc).
But for 99% of you – even those of you pounding the gym 5 times a week – protein shakes are not necessary.
But what about safety? Can protein shakes cause harm?
Are they really worth the price tag? What are they really made of?
We’ll cover those questions in different articles.