In the bodybuilding world, protein shake is one of the few supplements that gets almost universal praise. Protein shake is simply a quick, affordable, practical and tasty way of meeting protein requirements and really you can’t argue with that. While there are many other ways to get protein in your diet, often they involve a lot of preparation, aren’t portable and cost a lot of money.
But outside the bodybuilding world, protein shakes are not so universally revered. And depending on your goals it may be that you don’t need to add protein to your diet at all – depending on who you ask. Let’s take a look at these opinions, at the research, and at what is most likely to work well for you.
Why You Need Protein
In case you’re new to this subject then you may be wondering why it is that protein gets so much attention in the first place. The simple answer is that protein is what your muscle is made out of. Protein is made up of amino acids, and when you eat those amino acids they get broken down and recombined in order to form muscle as well as other tissue in your body. You are literally recycling that chicken and using it to build muscle.
When we work out, we break down muscle creating ‘microtears’. This then signals to the body that those muscles need repairing, so it looks for available amino acids and uses them to build the muscle fibre up thicker and stronger than before resulting in bigger muscles and more power. If you train regularly then, eating more protein is necessary not only to stimulate the growth you are trying to achieve, but also to aid recovery so you can go back in the gym. For everyone else, eating protein is still necessary just to repair tissue and keep you functioning optimally but you’re not going to need as much.
How Much Protein Is Too Much
There’s no denying that protein is a necessary part of the diet. Where people disagree though is in just how much protein is really needed. Some studies and recommendations (http://whqlibdoc.who.int/trs/WHO_TRS_935_eng.pdf) recommend a protein intake of 0.8g/kg for the average person. Remember that this is the average person – not someone trying to build more strength rapidly or engaging in more physical activity that breaks down muscle and other tissue. Note as well that this is an ‘RDA’ – which doesn’t mean that going above this number is unhealthy, in fact it is a recommended minimum. Nevertheless, many nutritionists argue that eating more protein than this either won’t have an effect, or it will damage your liver.
The latter point however is an outdated belief: many studies now show that a high protein intake is not harmful to the kidneys (1, 2). Others claim that too much protein may be bad for your bones. Again though, this isn’t backed up by the science which shows that protein consumption can result in calcium loss in the short term, but actually strengthens the bones in the long term (1, 2, 3).
More to the point, you just have to ask someone who weightlifts how much protein they eat in order to see the changes in their body. Protein isn’t just useful for amino acids either: it’s useful for increasing testosterone and IGF1, it is satiating, it has a thermic effect (meaning you can eat more without gaining weight) and it helps you burn fat through the increase in muscle. I can personally say from my own experience that I am considerably bigger when I consume more protein even though my training remains relatively constant.
So How Much Do You Need?
So really then there is no denying that you need extra protein if you want to build big muscle, despite the many sources telling you that you don’t. They just have not read the recent research, sorry! Now if you’re not aiming to build big muscle, you’re fine sticking with the 0.8 grams per kilogram – but going over that certainly won’t harm you.
Chances are though that as you’re reading this, your aim is to build big muscle…
So how much protein do you really need to grow? Well again this all depends on who you ask. Hit a bodybuilding forum and they will tell you that you should be aiming for roughly one gram of protein per one pound of bodyweight for starters. That’s about 160 grams for most people. That’s not to say that you won’t grow without hitting that target, but it is recommended if you want to optimise your growth. Other athletes will go even beyond this amount up to 1.4 grams per pound and beyond. Often those athletes will be using roids, which means they can make better use of the protein. You don’t want to go there and 1.4 grams is pretty expensive if your body isn’t going to make maximum use of it. So aim for 1 gram per 1 pound and don’t stress too much if you don’t always hit this bar.
How to Get Your Protein – Do You Really Need That Protein Shake
So if you’re looking to grow big and fast, 160 grams roughly is what you should be aiming for. Now how do you get that much in your diet?
Here’s my routine:
• 3 large eggs – about 36 grams of protein
Total: 36 grams
• 1-2 chicken breasts – about 30 grams of protein
• 1 can of tuna flakes – 20 grams of protein
Total: 96 grams
• About 30 grams of protein with whatever I’m eating for dinner
Total: 126 grams
You’ll notice that this doesn’t quite make the 160 gram mark. Why not? Well firstly because I’m broke and I would add protein shake to that if I could, but secondly because it’s important to remember that there is some protein in your carbs, in your milk, in your vegetables… etc. Throughout the day you’re bound to pick up a good 20-30 grams of protein from non-protein sources, which many people will forget.
As you can see then I’m going okay without a protein shake, but it would certainly be easier and probably cheaper if I could afford shake. That’s why I’d whole heartedly recommend protein shakes to anyone interested in gaining size and mass.
It’s also important to remember that getting your protein requirements isn’t just about quantity – it’s also about quality. In order to make maximum use of protein you need to make sure it contains all the essential amino acids and that it is bioavailable (meaning the body can use it well – for instance because it contains more branch-chained amino acids that are already in the correct format, and because it contains a lower ratio of dispensable amino acids (DAAs).
Protein shake can be very good for this, or it can be very bad for it… it really just depends on where you get your protein shake from. Make sure to do your research and the reading around the shake to ensure that your body is going to be able to make maximal use of the protein you are paying for. I can recommend EAS 100% Whey as a good type of protein shake to use. Eggs are fantastic in terms of their bioavailability and their amino acid profile, as are animal meats. Plant proteins on the other hand just aren’t as effective. Sorry to all the vegetarians out there: soy protein just isn’t as good for building muscle.
Also of note is the fact that protein should be taken when your body is in its most ‘anabolic’ state (meaning high in testosterone and growth hormone) when you use it. This is why many people use protein shake right after a workout – though that’s somewhat mistake as it takes about an hour or two for protein to become available for the body to use after you eat it. Better is to have a pre workout shake (or a pre and post shake) (here’s a study, but actually the research is mixed on this one and it seems to be much less important when you have your protein compared with how much you’re getting). Another example of timed protein intake is to use a casein protein shake (a slow release protein) right before bed, as we are in an anabolic state throughout the night.
Conclusion? Whoever you are, eating lots of protein is good for you but you don’t need more than about 0.8 grams per kilogram. If you want to build big muscle like a bodybuilder, then 1 gram per pound of bodyweight is a good target to aim for (more might be beneficial to some, but it becomes impractical). You can do this with food or with protein shake, but either way you should be careful to select the protein that is most bioavailable with the right amino acids, and it doesn’t hurt to time your intake.