When we eat foods that contain protein, food breaks down in our bodies and transforms into amino acids. Our body then uses these amino acids to build proteins to make more muscle. As a result, people who exercise have higher protein requirements than people who don’t exercise.
Protein and Muscle Growth
Building muscle is broken down into two basic stages. First, we stimulate muscle growth through various forms of exercise, such as resistance training. Second, our body must repair our muscles for our muscles to grow back stronger.
A study published in the journal Nutrients had 75 untrained male participants aged 20–22 perform three training sessions per week for 12-weeks while consuming protein supplements.
The study split the participants into two groups: one group consumed 156 grams of protein per day; the other group consumed 104 grams of protein. During the study, the participants’ training consisted of big compound movements (like the squat, deadlift, bench press, and bent over rows). Sets and reps were altered each session from (4 sets of 10) to (6 sets of 4) to (5 sets of 6).
After 12-weeks, the researchers discovered that the participants who consumed 156 grams of protein per day gained no more muscle than the participants who consumed 104 grams of protein. However, the 156 gram protein group experienced an increase in total satellite cell count.
Satellite cells located around muscle fibers are essential for the regeneration and repair of muscle. Therefore, this study suggests that more muscle growth was likely to occur in the (156 gram) high protein group.
Another study, reported in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, examined the effect of three different protein supplements on resistance-trained individuals. The researchers used the following supplements in the study: whey concentrate, hydrolyzed whey, and whey concentrate high in lactoferrin.
Protein intake among the protein supplement groups was 0.9 grams per pound of bodyweight; and in the control group, protein intake was 0.7 grams. All four groups followed the same training routine, which consisted of two upper and two lower-body training sessions per week for 8-weeks.
The results of the study went against the hypothesis of the researchers and what many of us would expect to happen. The muscle gained in the protein groups was no different to the amount of muscle gained in the control group.
The researchers summed up their results as follows:
“Contrary to our hypotheses, we report that eight weeks of heavy resistance training plus supplementation with whey protein twice daily, regardless of whey protein form or molecular weight distribution, was no more effective than placebo at increasing total body skeletal muscle mass in previously trained young men when total protein intake is removed as a potential confounding variable.”
In other words, the researchers found no difference between a protein intake of 0.9 grams per pound of bodyweight and a protein intake of 0.7 grams per pound of bodyweight.
Another study performed by the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences examined the difference between milk and whey protein on muscle growth. Multiple legitimate and reliable measurement methods were used, such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), X-rays, and ultrasound.
Despite all groups experiencing muscle growth, the results showed no significant difference between milk and whey supplements when it came to building muscle. So what is the key takeaway from all of these findings? Research indicates that protein supplements are not necessary to build muscle.
Yes, protein supplements are useful for people who aren’t able to get enough protein during the day. However, if you’re getting enough protein in your diet, there’s no need to take an additional protein supplement. The question is: can you get enough protein from food? If you find yourself unable to get enough protein throughout the day, a protein supplement is essential, especially if you do a lot of exercise.
The University of Iceland confirmed this finding when researchers conducted a 12-week study of older adults who took adequate amounts of protein and also took part in resistance training. The study found that older adults who supplemented with whey protein and carbohydrates experienced the same amount of muscle growth as older adults who ate regular protein-based meals.
Another study by researchers at the University of Toronto investigated the effect of whey protein on short-term muscle recovery. In the study, the researchers gave 12 young men either a carbohydrate supplement or a whey protein supplement before lifting weights.
After each workout, researchers measured muscle strength and recovery 12 and 24 hours after exercise. The researchers discovered that the whey protein group recovered faster and became stronger than the group that just consumed carbohydrates.
That being said, if you eat high protein foods (such as fish, meat, dairy, and eggs), you will experience minimal benefits if you add whey protein to your diet. On the other hand, if you don’t eat enough protein during the day, consuming a whey protein supplement will help you get sufficient amounts of protein into your diet.
Due to its rich amino acid profile, whey protein is an excellent source of protein. Whey protein contains all nine essential amino acids, so it’s called a complete protein. Now, when we talk about muscle growth and repair, it’s the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) that do most of the work.
People who supplement with whey protein develop more lean muscle mass because whey protein is high in leucine (the primary amino acid responsible for muscle growth).
Protein and Fat Loss
We know that whey protein is useful for building muscle, but what if you want to burn a few pounds to lose fat and stay lean? The good news is that whey protein can help you lose fat while preserving muscle at the same time.
One study published in the Obesity journal found that eating 25% of your daily calories in the form of protein cut cravings by 60 percent. Furthermore, the desire to have a late-night snack was reduced by 50 percent.
It’s no secret that protein lends a hand in weight loss, as protein is the most satiating of all macronutrients. Researchers at Purdue University compiled 13 studies on women who took whey protein, and the effect whey protein had on the women’s BMI (body mass index).
The researchers discovered that women who consumed whey protein supplements maintained more lean muscle mass than the women who didn’t take any whey protein supplements.
Another study, published in the journal Obesity Surgery, examined 34 women recovering from gastric bypass surgery. The study split the women into two groups. One group consumed a low-calorie diet without whey protein, and the other group consumed a low-calorie diet with whey protein.
While all of the women lost weight, the women who took whey protein saw the most significant improvements in lean muscle mass and weight loss. As you can see, whey protein doesn’t stimulate weight loss; it just helps you consume fewer calories by making you feel full.
Protein also helps the body burn fat because protein is known to have a higher thermic effect than other macronutrients such as carbs and fat. (Whey protein has a thermic effect of 30 percent. This thermic effect means that if you consume 100 calories from whey protein, digestion burns off 30 calories, leaving you with 70 available calories.)
One study by Arizona State University compared a high protein diet to a high carbohydrate diet in young people. The study found that high protein diets boost the body’s metabolism and can lead to more than 100 calories burnt every day. Therefore, if you’re looking to lose weight and burn fat, you should consume protein-rich foods to reap the most fat-loss benefits.
Protein and Amino Acids
A “complete protein” is a protein source that includes all nine essential amino acids. Foods that contain complete proteins include meat and dairy products such as poultry, fish, chicken, beef, and eggs.
An “incomplete protein” is a protein source lacking at least one of the nine essential amino acids. Plant-based foods, vegetables, and grains all contain incomplete proteins.
A long-held belief is that people should eat amino acids (or “complete proteins”) during every meal. We now know that this is not necessary due to the existence of the free amino acid pool.
The free amino acid pool comes from the foods that we eat. When you eat a meal that’s missing an essential amino acid, our body can pull the required amino acid from the free amino acid pool. Despite the existence of the free amino acid pool, we still need to make a conscious effort to get as many complete proteins as possible into our diet.
Research published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that protein sources high in branched-chain amino acids stimulate more muscle growth and muscle protein synthesis than low-quality protein sources (such as soy protein).
How Much Protein Do You Need?
Protein is an absolute necessity when it comes to building muscle and strength, and burning fat. In light of the current research and evidence, protein intake of 0.6 grams to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight per day is enough for maximum protein synthesis.
During a cutting phase, when losing fat and maintaining muscle, it is recommended that you up your protein intake to between 1.2 grams to 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight.