Do you actually need protein powder? If so, when and how much?

In my many years as a gym rat, I've consumed a fair amount of supplements in the attempt to make my body more "efficient". Whey was and still is one of my all-time-favourites.

I often get asked if protein powder is a necessity in a well-balanced diet. Keep on reading, here's my answer.

What is whey made of?

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Whey is a byproduct of milk, or to be more specific, of the cheese making process. Basically, it's a leftover from the fluid once the cheese has been extracted from the milk. This is the reason why whey is considered a food rather than a supplement.

Protein powders are classified into these categories:

  • Whey protein concentrate: Less filtering, hence the protein is less pure. It contains a higher amount of lactose, fat, carbs and undenatured protein. Protein content can be anywhere between 30-80%.
  • Whey protein isolate: The purest form of protein and much easier to digest. Protein content is >90%, containing minimal amounts of lactose and basically no fat.
  • Whey protein hydrolysate: Pre-digested high-grade whey. Meaning it's broken down into smaller fragments for an even faster digestion and absorption. Protein content >90%.
  • Casein protein: Very slow digesting protein.

How much protein do I actually need?

In general, aim for roughly 2g per kg of body weight or 1g per pound of body weight per day. Going a little bit higher than that could be necessary to protect muscles even more, depending on your genetics. But don't do 300g protein diets like some bodybuilders do!

Study after study has shown, that a diet high in protein will lead to better results across the board when it comes to weight loss. Even when consumed calories are equal.

This, in part, comes down to the thermic effect of food. To keep it short, 20-30% of the calories you consume from protein are needed to digest the food. Therefore 200g of protein will increase your daily expenditure by 160-240 kcal. Fat has basically no thermic effect and does not increase your expenditure.

Calories in, calories out still hold true though! But by consuming higher amounts of protein, your overall deficit becomes bigger due to higher caloric expenditure. Simple math.

The higher amount of protein will also spare muscle on a fat loss diet, which means you'll not lose as much muscle on a cut as you would on a diet low in protein (your body will not only burn fat on a deficit but muscle too!).

Is protein powder necessary

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The truth is, it's not necessary for building muscle or losing fat. However, eating enough protein on a daily basis is necessary for both.

Even though protein powders are easy to absorb, protein-rich whole foods should always be preferred. They not only provide you with more vitamins and minerals but digest more slowly and keep you full for longer.

An optimal diet doesn't mean to live mainly on supplements or powders. Rather choose a wide variety of fresh foods and add powders only if you have problems hitting your daily macro-nutrient target.

However, there are some advantages of protein powders:

Protein as post workout

I'm pretty sure you heard this one before: Eat your protein as PWO immediately after you finished your workout to get dramatic improvements. Yep, this is one of the typical bro-science approaches. But how long is the anabolic window or "the window of opportunity"? Or is there even an anabolic window?

It's claimed, that during the "window of opportunity", your muscles are primed to use nutrients that can stimulate muscle repair and muscle growth.

This theory is based on the fact, that after lifting weights you have depleted glycogen stores and damaged muscles. So far so good, that's true.

And it's also true, that eating carbs will replenish the body's glycogen and provide the body with energy while eating protein repairs the damaged muscle tissue.

However, what's not true is that you have to get your PWO in immediately after your workout or that the "window of opportunity" closes after 45 minutes.

A study shows, that protein synthesis is elevated for up to 25 hours after your workout. Keep calm, there's no need to break the speed limit while driving home to get your shake in.

Another theory suggests, that you have to eat right after your workout to prevent muscle breakdown. False claim, again! This study shows, that you have at least 3 hours after working out that your body is in a state where it builds muscle rather than breaking it down.

Plus, the "anabolic window", should only concern you, if you train fasted. Training completely fasted makes a proper PWO quite beneficial. Meaning, there is no need to have a PWO unless you've trained fasted. If that's the case, eat something within 2-3 hours after your training, because the muscle breakdown rate is significantly increased.

Bottom line

Protein supplements should always be considered as just that - supplements. They should never be used as a replacement for a healthy diet. So if you can reach your daily protein requirements by consuming high protein foods, you don't need protein powder. Period.

What are your favourites protein powder flavours? Let me know in the comments below!

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