Protein powders may be the most popular exercise supplement out there. They are marketed to people who want to build muscle, and you’ll see them advertised in fitness magazines. You hear people at the gym talking about protein, and almost every grocery store sells ready-to-drink protein shakes near the checkout counter. But can taking protein powder actually help you build muscle at the gym? And if yes, what type of protein should you take? And how much?
Protein is one of the main building blocks for life. Your body uses protein to build and repair muscle, and to make other substances that keep you healthy. Protein supplements can give you the protein you need for nutrition and muscle development, although there are a couple of things to consider before going to the store to buy protein powder.
First, if you are eating a balanced diet you likely get all of the protein you need for the gym already. Even if you are training hard it is unlikely your body needs more than 150 grams per day. Nutrient-dense foods like chicken and salmon contain a significant amount of protein. A 5 oz chicken breast, for example, has 43 grams of protein. 6 ounces of salmon contain 34 grams of protein. So by eating meat or fish during the day you can easily meet your protein needs.
Secondly, if you are a teenager, it is not recommended that you take protein powders, which can strain your kidneys and may cause dehydration.
A typical teenager needs 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight, per day. So if you weigh 100 lbs, that is 50 grams of protein per day. Teenage athletes need more protein, but no more than 0.8 grams per pound per day. Again, for someone weighing 100 pounds that is 80 grams of protein per day.
If you are considering taking protein powder as a recovery drink after a workout, there are better options. You can drink a fruit smoothie with yogurt or milk, or chocolate milk.
In adults, protein supplementation can be useful if you are not getting enough protein in your diet. Depending on their level of physical activity, adults need 0.4-0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. If it is hard for you to reach your target protein intake you can use powders to close the gap. It can also be helpful to take extra protein when recovering from an injury, or if you keep a vegan diet and are not consuming protein from animal sources.
The most common type of protein powder comes from whey, which is a milk product. Plant-based protein powders, such as powders made from soy, are also available and may be good for people who are vegan.
If you can, aim to meet your protein needs through a balanced diet. In limited cases protein supplements may make sense for you, but more often than not it is much better to meet your nutrition needs through the food you eat instead of by taking supplements.