Protein powder for muscle gain: what you need to know
Whole-food sources of protein such as meat, eggs, fish and dairy foods – or, for vegan diets, buckwheat, hempseed, quinoa and soy beans -- are usually the best way to meet your body’s protein requirements. These foods can provide unprocessed protein together with a range of vitamins and minerals that help protein absorption and maintain overall health. However, when time is short or when your protein intake needs a boost, concentrated protein supplements can be a quick and tasty addition to your diet.
Do protein powders work?
Research suggests that protein supplements significantly increase both muscle strength and muscle mass when incorporated into a resistance training regime. While this effect is greater in younger people, researchers have speculated that this may be because protein requirements increase with age: older adults are often not eating enough protein even before they start resistance training. At any age, it is clear that lower protein intakes make strength and muscle mass gains much more difficult to attain.
What kind of protein powder is best?
One review of available research found that neither the source of protein nor the timing of the protein supplement has anything more than a minor role to play in protein’s effects on muscle building. This means that, for anyone wishing to boost muscle building, the choice of protein supplement can be made according to personal preference and availability. From a nutritional point of view, it is important to look for protein sources that do not contain potentially harmful sugars and additives, but it is also worth looking at the potential health benefits and harms from each protein product.
Let’s take a look at the most popular supplemental protein sources:
Whey is a popular protein supplement for people wishing to build muscle. Whey is derived from milk but is more widely tolerated than other dairy components such as lactose and casein. Whey supplements have proven useful in preventing sarcopenia (muscle wastage) at times of illness or ageing, as they increase muscle protein synthesis. Whey protein is the best source of the branched-chain amino acid, leucine, that is fundamental to the health and growth of muscle.
Additionally, whey protein is suggested to have health benefits beyond muscular development, including:
- Protection against food allergy and intolerance.
- Increased absorption of vitamin A.
- Improved metabolic health.
- Support for blood glucose regulation.
- Anti-viral effects.
- Improved gut health.
Whey concentrate tends to contain more of the milk sugar lactose than whey isolate, a form of whey that has undergone further filtering to remove more of its fat and carbohydrate. Whey isolate is therefore potentially better tolerated by more people and contains a higher proportion of protein. Hydrolysed whey is further processed in an attempt to make it more easily absorbed by the body.
A controversial review of the research in 2021 suggested that ‘chronic and abusive’ use of whey protein can have negative effects on health, predominantly on kidney and liver function. As with any element of food that has been separated out from its original whole food, it is wise to use it occasionally as a dietary supplement and not as a regular replacement for real food.
Casein is also a milk protein, providing a complete range of essential amino acids. Compared with whey protein, casein is not absorbed by the body as quickly as whey and some research suggests that it does not bring the body composition benefits of whey protein. Casein is also less tolerated, meaning that many people have an allergy or intolerance that would indicate they should steer clear of supplemental casein.
However, casein is a popular protein supplement for people looking to build muscle as its amino acids are released from the gut more slowly, allowing a steady supply to reach muscles over a longer period of time. As casein and whey occur naturally together in milk, some people prefer to take both.
Egg white protein
Egg white powder is a complete source of protein that is readily absorbed by the body. Tolerance of concentrated egg white is very individual – some people prefer it to dairy-based proteins, while for others it is an allergen.
Eggs have the highest Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) of all whole foods, indicating high protein quality and digestibility. Egg white protein is also a good source of the branched-chain amino acid, leucine, that is important for the health and development of muscles.
Plant-based protein powders
Plant protein supplements can be useful for vegans, vegetarians and individuals with dairy intolerance. They can also add variety to the diet – it is, after all, wise to avoid excessive consumption of any one protein source, so that risk of intolerance is minimized.
For plant-based diets, it is worth remembering that plant sources of protein generally need to be combined with other plant proteins to give the body the complete range of proteins (amino acids) it needs for overall maintenance and repair, synthesis of hormones and neurotransmitters, immune function and muscle development. In addition, plant-based proteins are not as easily absorbed by the body, so larger quantities might be needed.
Mix and match from a choice of these popular powders:
- Pea protein: made from yellow split peas, this protein powder lacks only one of the essential amino acids and is a good source of dietary fibre. It is also rich in branched-chain amino acids that support muscle health.
- Hemp protein: rich in anti-inflammatory and muscle-supporting Omega-3 fatty acids, as well as providing a source of fibre, hemp is a popular protein powder for its taste and health benefits. It doesn’t provide a complete range of amino acids, however, as it is low in leucine and lysine. Mix this powder up with other powders for best results.
- Rice protein: derived from brown rice, this protein powder provides a complete set of the essential amino acids. However, it is low in the amino acid lysine and should be used in conjunction with other protein sources.
In all, protein powders are best viewed as food supplements rather than actual foods. Make them work for you by experimenting until you find two or three types of protein that suit you and using them where needed rather than as a daily drink. And don’t forget that whole-food proteins – meat, fish, eggs, cheese, nuts, tofu and beans, for example – should still take centre-stage!
Hertzler, S.R., et al., 2020. Plant Proteins: Assessing Their Nutritional Quality and Effects on Health and Physical Function. Nutrients, 12(12), pp.1–27.
Loenneke, J.P., et al., 2016. Per meal dose and frequency of protein consumption is associated with lean mass and muscle performance. Clinical Nutrition, 35(6), pp.1506–1511.
Morton, R.W., et al., 2018. A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. British journal of sports medicine, 52(6), pp.376–384.
Vasconcelos, Q.D.J.S., Bachur, T.P.R. and Aragão, G.F., 2021. Whey protein supplementation and its potentially adverse effects on health: a systematic review. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme, 46(1), pp.27–33.