Everyone from amateur bodybuilders to professional fitness experts seems to talk a lot about the importance and benefits of protein powder and drinking protein shakes. But how do these drinks actually work? And, why do our bodies need protein?
One of the body’s biggest sources of energy, protein is essential to human survival. When you begin creating a strict workout plan, whether your goal is to lose weight, gain muscle or just get into yourself into a regular workout program, increasing your protein intake is beneficial for a number of reasons. To learn more about protein and whether you should incorporate these shakes into your daily diet, read our explanation of how protein powders actually work.
What is Protein?
Considered a macronutrient, protein is crucial for everyday functions. Protein helps to energize you and build muscle mass. Hair and nail cells are composed mainly of protein, and it’s often called the building block of other body parts like bones, skin and blood. Because protein is a macronutrient, you need to take in a high amount of it to properly nourish your body.
Unlike other nutrients, protein is not stored in the body, so you need to consume protein often to re-fuel your supply. Because it makes up nearly everything in your body, protein is an extremely versatile element that can be broken down and used to regenerate whatever your body needs. As protein is digested, your stomach breaks it down into amino acids. These amino acids are vital to carrying out many biological processes—they help store other important nutrients, aid in muscle repair and regrowth and shape different cell structures.
Protein can be found in many different foods, but certain meats and even grains have the highest content. If you’re focusing on your health and fitness, you should design a meal plan around these high-protein items and add in side dishes with other essential nutrients to give your body the proper nutrients and minerals. The best method to fuel your body is to consume foods that are considered complete proteins, which means they contain all the essential amino acids your body needs.
While it’s a misconception that protein alone builds muscle, it is important for people who work out often because of its ability to heal muscles and encourage growth post-exercise. Most people who are interested in physical fitness will use a protein shaker bottle to bring protein shakes to the gym with them and consume before, after or even during a workout to encourage this muscle regrowth while muscles are broken down during exercise.
Why Do We Need Protein?
Without protein, you’ll experience a list of negative effects, including fatigue. When you’re not consuming enough protein, your metabolism will start to burn off lean muscle instead of fat. Whether you're working out to gain muscle or lose weight, you want to build up lean muscle not decrease it, so protein is extremely important. Though a protein deficiency can lead to weight loss, it is not a healthy way to lose weight, and you’ll begin to feel other negative effects. Some people with protein deficiencies will have the opposite reaction and begin to gain weight because the body is responding by slowing your metabolism.
Because protein plays a role in regulating your blood, a lack of it often causes low blood pressure as well as low heart rate. When you have low blood pressure, your blood is not properly flowing to your organs, which is a major health issue as this leads to strokes, heart attacks, kidney failure and other life-threatening heart diseases.
Even if you’re taking in enough other nutrients and minerals, without the proper amount of protein, your body will struggle to process and store these other essential elements. It can also prevent your body from completing necessary biological processes. For example, your liver has a difficult time separating out lipids and filtering out toxic elements.
One of the most noticeable signs of protein deficiency, aside from fatigue, is a loss of hair, flaky skin or strange changes in your nails because these parts of your body are almost entirely protein. Unusual cravings can also be a sign of deficiency because it’s your body demanding the proper nutrients. It can be extremely difficult to exercise when you’re not getting enough protein because it often creates muscle weakness. When you’re suffering from lack of protein, your body is not functioning properly and it leads to slow recovery from injuries, which generates even more pain and health issues.
How Much Protein Do We Need Per Day?
The amount of protein you need every day varies from person to person, but it’s recommended that each person gets between 56 grams of protein for males and 46 grams for females. Though this is a good guideline, the amount of protein you consume depends on how active you are and your fitness goals. Men looking to build muscle will likely want to consume more protein as they are breaking down their muscles more often during exercise and working these muscles harder than a sedentary person.
If your goal is to gain muscle mass, you should try to consume 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily. Women need to consume less protein even if trying to build muscle because most women have less lean muscle comparative to total body weight than men. Women looking to gain muscle should try to get 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per pound every day.
When trying to lose weight, you don’t need to bulk up on protein, but you certainly should not cut it out of your diet. To lose weight, you have to burn off more calories than you consume. Many people trying to diet will eat less thinking that it will lower their calorie intake, but this is a dangerous way to watch your weight. You should still meet the daily recommended amount of protein but incorporating foods that are high in protein and low in calories is a smarter and healthier way to meet your fitness goals. This is one reason why people looking to drop pounds will replace one meal with a protein shake. Shakes can provide the proper amount of protein without a high number of calories.
Protein Powder Can Stimulate Muscle Growth
Protein powder is excellent at nourishing muscle repair and growth. Fitness experts recommend drinking a protein shake 30 minutes prior to or immediately after exercising for this very reason. During a workout, your muscles are exerting energy and burning off glucose, which breaks the muscles down. Though it may sound counterintuitive, exercising creates small tears in your muscles as they contract. These tears make room for your muscles to get bigger and stronger.
Right after working out, your muscles have burned through their store of glucose, which is sugars that your body converts from carbohydrates and stores as glycogen and ATP, an organic chemical found in your body that provides energy. As your body begins to rest post-workout, the muscles need to repair themselves and rebuild. Protein is a major player in this process, so drinking a protein shake or eating a protein-heavy meal can speed up this process and help your recovery time. When you have a protein deficiency, your muscles will not be able to rebuild, leaving you weak and tired.
Another common time to drink protein shakes is right before bed. It may seem like a strange time to consume one, but during sleep your body’s functions alter and you don’t require as much food or energy. Because of this, your body is not rebuilding muscles the way it would while awake, so drinking a shake before bed can aid your body in recovering muscle while you sleep. Though protein powder is a great way to help with your fitness goals and consume the proper amount of protein, you want to avoid relying too heavily on this as your main source of a protein. A combination of protein powder and protein from food is the best way to see optimal results.
Protein Powder Helps Satiate Hunger
Consuming protein is the main reason that we feel full after eating. People who follow a plant-based diet need to be much more conscious about their sources of protein because it’s most commonly found in animal products like meat. While vegetables and fruits contain many other essential nutrients, they don’t necessarily give us that feeling of fullness, which can cause discomfort and lead to the previously mentioned issues associated with protein deficiency.
Using protein powder to make a shake in the mornings is a great way to satiate hunger and provide your body with plenty of energy for the day. Most people tend to eat a small breakfast, a medium-sized lunch and a large dinner, but the most effective way to help your metabolism to perform efficiently is by flipping this schedule. Eating a protein-heavy breakfast kickstarts your metabolism first thing in the morning and encourages it to burn fat instead of lean muscle.
You also want to consume the most calories in the morning if you can because your body then has the whole day to burn these calories off as opposed to consuming a lot at night when people are usually more sedentary. Because your body slows down or stops many of its biological functions at night, you’re not burning off fat and calories during sleep. This means when you consume a lot of food at night, your body is not metabolizing and converting it into essential elements throughout the night.
What Is the Difference Between Protein Powders?
Protein powders come in a variety of forms from lactose-derived types like whey and casein to plant-based forms like pea and hemp powder. Depending on your diet, some of these proteins will be more or less effective for you. Whey is the most commonly used protein because your body can metabolize it quickly, and it offers a long list of health benefits.
However, whey is derived from milk during the cheese-making process, so this type of protein powder may not work for people who follow a plant-based diet or have a lactose allergy. Anyone looking to build muscle will certainly want to consider using whey. It contains many of the essential amino acids your body needs. It can be broken down quickly to aid your body in recovery, making it a great protein powder to use in a shake that you plan to drink before or after the gym.
Casein is another lactose-derived protein from cows but acts much differently than whey. While whey is quickly absorbed, casein is digested at a much slower rate. Because of this, casein is better suited for nighttime shakes or morning protein to keep your hunger at bay for a longer period of time. The protein in casein will be broken down slowly, leaving you with more energy throughout the morning. At night, casein is a great supplement because it will release amino acids at a slower rate, which lengthens the amount of time your muscles receive this vital nutrient. Casein will help regenerate muscles overnight as this slow-release process prevents muscles from breaking down as quickly as they normally would during sleep.
One of the best plant-based protein powders, pea powder is composed of–you guessed it–peas. Both green and yellow split peas are crushed into a fine powder while they are dry and then other elements like starch are removed to provide a substance high in protein. These legumes are known for their high protein content with 22 grams per half a cup. This type of supplement is an excellent choice for vegans and vegetarians as well as those with dairy allergies, but even people who do not fall into any of these categories enjoy adding pea protein to their shakes from time to time. A complete protein, pea powder has all the essential amino acids, meaning it provides your body with many of the same benefits as whey, and it metabolizes quickly unlike casein.