Protein powders and supplements are popular for people of all ages. From baby formula to nutrition shakes for immunocompromised people, whey protein is useful for different reasons. You’ll find it in weight loss supplements where it acts as an appetite suppressor, and in supplements sold to build muscle mass.
Whey protein is made of amino acids – the same building blocks found in all proteins. It’s used by the body mostly to repair muscle tissue and to grow muscle mass. Protein derived from food sources is broken down during digestion into amino acids, which are then used to build new proteins.
Why do body builders use protein powder supplements?
Body builders in particular focus on protein as a supplement as it’s a good way to get amino acids into their bodies, specifically valine, isoleucine and leucine. These three amino acids made up the branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) that are vital for building muscles. We need nine essential amino acids from our diet to function and thrive, and whey protein includes all of them.
Early scientific studies link protein supplements with increased athletic endurance and a more robust immune system. Extremely early studies hint that there could be a role for protein in fighting cancer. In addition to these scientific claims, that must be further tested to become in any way definitive, supplements that include whey protein are sold to increase energy, focus and drive, to lower cholesterol, potentially help allergies and control blood sugar levels. So, do these claims stand up, and do protein supplements actually work?
It’s definitely possible to derive high-quality protein from supplements like Pro Jym that include whey protein. And while many health organisations, such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US, recommend that food should be the main source of protein, there is plenty of evidence to show that protein supplements work well before and after exercise.
Scientific studies show that protein supplements boost immune systems
An early scientific study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 2003 tested protein supplements during basic training of 387 US marines shows some interesting results. At the end of the 54-day training, the group that had taken protein supplements while going through the mandatory rigorous exercise programme, showed evidence of stronger immune systems. The protein group logged 33% fewer medical visits than groups given carbohydrate or fat supplement or a placebo. The protein supplement group also experienced less soreness in their muscles and joints.
Other small studies appear to show that whey protein in particular could be the key to increasing muscle mass. According to a 2013 article in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, researchers from the University of Connecticut conducted a study on different supplements. A group of 63 people were split into three and given a carbohydrate, whey protein or soy supplement before embarking on a nine-month training regime. At the end of the exercise, researchers found that the group taking the whey protein supplement had increased their muscle mass by several kg more than the other groups.
When you take the protein powder supplement matters
Timing also seems to be key in terms of the effectiveness of protein supplements. In 2009, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), Dietitians of Canada (DC) and the American Dietetic Association (ADA) released a statement noting that eating protein when exercising does little to improve performance. They recommend eating a high-carb, low-fat snack with moderate protein before exercise to make the appropriate fuel available to the muscles. However, they also say that eating whey protein (or taking a supplement) immediately after exercise is useful to build new muscles, due to the high levels of leucine.
Many health benefits attributed to protein supplements involve glutathione, which is a particularly powerful antioxidant. People with various chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and liver disease, often have low levels of glutathione in their bodies. However, we can make our own glutathione from an amino acid called cysteine, which is present in whey protein supplements and powders.
The effect of protein powder on conditions such as asthma, lowering blood pressure and other health benefits are a long way from proven, although small studies have been carried out. In 2012, a review in medical journal Lipids in Health and Disease reported evidence to show that whey protein supplements could potentially trigger hormones that help people to feel satiated.
How much protein powder do you need?
As with all other supplements, protein powders containing whey must be taken only in safe, controlled doses. Too much protein in the body can increase your risk of losing calcium, which eventually can lead to osteoporosis. This is because the digestion of protein uses calcium to neutralise acids, and this can be leached from the bones. While this is something to be aware of, it’s worth noting that studies are not definitive on this issue.
Athletes, body builders and people who exercise often can safely take in more protein than those who are less active. Athletes in particular must ensure they get enough otherwise their muscles can be more easily damaged. An average person needs to eat or take supplements to the equivalent of 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight. An athlete or regular body builder needs more, roughly in between 1g and 2g per kg, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition and other bodies.
Overall, protein supplements are considered safe for the majority of healthy adults, and particularly for those who have specific fitness or athletic goals. Anyone with underlying health conditions should always talk to their doctor before taking a new supplement of any kind.