Protein powders are all the rage at the moment, considered ‘vital’ amongst the gym crowd and anyone who’s trying to bulk up. I will admit that I’ve always been skeptical of any product whose major selling point is that it contains large quantities of a macronutrient that already exists in large quantities in many nutritious and delicious foods. So I thought I’d help bust some myths and provide some quality evidence-based advice on bulking up.
What can I eat to help me gain muscle?
“Protein ≠ muscle!”
While food and nutrients can ASSIST in promoting muscle gain, the main thing that contributes to muscle growth is resistance training. Protein ≠ muscle! It’s not quite that simple. For muscle growth you will need:
- A good resistance workout plan
- Adequate energy to put your body into ‘positive energy balance’ so the extra energy consumed can be used to help rebuild and repair muscle that was ‘damaged’ while training (the process of breaking down muscle then repairing it so it’s bigger than before is how you get muscle growth)
- Adequate carbohydrates. Carbohydrate is the body’s preferred fuel source (which is very important for athletes to ensure peak performance, and for anyone to be able to get through training). It also stimulates the production of the hormone insulin, which promotes the body’s uptake of amino acids from protein (i.e. lets protein do its job and re-build muscle after training). So all that protein you’re consuming will be doing little good if you’re not eating enough carbohydrates.
- Adequate quality protein, such as from meat, dairy and eggs, before training to prevent your body having to dig into its muscle stores for energy and after training to allow your body to start re-building the muscle
- Timing is crucial. As you have read, both carbohydrates and protein are important before and after training. Make sure you eat something both carb- and protein-rich 30 minutes to 1 hour before training and 20-30 minutes after training.
- And of course a wholesome healthy diet full of variety and plenty of fruit and vegetables to provide you with the recommended vitamins and minerals to keep your body running at it’s peak.
“Carbohydrates stimulate the production of the hormone insulin, which promotes the body’s uptake of amino acids from protein.”
How much protein do I need for optimal muscle growth?
The exact quantity depends on the extent on your exercise and your weight goals. It can range from 50-100% more than the average population (from 0.8-1.8g/kg body weight/day). However, it’s important to note that most Australians (with the exception of some elderly people and some people with diets that are of limited variety) are already consuming this much protein and certainly meet the recommended dietary intakes with no problem whatsoever.
To gain muscle mass you need to ensure you are consuming enough total energy as energy needs increase with an increase in the amount of exercise you do (where energy is used up by the body), and for most people, increasing their total consumption of foods often involves an increase in protein purely because it is one of the major macronutrients present in common foods.
Studies have shown that any more than 2g/kg/day of protein will have no additional benefits and excess protein can in fact be harmful, especially if you have pre-existing kidney problems (as it can accelerate kidney disease) and risk factors for heart problems (as too much dietary protein often comes with extra saturated fat, and excess protein will just be stored as body fat). Be careful too that you are drinking plenty of water as too much protein can act as a diuretic (dehydrate you). And, of course, it’s expensive!
Aim for good quality protein which is rich in the amino acid leucine (such as meat, dairy, eggs and whey) as this has been found to be the best at stimulating muscle growth after training.
Note: This is also the position of the Australian Institute of Sport and I think they know what they’re talking about!
Ok, so I know what I have to eat around workout times, but what about the rest of the day?
Muscle growth continues for a period of up to 24-48 hours post-workout so make sure all meals & snacks after working out (as well as before) contain quality protein and carbohydrates to see the best results.
Limit fat (particularly saturated fat) around training times as it can make you lethargic and decrease performance.
How do I gain muscle and lose fat at the same time?
It’s often difficult to increase muscle while decreasing fat as increases in muscle require a positive energy balance (ie consuming more energy than your body is using so it can get used in muscle growth) whereas fat loss requires a negative energy balance (ie consuming less energy than your body is using so it can dig into it’s fat stores and burn them off). While you may think your body can just use its fat stores to help you gain muscle, fat is quite ineffective when it comes to delivering a rapidly available fuel source to the muscle (as it is slow to metabolise) meaning it can delay muscle growth rather than promote it.
So the short answer is it’s best to focus on one goal at a time, but this doesn’t mean you can’t start to eat more healthily while trying to gain muscle.
Ok, ok but what about the protein powder??
Alright, it’s important to note that protein powder is NOT NECESSARY to achieve muscle growth, as adequate protein can be gained from food sources for the majority of the population (including athletes). HOWEVER, there are some benefits to consuming protein in powder form. So I have written up a list of the pros and cons:
- Convenient- portable and doesn’t need to be refrigerated
- Liquid form (when made up) may be helpful for those who find they have little appetite immediately after a workout
- Can be a good way to consume additional protein and energy in a person with high energy requirements without having to eat large volumes of food
- Can displace other nutrient rich foods, especially carbohydrates
- Often contain little carbohydrates, which are necessary in combination with protein to enhance muscle growth
- Can be expensive
- Makes it easier to consume more protein than your body requires which has no additional benefits and can be harmful for some people
“600mL of reduced fat milk provides the perfect combination of protein and carbohydrates and studies have shown it to be just as effective in aiding muscle growth after exercise and it is a much cheaper option!”
But if you do choose to buy protein powders, here are some tips:
- Whey protein derived protein powders offer more benefits
- Buy a powder which also contains a moderate amount of carbohydrate or combine a protein shake with a carbohydrate rich snack
- For more advice on the types of protein- and carbohydrate-rich foods you should be consuming throughout the day, and the ideal amounts for you, see an Accredited Practising Dietitian! You can contact me through my Facebook page: www.facebook.com/thedieteticdegustation.