Protein Powder: A Beginner’s Guide

Protein Powder: A Beginner’s Guide

Protein powders are one of the most widely used supplements, by people both looking to build muscle and those looking to lose weight. It’s even used by people not aiming to do either of those. But what is protein powder exactly, do you even need it, and how do you use it?

To start answering these questions, we first have to take a look at why you need protein in the first place.

Why do I need protein?

Proteins are the building blocks our bodies use to keep us running. Proteins are used to strengthen our immune systems, to grow and repair our cells and tissues, and everything in between.

In relation to muscle building, losing weight, and living healthy, protein can have very functional benefits, such as building muscle, adding lean mass, and increasing satiety.

Protein helps build muscle

Whenever we exercise and strain our muscles, they start breaking down. Proteins are the building blocks they use to rebuild and become stronger. Without enough protein, our bodies won’t be able to build and repair muscles, causing soreness and even more serious damage.

It’s pretty simple: if you want to build muscle mass, you will need to eat enough protein.

Protein helps with weight loss

Muscles are very good for weight loss. Not only does building muscle require a ton of energy (i.e. burns more calories), muscle cells need a lot more energy than your other cells just to sustain themselves. This means that when you build muscles or just have a lot of muscle, losing weight and maintaining lost weight is much easier.

When you are dieting however and maintaining a caloric deficit (burning more than you eat), your body will often start burning your muscle cells. While you will be losing weight, you will be losing a valuable asset. Without muscles to burn calories, it will be much more difficult to lose more weight and much easier to regain weight.

Eating a lot of protein when you are dieting helps you maintain muscle so you can eat less without losing too much muscle.

And if that isn’t a good enough reason to eat enough protein, your digestive system slows down when digesting protein, making you feel less hungry when you eat a lot of protein. A meal full of protein will make you feel satiated for a longer period of time than a meal without, helping you diet.

Protein helps with recovery

Protein helps repair muscle after a workout, preventing extended muscle soreness, and preparing you for your next workout.

How much protein do I need?

Now that we’ve covered why you should eat enough protein, it’s time to take a look at what “enough” even is.

Our bodies need approximately 0.36 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. However, if you’re trying to build muscle, this number jumps up to about 0.73 to 1 gram of protein. This means that if you are trying to build muscle and weigh 170 pounds, you should try to eat a little less than 170 grams of protein per day.

It can be difficult to eat a normal diet and get enough proteins on a daily basis. Fortunately, you can supplement your diet with protein powder to make sure you maintain or grow your muscles.

What types of protein powder supplements can I choose from?

Finding the right supplement to fit your protein needs can be difficult and confusing. There are countless varieties, flavors, etc. to choose from.

While the quality and macros might be different from brand to brand, different flavors usually have similar macros (as long as they are made with sweeteners and not actual sugar), meaning it’s ok to choose a flavor you like.

However, there are major differences between different types of protein powders. While protein powder can be created from a multitude of sources, and refined many different ways, the two most common types of protein powder are whey and casein.

Whey

When milk is turned into cheese, the left-over liquid can be dried and processed to make whey, a highly concentrated source of protein. Whey protein powder can come in many different flavors, variations, and levels of processing, but they are all high in protein and easily absorbed by the body.

Casein

Like whey, casein is a milk-based protein powder. However, it is absorbed much more slowly than whey, contributing instead to long-term muscle building.

While whey is a great protein to take right before or after the gym, casein is perfect for repairing and building your muscles over an extended period of time.

Vegan options

While there are vegan protein powder options, like soy protein isolates, that are high in protein and low in sugars and fats, most individual sources often lack vital nutrients.

Sometimes, combining different sources will fix this. For example, while legumes have a low concentration of methionine and cysteine amino acids, they have more than enough lysine. Oatmeal, on the other hand, can pick up the slack on the methionine and cysteine, but is lacking in lysine.

Other times, you will need to take extra supplements for minerals such as iodine, calcium, and iron.

Read more about eating as a vegan athlete here.

How do I use protein powder?

Protein powder is a relatively versatile supplement and can be taken in a variety of ways. You can make protein shakes, put protein powder in your pancake or waffle batter, mix it in your yogurt, or even add flavorless protein powder to mashed potatoes.

If you are interested in recipes and ideas for how to use protein powder, you can find those here.

When should I take protein powder?

Protein in general should be spaced out throughout the day and the week. If your goal is to eat 120 grams of protein in a day, you can’t eat 100 of those for dinner. Neither can you eat 360 grams of protein on Monday and do without on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Instead, make sure to evenly eat protein throughout the day. Each meal doesn’t have to exactly match the others, but try to get some protein for breakfast, lunch, dinner and – ideally – drink a protein shake in between breakfast and lunch.

When it comes to working out, you may have heard that it is better to take protein supplements right before your workout. Others may have heard that the best time to drink a protein shake is while walking out of the gym. Scientifically, neither of these theories have been proven. No major clinical trial has been able to conclusively prove that taking protein before or after exercise led to better results. The one thing that is clear however, is that you need protein to repair and build muscles.

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