Protein shakes, and similar supplements, have become an increasingly popular way of boosting muscle growth. But do protein supplements work? The question largely depends on what counts as ‘work’. No protein supplement, natural or processed, will grow muscle on its own. If you exercise regularly protein will help build your muscles – but only if you exercise.
What is protein?
Proteins are nutrients. They are key to building, maintaining and repairing muscle, as well as all other types of body tissue. All proteins contain amino acids, the building blocks of muscle growth. In total, 20 different amino acids can be found in protein,
How does protein build muscle?
Every time you exercise, tiny muscle fibres are torn. Amino acids repair these muscle fibres and, through repairing, make the muscle grow bigger and stronger. This constant repairing is how exercise builds muscles – they don’t magically swell a little every time you do some weights. Protein is a vital part of the process.
Insufficient protein stunts muscle growth
If your diet has insufficient protein, your muscles will find it harder to grow – regardless of how hard you exercise. A shortage of protein means your body is unable to effectively repair and build your muscles. You will almost certainly experience some muscle growth but far less than you would if your diet was protein-rich.
What do protein shakes do?
Protein shakes are often taken by people just before, during or after a workout. Protein is a key nutrient for building muscle as well as all types of body tissue. Protein shakes give you a high dose of protein, and are marketed as a key element of a muscle building diet.
Protein shakes are a quick way to get protein into your diet. But you can also add more protein into your diet by eating foods and snacks rich in protein. The advantage of eating meals which contain protein-rich foods is that you’ll also get other nutrients from the other elements of the meal.
Drinking lots of protein shakes in place of meals, could mean you end up lacking in the other vitamins and minerals so important for a healthy diet.
Do protein shakes help?
Up to a point. Ideally you should boost your protein intake through natural food sources (see below). Certainly don’t make supplements your main source of protein, let alone a meal-replacement. However eating a protein-heavy meal after a workout can be inconvenient. Protein shakes do offer an immediate post-training boost, and this intake of protein will help build muscle after exercise. Only use protein shakes as a compliment to your diet. And remember – in order to see any benefit from protein shakes, you must be exercising regularly as well. Protein on its own does not magically build up muscle. It is through repairing muscle torn by exercise that protein helps muscle grow.
If buying protein shakes…
Only ever buy protein shakes or supplements from a trusted source. If you have doubts about a product, research it before you purchase. Any product that claims to boost muscle without exercise is lying. There is no miracle drug or powder. Exercise is key. Ideally you want protein shakes that provide all 20 amino acids. These shakes will be most effective in aiding muscle growth. But aiding growth is all they’ll do – you must do the hard work yourself.
Foods rich in protein
Ultimately, protein shakes are processed food. Natural, unprocessed food will always be preferable. A protein-rich diet is a more nutritious way of facilitating muscle growth. You needn’t eat a whole meal after exercising – a simple snack should reap rewards. Foods high in protein include:
- Red meat – beef, lamb, pork
- Poultry – chicken, turkey, duck
- Eggs (especially the yolk)
- Dairy – milk, yoghurt, cheese
- Fish – tuna, mackerel and many more
Incorporating these foods into your diet will greatly boost your protein-intake. However they will not build muscle alone, anymore than protein shakes will.
Check out our article on healthy alternatives to fast food, for more cooking inspiration.