In this article, we’re going to cover some of the more general aspects of protein, so we can get a good idea of exactly how and why protein powder is beneficial. For some people, it can be tough to consume enough protein during the day, so a powder could be an easy and convenient way of adding that all important extra.
Protein and Muscle Mass
Increasing your protein intake can help support Increased Muscle Mass. Protein provides the amino acid building blocks in order to build new muscle tissue - especially the BCAA (Branched Chain Amino Acids) Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine which send the strongest signals to build new muscle tissue (anabolic signals).
Amino acids are structural, and also functional in initiating the signals to start making new muscle tissue, through a process called muscle protein synthesis.
Through diet and supplementation, taking in 1.6g/kg of body weight of protein has been consistently shown to lead to improvements in both muscle strength, and muscle mass (1).
Protein and Detoxification
The amino acids glutamine, glycine and cysteine found in protein are used to make our body's master antioxidant, Glutathione. This is super important for helping mop up toxic and harmful substances called free radicals in the body, which damage cells and organs over time, such as the liver. Glutathione plays a key role in helping detoxify the body and prevent toxicity from accumulating.
Another detoxification process known as phase II detoxification, relies on protein, specifically sulfur containing amino acids. This process is unsurprisingly called sulfation, and relies on cysteine and methionine amino acids.
Other Phase II detox reactions including Glucuronidation, Acetylation, Methylation and glutathione conjugation also rely on protein. They need glutamine, taurine, glycine and n-acetylcysteine to operate.
All of these reactions need protein to efficiently clear toxicity in the body. With low protein diets there’s a higher risk of toxicity from the environment, so it's important to stay topped up each day.
Protein Improves Mood
Amino acids (protein building blocks) what good moods are made of, literally. They help make up key brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, that promote a healthy mood.
This is how food can be good mood food, especially if it supplies lot’s of protein.
There are many neurotransmitters that help to regulate mood. But there are a few specifically that we know lots about when it comes to good moods.
Serotonin is made from the amino acid Tryptophan. This helps to regulate mood, and lessen anxiety, depression and helps promote feelings of safety and security. It can also then be used to make melatonin, which promotes sleep. Good sleep also helps with good moods.
Tyrosine is another amino acid, which helps build the motivation and reward chemical Dopamine. This helps to keep us driven, feeling motivated and pursuing our goals aggressively. It’s also related to addiction, as it drives reward seeking behavior. Staying topped up on protein can help keep dopamine levels in check.
Glutamate is an amino acid that’s used to make the anti-anxiety chemical GABA. This helps put the brakes on the nervous system to induce a state of sleep, relaxation, and rest. It helps the body and mind relax, and brings it into a rest and digest state. Nutritionally deficiency of protein can lead to anxiety, in part due to lack of GABA activity.
Protein and Metabolism
Taking in extra protein in the form of powder or supplement can really add some fuel to the fure of metabolism.
Through the effect we discussed above, protein increases muscle mass (when combined with exercise training). In doing this, it can also boost metabolism.
Having more muscle mass means the body has to work harder to maintain this extra weight, which fires up metabolism, encouraging the body to use stored energy such as fat. You may have heard of resting energy expenditure - which is the amount of energy the body uses at rest. Well this is increased, which can ultimately lead to a leaner body, and weight loss from fat.
Protein also takes more energy to digest than fat and carbs, so a higher protein intake may increase the number of calories you burn.
Protein Promotes Weight Loss
Getting sufficient protein can be really filling. It works wonders on the digestive hormones that promote feelings of fullness, turning on satiating hormones and turning off the hunger hormones. In this way protein is not just energy, but instructions.
This has been shown, that protein also has a suppressive effect on orexigenic (pro-appetite) hormones, as well as a stimulating effect on anorexigenic (pro fullness) hormones (2).
Studies also show that energy from protein has a greater effect on satiety than an equivalent amount of energy from carbohydrate or fat in the short-term (3).
So what this means is that not only is it more satiating, but can also help to boost metabolic rate as we’ve talked about, in a way that helps encourage weight loss.
There’s consistent evidence that higher protein diets (>25% of total calories) lead to significant weight loss (4).
Protein and Immunity
Getting enough amino acids (protein) is essential for many important aspects of immune function, including protection from infectious diseases.
Protein makes up the backbone of structural and functional aspects of immunity, from the very cells that make up the immune system, all the way to the messages it sends to coordinate response.
The most important amino acids for immunity include Arginine, glutamine and cysteine. Others play a role too.
In general, amino acids……
- Activate T Cells, B Cells, Natural killer cells and Macrophages. These all make up our innate and adaptive immunity, to protect us against invaders.
- Express genes involved in mobilizing immune cells, to help activate the immune response.
- Produce antibodies, and immune signaling messengers to help conduct and direct immune responses.
It’s no wonder that protein deficiencies in the diet are linked to a weakened immune system (5).
When Should You Take Protein Powder?
This depends on your goal.
After workout aim for max 3 hrs after (to capitalize on the anabolic window) (6). But remember the most important thing is to consume enough protein throughout the day (1.6-2.2g/kg body weight per day) to support muscle growth.
Aim for a good 3-5 servings throughout the day.
General health and detoxification again just spaced out throughout the day (3-5 servings).
If you are hungry in the evenings it's good to have supplementary protein - it can be satiating, and doesn’t hit the same way as eating carbs later at night (easier to gain weight if eating carbs at night - due to circadian biology).
How Often Should You Use Protein Powder?
Don’t go overboard - remember supplements are supplements.
Look to get most protein from meats as they contain other beneficial nutrients such as creatine and carnitine in meats, as well as B Vitamins, Iron, magnesium, selenium and zinc from organ meats.
Plant based foods are also a great source of protein when combined, such as rice and beans. These have the added benefit of providing fiber, B Vitamins, Manganese, Magnesium and Selenium.
Everyone has different needs, but on the whole maybe no more than 2-3 servings of supplementary protein a day.
Too much protein on keto can knock people out of keto and cause them to actually eat into their muscle mass to derive energy - causing muscle loss.
Excessive overall protein in other dietary scenarios when consumed long-term can put a strain on the kidneys and liver, and may promote calcium balance and bone health (7).
Is Consuming Protein Powder Necessary?
General health it's not so necessary.
From a cost and convenience standpoint yes. For athletic performance and significant muscle gain.
It can get expensive and time consuming to prep supplementary meals based on whole foods everyday.
It also reduces the amount of animal products someone has to consume in order to meet their goals.
For example an omnivore may choose to supplement their diet with extra protein using a plant based protein powder using brown rice, pea and hemp.
In the past the options were slimmer, and consisted of casein and or whey protein.
People with chronic illness (where increased protein is needed) absolutely need to supplement as their digestion may be compromised.
Protein powder is a great addition to a diet that is already rich in protein. It should not be a substitute for dietary protein, but can be an easy, convenient and effective way of squeezing in those extra grams for optimal health, muscle gain or for immune support.