The amount of times my eyes have spotted a huge tub of WHEY protein in my friends’ houses is common. What’s the deal with these vanilla, banana or cookies and cream protein shakes? I don’t know much about whey but I wonder; how much more do these people who believe in, purchase and use these products on a daily basis know?
Whey protein is a by-product of the cheese industry. It’s processed and then sold as a protein supplement commonly used by body-builders and more recently by teenagers wanting to buff-up quick and busy individuals who replace their meals with it.
Muscles are for the most part made up of protein. If a muscle is to get bigger, besides the importance of exercise, it will need protein. However, this is where the misunderstanding creeps in and where the marketing of protein shakes wins; supplementing a diet with whey protein is not a prerequisite for building muscle. It is obvious that someone who exercises many hours a week is likely to need more protein – and energy – than someone who barely does an hour of exercise each week, but research indicates that protein supplements do not significantly help increase muscle build-up. In effect, the average diet provides enough protein to fuel the growing muscles of exercising individuals.
The digestive system can only absorb a limited amount of protein in a given time; the gastrointestinal tract can absorb about 6 grams of protein per hour. The standard whey protein dose contains about 25 grams, while the drink takes about 1.5 hours to pass through the gastrointestinal tract. This means that roughly 9 grams of protein can be absorbed – less than half the protein contained in the drink. To ensure efficient absorption of all the protein, while saving money, it’s best to reduce the dose in the drink rather than throwing it down the proverbial drain.
The kidneys and liver are responsible for eliminating the toxic component from proteins, which ends up in the urine. As a result, excessive protein consumption makes both organs work harder. If the average diet supplies enough protein to achieve the exercise results, unnecessarily loading more protein in the form of shakes should be done sparingly. To avoid over-working the kidneys and liver, it’s important to monitor the daily intake of protein, which is not only derived from meat and dairy products but from virtually all common foods and drinks. Figures for each individual vary, but anything between 0.9 and 1.5 grams of protein per day per kg of bodyweight is more than enough.
Another essential requirement, and the most important, for effective muscle build-up is satisfying the energy needs of a hungry muscle. Energy stores in the muscle are often depleted after an exercise regime, and the body reacts quickly to restore them. Indeed, evidence indicates that the energy requirement of muscle after exercise exceeds the need for extra protein. So in effect, ensuring the diet provides enough energy – carbohydrates – should be the main priority
The key messages here are that protein supplementation is not a requirement for effective muscle build-up. However, if an individual wishes to supplement their body with extra protein it is important to inform oneself on how best to manage the addition to their diet without consuming excessive amounts, and how best to achieve their desired results.
S. Bilsborough and N. Mann International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism 16 129-152 (2006).
Alert: Protein drinks (July 2010), Consumer Reports Magazine
Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance (2009)