Once a product reserved exclusively for hardcore bodybuilders, protein powder and supplements have steadily made their way into the mainstream, with the protein industry estimated to be worth a whopping $11 billion by 2017.
So the appetite for protein looks to be increasing - but does it really help you to gain muscle?
Over the pond, BBC's Trust Me I'm a Doctor and Dr Stuart Gray of the University of Glasgow decided to put protein powders to the test.
During the experiment, 24 volunteers aged from 20 to 67 were put on an 8 week weight-lifting program. Half the group were given a shake containing 25g of whey protein and half the group a placebo.
The participants trained three times a week for eight weeks. Each training session consisted of 9 reps of a range of exercises including; leg press, chest press, bicep curl, lat pulldown and tricep curls.
At the beginning and end of the experiment, each participant’s maximum lifting capacity on each of the exercises, their lean mass using a body composition chamber, their knee strength using an isokinetic dynamometer (a kick machine), and their thigh muscle thickness using an ultrasound scanner were measured and recorded.
- Lifting capacity increased 33%
- Knee strength increased on average 31%
- Lean mass increased 1%
- Thigh muscle thickness increased 4%
However, there were no statistically significant differences between the group that consumed the protein shake and the group that has the placebo. You can check out the full study here.
During this study, protein supplements were seen to have no effect on muscle mass. However, it's important to note that this study only lasted 8 weeks, so it may not be showing the whole picture. As Livestrong.com states:
Whey protein powder is a complete protein, which means all the amino acids -- the building blocks of protein -- you need for protein to do its work are present. One key amino acid is leucine, which plays a vital role in promoting muscle building and growth.
So, should I be using protein supplements?
If you have an active lifestyle and incorporate a lot of strength training into your routine, then your requirement for protein will be higher than the Average Joe. Protein helps to repair damaged muscles and acts as building blocks for bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood.
Where possible, try to get your protein from natural whole foods like lean meats, nuts, eggs, fish and yogurt. However, protein powders do make protein consumption a lot easier, so if you want to try them out make sure to use a high quality, reputable source.
It's also important to increase your levels of protein in your diet if you're reducing your calories to try and lose weight. By keeping your protein levels high, you can help preserve and maintain your muscle mass, ensuring that any weight you lose is fat rather than muscle (after all, it's muscle that will give the toned, lean body that so many of us aspire to).
A protein packed diet is great for helping build and maintain muscle as part of an active lifestyle. As the study mentioned above has shown, the jury's still out on the impact of protein powder when building muscle. So while a great supplement to a healthy diet, you should always try to get the majority of your protein from natural food sources whenever possible.