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What Does Protein Powder Do? (Everything You Need To Know)

Tyler Sellers
Published by Tyler Sellers | Senior Coach
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: April 13, 2023
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People who cannot meet their protein needs through diet alone can take protein powder to help build muscle, boost strength, and lose weight.

As an athletic trainer, my clients and I have relied on protein shakes to supplement our diet and exercise for years, which prompted me to thoroughly research how protein powders aid weight loss and muscle hypertrophy.

In this article, I will discuss in great detail what protein powders do to stimulate muscle growth, their health benefits, and potential drawbacks.

Let's begin.

Quick Summary

  • Protein powder increases an athlete's ability to exercise, promoting muscle growth in the long run.
  • The benefits of protein powder are promoting weight loss, lean muscle retention, and lowering blood pressure levels.
  • Some risks linked with protein powder include stomach upset, and blood sugar spikes.

What Is the Function of Protein Powder?

scooper filled with white powder

Protein powder increases the effectiveness of physical workouts by promoting muscle growth.

Muscles require more than physical exercise to grow, as proper nutrition is necessary for the body to heal and regenerate damaged muscle tissue.

Research suggests that protein supplementation has been shown to boost muscle size and strength by stimulating protein muscle synthesis [1].

A protein diet provides our bodies with the essential amino acids necessary for repairing and growing new muscle tissues [2].

Furthermore, a high-protein diet combined with naturally occurring hormones such as insulin growth factor and testosterone supports the body in healing muscle damage caused by physical exertion, resulting in bigger, stronger muscles [3].

Aside from increasing muscle growth and strength, protein supplements may provide other significant benefits that help people stay healthy and fit.

Benefits Of Protein Powder

woman checking her waist size and a man with a dumbbell

Protein powder is a convenient, cost-efficient, high-quality source of protein that helps in muscle building and tissue repair. Additionally, protein powder can assist in enzyme and hormone production to improve weight loss and other chronic conditions.

Drinking protein shakes may provide you with the following health and fitness benefits, but you should never rely only on them, as you cannot survive only by drinking protein shakes.

Weight Loss

Protein supplementation can help in calorie reduction by influencing the hormones that stimulate and control appetite, including Peptide tyrosine-tyrosine (PYY), Glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1), and Ghrelin [4] [5].

Additionally, high protein diets can temporarily boost metabolism due to protein's high thermogenic effect, which accelerates the body's calorie-burning rate [6].

Also, it stimulates gluconeogenesis, the process by which glucose is synthesized from proteins and fats, assisting with weight loss [7].

Lean muscle retention

Supplementing workouts with protein shakes may help muscle recovery by increasing amino acid levels in the bloodstream, activating a stronger response when it comes to muscle synthesis.

In a 2017 study, the experimental group, which had an average daily intake of about 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass, was given an extra 36 grams of protein per day to supplement their resistance training [8].

The study discovered that supplementing a high protein diet increased muscle mass and strength during prolonged resistance training. Additionally, protein supplementation resulted in a decrease in fat mass and an increase in lean body mass.

Health Benefits Of Protein Supplements

Taking protein supplements can benefit overall health by lowering blood pressure and improving insulin sensitivity in patients with long-term medical conditions such as hypertension and diabetes [9] [10].

Furthermore, protein shake consumption, especially whey protein, was shown to strengthen immune function by reducing inflammation [11].

Also, whey protein has a high concentration of Cysteine, which assists the body's natural production of Glutathione, an important antioxidant in humans, to reduce oxidative stress [12] [13].

Are There Risks To Consider When Using A Protein Powder?

woman in stomach and a man in back pain

There are some risks to consider when using protein powders, such as digestive issues, blood sugar spikes, and kidney damage.

 "People with dairy allergies or trouble digesting lactose [milk sugar] can experience gastrointestinal discomfort if they use a milk-based protein powder."

- Kathy McManus, Director of the Department of Nutrition at the Brigham & Women's Hospital

However, some of these side effects may be associated with intolerances and allergies, too much protein consumption, and long-term usage.

Upset stomach - Some protein powders, like whey protein, contain high levels of lactose, which can cause bloating, gas, stomach cramps, and diarrhea in people with lactose intolerance [14].

Blood sugar spikes  - Some ready-to-drink protein shakes contain added sugar. Furthermore, some people increase their sugar and calorie intake by blending protein shakes with honey and milk, resulting in blood glucose spikes and possible weight gain [15].

Kidney damage - According to a study conducted by the Clean Label Project, protein powders contain high levels of mercury, cadmium, lead, and arsenic. Research suggests that prolonged exposure to heavy metals may be harmful to the kidneys [16] [17].

What Is the Difference Between Protein Powders?

scoopers with different protein powders

The main difference between the most common types of protein powders is the amino acid profile.

According to research, whey and casein are complete proteins, which means they have all the essential amino acids. In addition to having a full profile, they also have higher amounts of some important amino acids than other plant-based protein powders such as rice protein, soy protein, and pea protein [18].

Additionally, due to the fast-acting nature of whey protein, they stimulate muscle protein synthesis more rapidly than casein, a slow-digesting protein [19].

In addition to developing lean body mass, taking a whey protein supplement can also improve insulin sensitivity, antioxidant levels, and bone mineral density, which is why many fitness enthusiasts prefer whey proteins [20].

However, taking whey protein powders may cause digestive issues for people who cannot digest lactose. The good news is that lactose-intolerant individuals can use whey isolate, the purest form of lactose-free whey protein [21].

Final Thoughts On Protein Shakes

Protein shakes supplement people's protein intake, allowing them to meet their daily requirements with consistency.

With enough protein consumption for muscle gain and weight loss, even inactive people might be able to keep their bodies reasonably healthy and fit.

However, you should keep in mind that long-term misuse can affect your digestion, glucose regulation, and even kidney function.

If you combine premium whey protein powders with a healthy diet, adequate rest, and an effective workout routine, you will create the ideal conditions for optimizing muscle and overall health.


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