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Protein Powder: How much (if any) do you really need?



Staff Member
Aug 11, 2010
Supplements are touted by their makers, especially for muscle-maxing weightlifters. But who really needs how much — if any?

When it comes to misguided efforts of average people wishing to pack on muscle, protein supplements are way up there. A 2004 study of exercisers at a Long Island commercial gym that was published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition revealed that more than 40% of regular exercisers take protein supplements more than five times a week.

For people looking to get as huge as professional bodybuilders, protein powders do make sense. But for us regular folks who merely want to look good for the beach, bar or bed partner, these probably are unnecessary.

This doesn’t stop the supplement industry’s marketing machine, making protein the most popular supplement by far among the fitness crowd.

Many muscle magazines are owned by supplement companies. Weider Nutrition Group launched “Muscle and Fitness” and “Flex.” EAS Supplements grew out of “Muscle Media Magazine,” and then really took off with the bestselling “Body for Life” book series, which was largely a glorified brochure for EAS products. Between the books and the magazines, the supplement industry has much of the weightlifting public convinced that they must consume protein powders to gain muscle.

But when you look at the science and run the actual numbers, a different story comes to light.

The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein for the average person is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. But the supplement sellers assert that weightlifters are different. They bombard us with claims that, at the very least, we require almost three times as much protein as the government recommends — 2.2 grams of it per kilogram of body weight.

Dr. Carmen Castanada Sceppa, a nutrition researcher at Northeastern University, says the protein needs of exercisers are considerably more modest. People engaged in endurance training might need to up their protein intake to about 1 to 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. But the DRIs for protein “seem to be adequate” for weightlifters, she says.

These statements are supported by a 2005 study published in the European Journal of Sport Science. “Habitual performance of moderate physical activity does not in fact increase protein requirements,” researchers from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, reported. Instead, they recommended athletes consume a 60% to 65% carbohydrate diet to fuel sport performance — a figure that sends fans of Dr. Atkins into collective apoplexy.

Yet more evidence comes from researchers at the School of Human Kinetics at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. In a 2006 paper published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition, they determined that young people engaged in resistance training who supplemented their diets with whey protein got only “minimal beneficial effects” compared with those who did not take the supplement.

The scientific literature seems convincing that most people don’t need protein supplements to achieve their fitness goals. But I decided to go ahead and get the opinion of Alan Aragon, a sought-after nutrition consultant whose clients include not only bodybuilders and physique models, but the Los Angeles Kings, the Anaheim Ducks, and even the Los Angeles Lakers.

“Protein powder is more of a matter of convenience than anything else,” Aragon says. “The big part of this is just making sure you get what you need. There is nothing special about protein powders that makes them any better than getting protein from food.”

It’s worth noting that Sceppa’s assertions about the DRI being sufficient for weightlifters might be influenced by her area of specialization, which is aging and older populations. In addition, in the McMaster study the operative words were “moderate physical activity.”

Aragon deals with more ambitious populations. For new weightlifters aiming to both lose fat and build muscle, he recommends 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Those focused merely on adding muscle need only 1.4 grams, he says.

Besides his years of experience, Aragon has some research to back his endorsement of higher protein requirements for a more ambitious athletic population. He sent me a 2006 article from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, in which researchers at Cal State Hayward conducted a meta-analysis of studies on protein intake for weightlifting athletes. They found that, when averaged out, the best results were obtained by consuming around 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight. That’s double the DRI, but still well below what the supplement manufacturers claim.

So what does this all mean for protein supplements? Aragon calls them a matter of convenience, but renowned sport nutritionist Nancy Clark is less kind. “Protein supplements are not a whole food and fail to offer the complete package of health that protective nutrients found in natural foods do,” she says.

Since Clark favors food over supplementation, let’s examine how realistic that is for the ambitious case of an omnivorous athlete looking to maximize his muscular gains. If he weighs 85 kilograms (187 pounds),the Cal State researchers would have him consuming 136 grams of protein each day.

When you consider that a modest 6-ounce chicken breast and a 16-ounce glass of milk would get him more than halfway there, it seems like our workout warrior can get all of his protein needs met via real and unprocessed food without too much difficulty.

If this hypothetical ambitious athlete can manage to meet his needs with food instead of supplements, odds are you can too.

Nevertheless, if you decide to take a supplement for convenience, use caution.
Paul Klinger is the director of Informed Choice, a testing body based in Newmarket, England, that looks for contaminants in supplements that are banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. He informed me that straight whey protein probably isn’t too risky, “but protein supplements that are sold as part of a blend of other performance boosters definitely have a risk of being contaminated with pro- hormones like DHEA and androstenedione, as well as stimulants like ephedrine.”


Sep 28, 2010
great read! I cant count how many arguments Ive had over protein requirements...One bro's mom told me once that I was gonna die from drinking protein shakes cuz they shut down your kidneys! Ideally I would love to get all my protein in thru whole food but like it says above its just not convenient. I definitely notice the difference in my strength and physique when Im eating more food than shakes.


Sep 25, 2010
I try for whole food sources too, but I usually work 50+ hrs a week... Shakes fill in the gaps...


VIP Strength Advisor
Sep 15, 2010
thanks for posting good info and the lady was hot LOL


Sep 13, 2010
Great article,Im glad I took the tome to read I will still try to maintain 1 to 1.5 per weight hard at 290 lotta food to get close so the powders do help.


Sep 10, 2010
Great article. I prefer whole food sources myself but i have a very busy schedule and i can't always carry food with me.


Jul 5, 2011
I use whey protein powders. I drink one after each weight lifting session which is 3 to 4 times a week. I also use then for a snack sometimes. No matter how hard I try I never get enought protein in my diet through whole foods so the whey proteins help with that.


TID Board Of Directors
May 3, 2011
Re the article: Alan Aragon is a great resource. Re protein powder: it's a convenience. It'd be tough to get in 350-400g of protein a day without a couple shakes.


Fancypants VIP
Mar 23, 2011
i have always viewed protein drinks as what they are...a SUPPLEMENT. they are more for the convenience factor than something to rely on for my protein intake. like Growinboy said, they fill the gaps. nothing more, nothing less. too many people rely on them for their daily protein intake and then think they dont have to eat as much when it should be the other way around. good read Admin


Strength Pimp
Feb 27, 2011
I've never had a problem eating as much as 500 grams of protein per day... I have a shake post workout and that's it... Seeing this stuff on the shelves of grocery stores in powder and RTD form pisses me off... I generally hate the supplement industry as a whole, but over the last couple of years they are ramming protein powders down the throats of the public as a "fat loss tool." Its total crap... My sort of girlfriends mother who is overweight tried dieting by subbing protein shakes in for meals and now she swears that it CAUSES hunger... I had to explain that she cut calories... Clueless!!!


May 25, 2011
I use a Post workout, and BCAA's , usually 15g BCAAs and 20g of WPI, but cut it if I find myself hungry and want to eat my protein

I always "LOVE" the "is it ok to give my girl protein powder?" posts that come up occasionally, like somehow that is going to make them turn into women body builders with 6" clits,,,,,


Strength Pimp
Feb 27, 2011
I use a Post workout, and BCAA's , usually 15g BCAAs and 20g of WPI, but cut it if I find myself hungry and want to eat my protein

I always "LOVE" the "is it ok to give my girl protein powder?" posts that come up occasionally, like somehow that is going to make them turn into women body builders with 6" clits,,,,,
I just spit my bcaa's on the computer reading that! lmao