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Protein Supplements: Who Needs Them?

The sheer variety of protein supplements out there is huge. The market for protein supplements has consistently been on a rise, considering a growing interest of active, young adults and athletes. If you’ve ever visited a store or website that carries these supplements you’ve probably had some questions like: “What are they used for?” "Can they help increase muscle mass?" "Can they improve athletic performance?" "What’s the difference between the different kinds?" “Should I supplement with one?”

Let’s dig into the answers.

First, let’s look at all the different types of protein supplements. There are animal-deprived options like whey (including grass-fed options too) and casein protein powders; as well as plant-based or (often) vegan options like pea, soy, and hemp protein powders. (1) The basic difference between these varieties is their source (animal vs plant) and their amino acid compilation. Only the why and soy options offer a complete amino acid profile, while the others offer partial amino acids profiles. Protein is also now found in many sports drinks and meal replacements drinks - think of those shakes you see near your grocery store pharmacy - to increase protein and calorie consumption. Beyond those difference, the quality of each is completely independent and varies by company.

Protein supplements are typically used to promote lean muscle mass or athletic performance in individuals who practice regular resistance training or who are recreationally active.

Who can benefit from them? I’m going to share the results of a couple systematic scientific research articles here, so get those nerd goggles on!

Article 1: According to one systematic analysis of the effectiveness of protein supplements, an untrained individual will not see an enhancement in lean muscle mass and strength with protein supplementation during the first weeks of training. However, both trained and untrained individuals can see an 

Increase in muscle mass (hypertrophy)

Increase in muscle strength, and

Improvements in both aerobic and anaerobic power

as long as the intensity of the training program is continually increasing. Intensity here involves duration, frequency and volume. (2)

Article 2: Another systematic review describes the correlation between consuming protein supplements and recovery of both muscle soreness and muscle damage. It was concluded by the paper after looking at twenty-seven articles, that taking protein supplements at any point (before, during or after) a SINGLE resistance or endurance workout had no apparent impact on quick recovery of muscle function, damage or soreness. But the results changed with regular, daily exercise regimen. People who consumed a protein supplement post-workout on a daily basis saw both decreased muscle soreness and muscle damage. Even more, performance enhancement was greatest when participants were in a negative energy balance, or calorie deficit. So, again, protein supplementation seems pertinent to those who follow a steady and rigorous workout pattern. (3)

So, do normal healthy individuals require protein supplementation? 

To answer the question most simply, IF your recommended protein intake cannot be obtained from natural sources in a normal diet, then yes, protein supplementation might be for you! 

If you choose to supplement with protein, when should it be consumed?

Many of the articles included in the above reviews suggest post-workout. The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) also suggests focusing on nutrient timing (whether it’s a protein supplement or a whole-food option). It states that the proper timing of consuming macronutrients can aid in keeping the body composition in check, help in alleviating muscle soreness, and promote muscle protein synthesis. (4)

We’ll talk more about post-workout meal timing in a later post.

In conclusion, protein supplementation has it’s place for regularly active individuals. However, research is still testing the impact of consuming protein supplements and their perceived benefits. Based on current evidence, it’s important to emphasize that healthy, active individuals focus on appropriate meal timing and eating enough healthy foods to meet his/her needs. Eating whole foods such as lean meats, fish, eggs, and other protein sources along with consuming an adequate amount of fruits, vegetables and whole grains can generally provide individuals with the appropriate amount of macronutrients.

If you have questions on your individual protein needs and are not sure if protein supplementation is right for you, don’t hesitate to schedule your complimentary 20-minute consultation with me, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer, today!


  1. DuVall, J. (2018, January 18). How to Choose the Best Protein Powder for You. Retrieved from

  2. Pasiakos, S. M., Mclellan, T. M., & Lieberman, H. R. (2014). The Effects of Protein Supplements on Muscle Mass, Strength, and Aerobic and Anaerobic Power in Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review. Sports Medicine, 45(1), 111-131. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0242-2

  3. Pasiakos, S. M., Lieberman, H. R., & Mclellan, T. M. (2014). Effects of Protein Supplements on Muscle Damage, Soreness and Recovery of Muscle Function and Physical Performance: A Systematic Review. Sports Medicine, 44(5), 655-670. doi:10.1007/s40279-013-0137-7

  4. Kerksick, C., Harvey, T., Stout, J., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C., Kreider, R., . . . Antonio, J. (2008). Correction: International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Nutrient timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 5(1), 18. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-5-18

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