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The Controversy Behind Protein Supplements

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

Zoe Schilling

PharmD. Candidate 2022


If you’re into bodybuilding, recreational weight lifting, college athletics, or simply trying to incorporate more protein in your diet, I’m sure you’ve drank a protein shake in your career. Social media markets supplemental shakes as vital for muscle building. You have also probably heard that the average American does not get adequate protein in the diet. While this may be true, many question several aspects of protein consumption. You may be wondering:

· What is the best form of protein to put into your body?

· What is the recommend dietary intake for protein?

· What time should we consume our shakes?

· What is the difference between soy and whey protein?

· Are protein shakes really that beneficial to muscle gain, or are we putting unnecessary calories into our bodies?

· Are there any side effects to using protein supplements?

I have these same exact questions.

Lets do some research.

A systematic review and meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that there is a link to protein supplementation to augment resistance exercise training (RET)-induced gains in muscle mass and strength.1 Data from 49 studies with 1863 participants showed that dietary protein supplementation significantly increased changes in strength-one-repetition-maximum and muscle size-muscle fiber cross-sectional area during periods of prolonged resistance exercise training. 1

The impact of protein supplementation on gains was reduced with increasing age and was more effective in resistance-trained individuals. However, protein supplementation beyond total protein intakes of 1.62 g/kg/day resulted in no further benefit.

(Example: 130lb female= 59kg x 1.62g protein/day = about 96g protein)

The International society of sports nutrition also suggests that higher protein intake may lead to bigger muscle-building effects and decrease food cravings. 2 When combined with a resistance-training program and a hypo-energetic diet, an elevated daily intake of protein can promote greater losses of fat mass and greater overall improvements in body composition. 2,3

For untrained individuals, consuming supplemental protein likely has no impact on lean mass and muscle strength during the initial weeks of resistance training. 3 However, as the duration, frequency, and volume of resistance training increase, protein supplementation may promote muscle hypertrophy and enhance gains in muscle strength in both untrained and trained individuals. Evidence also suggests that protein supplementation may accelerate gains in both aerobic and anaerobic power. 3

Target Population:

A pilot study investigating the risk knowledge, motivations, and prevalence of protein supplement use in adolescence found that 19% of adolescent athletes obtained information about protein supplements from the Internet, and 17% of all consumers purchase their supplements online. 4 The evident lack of knowledge regarding protein supplements demonstrates a necessity for further education of athletes, coaches and families regarding the responsible purchasing and use of protein supplements in the current landscape of sports nutrition. Future research should further explore the role of the Internet in protein supplement purchase and education. 4

Protein Timing:

The strategic consumption of nutrition, namely protein or various forms of amino acids, in the hours immediately before and during exercise (i.e., peri-workout nutrition) has been shown to maximize muscle repair and optimize strength- and hypertrophy-related adaptations.3,5

To date, only one investigational study has compared the effects of consuming protein either before or after a workout on muscle strength and size. The researchers split 21 men into two groups, both of which received a protein shake containing 25 grams of protein. One group received it immediately before their workout, while the other group received it immediately after. Everyone completed a whole-body workout three times per week for 10 weeks. Interestingly, the study found no significant differences in muscle strength or size between the groups. These results suggest that as long as you consume protein around your workout, it doesn’t matter if it’s before or after training. 5,6

Recommended Intake:

Daily and per dose needs are combinations of many factors including volume of exercise, age, body composition, total energy intake and training status of the athlete.

  • The current RDA for protein is 56 grams per day for the average sedentary man7

  • 46 grams per day for the average sedentary woman7

  • Protein intake of 1.2 g of protein per kg of body weight per day (g/kg/day) should be recommended” for athletes desiring to gain muscle

  • “Protein supplementation beyond total protein intakes of 1.62 g/kg/day likely result in no further benefit” 1-3

(Example: 130lb female= 59kg x 1.2g protein/day = about 71g protein)

(Example: 130lb female= 59kg x 1.62g protein/day = about 96g protein)

-Likely any protein consumption over this, the female will likely just excrete in her urine

Soy versus Whey:

(Disclaimer: I am not trying to recommend one type of protein over the other, just providing you with evidence based studies that I have researched)

A 12 week randomized control trial demonstrates data that indicates that there is no difference between increases in lean mass and strength in untrained participants when strength training and supplementing with soy or whey matched for leucine. 3,8

"Whey protein may be more beneficial than soy in reducing body fat." 8,9

In a study lasting 5 months, researchers provided 30 men with 56 grams/day of whey protein and 30 men with 56 grams/day of soy protein. Another 30 men took no protein powder supplement and took a carbohydrate supplement instead. After the 5 months, the men eating whey lost an average of 2.3 kilograms of body weight and 1.8 kg of body fat.8

Another nine-month study showed that subjects that consumed whey protein gained 83% more lean body mass (i.e. muscle and bones) than those that ate soy.9 Thus, the researchers concluded that daily supplementation with “whey was more effective than soy promoting gains in lean body mass.” 9

So what does this mean? Overall, it seems whey protein has more beneficial muscle-building and weight loss effects. But keep in mind every person is DIFFERENT. It is hard for studies to control eating patterns of the participants. Therefore, the consumers that were in the plant-based groups with soy protein might not have gotten as much protein in their normal diet as compared to the whey group. Soy protein isn’t necessarily a bad choice. In fact, the FDA states that it’s better for your heart health than whey. 7

My best advice, try to increase protein in your diet first! Only if you are not getting the recommended dietary intake, then go to protein supplements.

Worried about acne?

Several studies demonstrate that a number of dietary supplements have also been linked to acne, including those containing vitamins B6/B12, iodine, and whey, as well as "muscle building supplements" that may be contaminated with anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS). 10 Research shows that acne linked to dietary supplements generally resolves following supplement discontinuation. 10,11

Example of Post-Workout Snacks:

-6 oz of Greek yogurt with blueberries, bananas, and walnuts

-1 apple sprinkled with cinnamon and 1 tbsp peanut butter

-1 hard boiled egg, 2 tbsp hummus with sliced bell peppers and carrots

-“Ants on a log” celery sticks with 1 tbsp peanut butter topped with raisins

Easy Ways to Increase Your Protein:

-Replace cereal with eggs

-Choose Greek Yogurt

-Top your food with Almonds

- Plan your protein for every meal (ex. Eggs, Chicken, Ground Beef, Shrimp, Turkey, Lentils, Soy products like Tofu or Tempeh, etc)

-Grocery shop the week prior with a game plan

-Drink a protein shake (usually contain 25–30 grams of protein per scoop)


-You do not NEED protein powder to get gainz in the gym, but we do NEED protein for muscle growth and recovery

-Protein is one of the main macronutrients in the diet and should be part of every meal

-Protein powder supplements are meant to "supplement" your diet

-Several researchers recommend consuming a minimum of 20–30 grams of protein at each meal

-Protein is “hunger-satisfying” and keeps you feeling full longer

-Studies have linked an increased protein intake to weight loss and muscle development

-Most shakes contain 25–30 grams of protein per scoop, so if you are not getting enough protein in your diet, then a protein shake is a feasible option to help you achieve your muscle-building and/or weight loss goals

-If you do not get adequate protein from your daily diet, then protein supplements such as whey isolate, soy products, Casein, etc. are an option to increase your protein intake

-Timing of protein for best results should generally occur within 1 hour pre-or post workout. It doesn’t really matter if you drink your shake or eat your protein filled meal before or after your workout, as long as your intaking at least the recommended daily amount of protein in your diet

-Certain (and most) proteins contain whey or other muscle building supplements that can cause you to develop acne


1.) Morton RW, Murphy KT, McKellar SR, et al. A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults [published correction appears in Br J Sports Med. 2020 Oct;54(19):e7]. Br J Sports Med. 2018;52(6):376-384. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2017-097608

2.) Aragon AA, Schoenfeld BJ, Wildman R, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: diets and body composition. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:16. Published 2017 Jun 14. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0174-y

3.) Pasiakos SM, McLellan TM, Lieberman HR. The effects of protein supplements on muscle mass, strength, and aerobic and anaerobic power in healthy adults: a systematic review. Sports Med. 2015;45(1):111-131. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0242-2

4.) Whitehouse G, Lawlis T. Protein supplements and adolescent athletes: A pilot study investigating the risk knowledge, motivations and prevalence of use. Nutr Diet. 2017;74(5):509-515. doi:10.1111/1747-0080.12367

5.) Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon A, Wilborn C, Urbina SL, Hayward SE, Krieger J. Pre- versus post-exercise protein intake has similar effects on muscular adaptations [published correction appears in PeerJ. 2017 Aug 1;5:]. PeerJ. 2017;5:e2825. Published 2017 Jan 3. doi:10.7717/peerj.2825

6.) Lynch HM, Buman MP, Dickinson JM, Ransdell LB, Johnston CS, Wharton CM. No Significant Differences in Muscle Growth and Strength Development When Consuming Soy and Whey Protein Supplements Matched for Leucine Following a 12 Week Resistance Training Program in Men and Women: A Randomized Trial. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(11):3871. Published 2020 May 29. doi:10.3390/ijerph17113871

7.) Food and Drug Administration. "Food labeling health claims; soy protein and coronary heart disease." Fed Regist 64 (1999): 57699-57733.

9.) Volek, Jeff S., et al. "Whey protein supplementation during resistance training augments lean body mass." Journal of the American College of Nutrition 32.2 (2013): 122-135.

10.) Zamil DH, Perez-Sanchez A, Katta R. Acne related to dietary supplements. Dermatol Online J. 2020;26(8):13030/qt9rp7t2p2. Published 2020 Aug 15.

11.) Melnik B, Jansen T, Grabbe S. Abuse of anabolic-androgenic steroids and bodybuilding acne: an underestimated health problem. J Dtsch Dermatol Ges. 2007;5(2):110-117. doi:10.1111/j.1610-0387.2007.06176.x

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