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Protein shakes for muscle growth: hype or hack?

Protein shakes for muscle growth: hype or hack?

ou know it too well: the defined pool boys who pumped 5 hours in the gym every day and then presented protein shakes in commercials as if it was the magic formula for muscle gain. Today, it's no longer the defined bodybuilders. These days, supermarket shelves are full of pea protein, high-protein yogurts, and even high protein mozzarella promoted as healthy supplements by local lifestyle influencers. I must confess: the creamy shake that tastes like roasted pistachio, salty caramel, or Swiss chocolate is also my favorite post-workout snack. Whether it's a healthy choice is another question. Now before you too get seduced by the beautiful protein powder packaging and get confused by the endless list of L-amino acids on the package, let's answer some key questions about how much protein you actually need and what sources are best. Nutrition and sports performance experts Albers-Concepts, betteryou and Sarah Ledermann share their recommendations. 

Protein: Why your body needs it 

Protein is taken for building, maintaining, and repairing muscles after a workout, a competition or strength training. Athletes depend on the perfect muscular functioning, and so the contractile elements of muscle tissue consisting of protein. A high-quality protein supply is also necessary for hormone and enzyme formation as well as for the immune system. In contrast, an insufficient protein supply increases the risk of injury, reduces the recovery ability, and regeneration after a workout or competition takes longer than usual. Are you an athlete or just convinced that you need extra protein to build the muscle you want? The truth is that you need to train adequately and effectively to build muscle. Because muscles do not grow from an extra portion of protein alone. Unfortunately, many do not want to admit this and prefer to stir their powder three times a day in the belief: the more, the merrier. In fact, it does little to build muscle if you do no strength training and only go jogging, for example.

Protein: That's why it's so important

Protein supports muscle building and provides you with important amino acids. Amino acids are building blocks from which proteins, peptides, hormones, and neurotransmitters are built. You need amino acids not only to maintain your muscles and for wound healing after injuries, for example, to restore muscles, bones, or skin. Amino acids also transport nutrients, influence the functions of organs, glands, tendons, and arteries, and are involved in metabolic processes. The protein shake manufacturers know this and try to convince you with the very serious ingredient list on the package, even though they know that we can't even pronounce them correctly. 

The truth is, if you just pay attention to your nutrition and eat a healthy, balanced diet, you'll usually have adequately supplied your body with all the important amino acids and you won't need any additional powders that taste like roasted pistachios or Swiss chocolate.

What foods are rich in protein

Most respected nutritionists emphasize that animal sources of protein are far superior to plant sources. The latter usually do not provide complete proteins. This means that they lack individual building blocks - so they have gaps. These must be "filled in" by amino acids from other sources. Animal sources, on the other hand, also supply all essential amino acids and thus complete proteins. Because they are particularly similar to those found in the human body, they also have optimal bioavailability, meaning they can be absorbed and metabolized well. Something that the manufacturers of protein powders often mention as well. 

Who should drink protein shakes

Theoretically, no one. Additional proteins are only useful for those people who train particularly intensively. All others do not need this addition. You can easily meet your needs by including high-quality protein sources such as eggs, meat, fish, seafood, and legumes in your daily diet. However, if you don't eat a lot of these foods, or if you are pursuing ambitious fitness goals, it may make sense to take a protein shake every now and then - but not as a substitute for a real meal. Protein shakes are suitable for you if you do not get your daily protein requirement from normal food and if you do high-intensity training or endurance sports.

How much protein do you need on average per day

According to the recommendations of the German Nutrition Society (DGE), the daily requirement for adults is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, and an estimated value of 1.0 grams applies for people over 65. Those who do strength training often deliberately consume more protein because they expect it to enhance muscle growth. Dr. Verena Fontana, R&D, Nutriathletic, suggests a very simple formula to calculate your optimal amount of protein per serving: Multiply your body weight by 0.31g et voila, you already know how much fish or cottage cheese you should eat for lunch (Noticed how I'm trying to stop you from consuming unnatural protein?). So at 100 kg body weight, only 100×0.31 = 31 g protein per serving. In addition, aging research shows that too much animal protein - especially for people at their mid life - accelerates aging and should only be increased after intense physical activity. 

What protein shakes really do to your body 

If you are an average hobby fitness enthusiast: nothing. Of course, all people need protein to build and maintain their muscles, but the average fitness enthusiast eats enough every day if their diet is balanced. Many people take protein shakes, but they only offer real added value - if at all - to those who train intensively. For those who want to lose weight, such protein drinks can even be counterproductive, because they often contain a lot of sugar. One advantage of protein shakes is that the protein reaches your muscles after only 30 minutes. This means that if you drink a protein shake right after a workout, it will be absorbed faster. Solid food is digested more slowly.

Are protein shakes bad for you

Protein shakes are as healthy as the many additives they contain. All protein products are designed to taste good. Therefore, most contain a lot of sugar or sweeteners. Since fat positively influences the taste sensation and gives a good consistency, it must not be missing in the drinks. So taste comes before effect, hence the artificial or natural sweeteners, colorants and E-preservatives. It is not clear what long-term effects these substances have on our bodies. In addition, there is the question of whether the milk is organic and comes from pasture farming? If this is not the case, then the quality of the protein powder is also accordingly. If you're looking for natural alternatives to protein powder, scroll down.

What to look for when buying protein powder

"It is virtually impossible for consumers to assess the quality of a protein powder. Unlike medicines, there are no strict guidelines for protein supplements. The organic label is therefore the only indication that the production processes are controlled. A product should have as little carbohydrates and fat as possible. It does not need any sweeteners, trace elements, or E-preservatives. The ready-to-drink flavored drinks contain many of these ingredients (...)" - says Dr. Marco Toigo, university lecturer, book author, columnist ("Dr. Muscle"), entrepreneur, and Senior Scientist at the Laboratory of Muscle Plasticity at Balgrist University Hospital.

Which protein is best for muscle gain?

Again, for muscle building, the essential amino acid content per gram of protein is crucial. In this context, animal protein is more efficient than plant protein. In plant protein, these are more deeply concentrated than in milk protein powder. Thus, it takes much larger amounts of protein in plant products to stimulate protein synthesis to the maximum. Now let’s talk about the powder: Whey protein is very popular among athletes. The protein contains practically all the important amino acids that you need to build muscles. Whey refers to the liquid that is produced during the coagulation of milk and the production of cheese. Here you need to know: Milk is made up of 2 protein sources: Whey and Casein. The latter provides your body with protein more slowly - but can also make it harder to digest. Back to Whey: When whey is filtered, Whey concentrate is produced first. Further processing then creates the isolate as well as hydrolysate. 

What is the best protein shake for you

So after everything you've read so far about protein and you still want to drink protein powder, the only question we need to answer is, which one? Whey protein is the classic. Whey protein powder has a high biological value and provides strength athletes with quickly digestible protein after training for muscle building and optimal regeneration. On the market, there are endless brands and varieties, so it is difficult to look through all the choices and pick out the right one for you. We asked experts in sports performacne and nutritionists which one is worth your investment and your muscles. 

Dr. Torsten Albers, Albers-Concepts:  

I don't recommend bio-engineered, ultra-membrane filtered, ion-exchanged beta-globulin enhanced Whey Isolate, you name it. Let’s keep it simple:

"We all just drive our cars for shopping. So decide for yourself whether you want to drive S-Class or A4 for shopping purposes. The money? You can always spend more. Whether it makes sense? I think rather not. I drive a simple BMW - and with that, I get my shopping done. I don't need a big S-Class for that. Likewise with the protein. Take the CFM. And in the end, everyone wants the same thing - a protein that tastes good, is well tolerated and regenerates the muscles well, and protects them. So the overweight colleague needs the same as the top athlete." 

Betteryou, a nutrition coaching firm with focus on metabolism analysis, recommends Nutriathletics, a Swiss brand that promises high quality and "cleanliness" of ingredients.

Sarah Ledermann, Nutritional Therapist at Ernaerigsberatig recommends the following:

"It is not at all necessary to buy any protein powder, which contains added sugar or artificial additives. Sometimes these shakes are not as healthy as we assume. Therefore, rather than make it yourself, then you know exactly what is and how you like it to taste. For the base of the natural protein shakes, I use buttermilk. The advantages of buttermilk: it contains an optimal ratio of amino acids, the basic building block of proteins, it is low in calories, probiotic and contains valuable minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium." - says Sarah.
Sarah Ledermann recommends protein shakes made of buttermilk

Blueberry Shake

300 ml buttermilk, plain 

60 g low-fat quark

100 g blueberries (frozen)            

1 tablespoon almond paste                                        

2 tablespoons oat flakes

Banana shake

300 ml buttermilk, plain                  

60 g low-fat quark                                  

1 banana                                                     

1 tablespoon sesame puree (tahini)                            

2 tablespoons oat flakes                                      

1 tablespoon sea buckthorn juice


Exotic Shake

300 ml buttermilk, plain                 

60 g low-fat quark                                  

0.5 mango                                                    

1 tablespoon cashew puree                                       

1 tbsp. chia seeds                                         

1 tablespoon coconut flakes


Carrot Shake

300 ml buttermilk, plain                 

60 g low-fat quark                                  

100 g carrots (approx.1 piece)

1 orange (juice)

2 dried apricot                          

1 tbsp. peanut butter                                         

½ tsp turmeric

Put everything in a blender and blend until smooth.

Do you want to burn fat and lose weight?

According to Sarah, it's best to skip snacks and go into training without having had any meal and wait at least an hour before you eat after a workout. This way you will keep burning fat and lose weight in the long run. However, if you find it very difficult to train in a fasted state, or you feel dizzy, or lack power, then a homemade protein shake is the best choice.

Do you want to build muscle and increase your strength and power?

Do you do sports regularly? Then your protein needs will also increase. Depending on the intensity, duration, and frequency of training, protein amounts of 1.2 - 1.6 g protein per kilogram body weight are recommended. Homemade protein shakes are the perfect complement to a balanced diet to achieve these values without additional supplements.

Philipp's protein shake recipe includes raw egg and plain protein powder from LEE Sports

Philipp, CFO AURUM Fit recommends his favorite combo of natural organic foods and Lee unflavored protein powder:

1 raw egg 

1 ripe banana

1 glass of almond milk 

2 scoops Lee Whey Protein without sweetener or flavoring

1 tablespoon ground vanilla

2-3 tbsp. cacao butter

Put everything in a blender and blend until smooth.

How much protein do you need after a workout?

According to Dr. Torsten Albers, 20g of high-quality protein after training is already sufficient for almost maximum stimulation of the muscle protein build-up. 40g protein after training only leads to a non-significant increase in muscle protein. This means: 90% of the effect is achieved with 20 g Whey after training and is therefore sufficient for the vast majority of people who train.

"However, if you want to tickle out the last of maximum muscle building through protein after training, you should take 40g Whey. This is associated with a significantly increased amino acid oxidation, so the bulk of the additional 20g is simply "torched". But in the top range, one accepts this in order to get the last percent of muscle increase." Older athletes from the age of 60 at the latest should always fall back on the 40g dose of protein after training. The "anabolic resistance" that sets in at this age makes the 20g serving clearly less effective for muscle building than 40g."

Is too much protein unhealthy?

How much is too much depends on the individual case. Symptoms of protein oversupply can include abdominal pain, constipation, weight gain, and water retention. Normally, the excess protein is excreted in the urine. The kidney then has more to do, more urea is produced and the protein is removed from the body in this way. If you are exposed to very high athletic stress for a short time, for example in a muscle-building phase or after running a marathon, you may increase your protein intake significantly for a short time. In the long run, however, even athletes should not exceed a value of 1 gram per kilogram of body weight. Otherwise, the organism switches to protein metabolism and the highly concentrated protein can put a great strain on the kidneys and ultimately damage them. People with a weak liver also cannot process an excess of protein well: The organ is additionally impaired, and liver values deteriorate. As mentioned above, aging research also shows us that too much protein, especially in the form of meat and dairy products (less so with poultry, fish, and eggs), activates an enzyme called mTOR in the body, which is associated with a shorter lifespan.

What happens when you eat too little protein

In the case of protein deficiency, the body begins to withdraw the stored proteins from the body tissues. In doing so, it makes preferential use of the stores that are not acutely needed to sustain life. These include skin, hair, nails, and muscles. Due to the deficiency, the connective tissue slackens and the skin becomes thin since the cushioning collagen and elastin are missing. In addition, hair loss is imminent, muscles degenerate and bone substance suffers. Fatigue spreads, the mood is depressed and the nervous system is fragile. It is well known that reduced protein consumption is often the problem for women in old age.

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