Protein Supplements have been used by athletes to maintain and increase lean muscle mass. Supplement formulas differ depending on the goals of the sportsperson which can include weight gain, fat burning or improved stamina. Protein Supplements can be a convenient way to increase daily protein intake when protein from dietary sources is inadequate.

Why do we need protein?

Proteins have an enormous variety of roles in our body, both structural and functional. Protein is also essential for the repair and growth of muscle tissue.

Do bodybuilders need more protein than people who are not training?

For the bodybuilder, the goal is to keep muscle breakdown to a minimum and stimulate muscle growth and repair. There are many factors which influence the rate of muscle breakdown and repair, including the availability of amino acids for muscle cells, the energy available from other sources such as carbohydrates and the presence of certain hormones (such as human growth hormone and insulin). Studies have shown that the amount of protein required by athletes performing strength training is almost certainly greater than for sedentary people (people who have low levels of physical activity).

How much protein is really necessary?

It is difficult to know exactly how much protein a person needs to maintain and increase their lean muscle mass. It varies based on a person’s genetics, their activity levels, the type of exercise they engage in and so on. Experts are still unable to agree as to what the optimal protein intake for strength athletes is. Most studies, however, recommend a daily protein intake of between 1.0 and 2.0g of protein per kilogram per day. For example, a 90kg man should be aiming to eat between 90 and 180g of protein per day.

The time when protein is ingested may also be important. In order to prevent muscle catabolism (the breakdown of muscle tissue for use as an energy source), it is important to keep the body in positive nitrogen balance. Nitrogen is a chemical marker used to measure protein breakdown. Positive nitrogen balance is when more muscle is being synthesised than broken down. To keep in positive nitrogen balance, it is recommended that 6 to 8 small meals are eaten per day (every 2 to 3 hours). This ensures there are always enough amino acids entering the bloodstream to replace those lost through muscle breakdown or other metabolic processes. So for a 90kg man eating 1.5g of protein per kg, the daily total of 135g of protein should be split between 6 and 8 smaller meals. For around 1 to 2 hours after heavy exercise there, is a “window of opportunity” when proteins are used more efficiently by muscle. Most experts recommend a recovery formula containing a balance of carbohydrates and proteins within the two hours following a workout.


Meal Replacement/Protein Powders

Meal replacement powders are designed to provide a mix of high quality, highly concentrated, rapidly digested amino acids. It is often difficult to eat the 6 to 8 meals per day required to keep the body in positive nitrogen balance and eating the same foods can become very monotonous. Meal replacement powders are used by many bodybuilders as a convenient, low fat, palatable and reliable way to meet their daily protein requirements. Meal replacement powders come in a variety of different formulas and most contain additional vitamins and minerals. The choice of formula depends on whether the weight trainer is trying to gain mass or become leaner.

Amino Acids

Amino acids come in a range of forms with different levels of bioavailability. Bioavailability is a term that describes the amount of a substance that actually reaches its site of action or utilisation in the body. Factors influencing the bioavailability of proteins include cooking, health of the digestive system, and metabolism in the liver before transfer to the general circulation. Taking amino acids stimulates the transport of amino acids into muscle and promotes muscle protein synthesis

Free form amino acids are thought to be the most bioavailable protein supplements. Small amounts are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream because they do not require digestion (i.e. do not have to be split into smaller units before they can be taken through the intestinal walls). When demand for amino acids is high, these supplements may help prevent the breakdown of muscle tissue for muscle growth, repair and energy during heavy, high intensity exercise.

Hydrolysed amino acids have been pre-digested to some degree, but do contain some longer protein chains (sequences of amino acids) that must be further broken down before absorption can occur. Whey protein and lactalbumin (proteins from milk) are examples. Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) have a chemical structure that allow them to be converted to energy. It is thought that by taking supplemental BCAAs, muscle levels of these proteins remain high even during intense exercise, which prevents the body from breaking down its own muscle tissue to create energy.

Di-Tripeptides are amino acids that are in chains of 2 or 3. They require some digestion before absorption and are relatively cheap compared to other forms of amino acids. Protein Bars are also a convenient way to meet daily protein needs. Some writers warn that protein bars contain variable amounts of carbohydrates and fat, some as high as those found in lollies bars. Weight trainers should be careful to assess the bar’s nutritional profile (found on the wrapper) to ensure it fits into their dietary regime.

Pharmacist’s advice
Ask your Pharmacist for advice.

  1. Protein needs of active people are different from those of inactive people. Recommended protein intake for healthy people ranges between 0.8 and 1.6-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram per day. Most people on a Western diet get more protein than is required for maintenance of normal metabolic processes, although some elderly people may be at risk of protein malnutrition because of inadequate dietary intake.
  2. Protein requirements may be higher in athletes, children, pregnant women and people with chronic disease, injury, infection or diabetes.
  3. Check with your Pharmacist before taking any Protein Supplements. Some people may have health conditions (e.g. kidney disease) which require low protein diets.
  4. A range of Protein Supplements are available in powdered or tablet form for athletes and bodybuilders. Your Pharmacist can help you choose a product appropriate for your needs.