Skip to content

The Protein Trend

  • 11 min read


by Josh Hodnik

The understanding of how nutrition affects health and bodily function has progressed significantly over the past few decades. We now have access to in depth information that didn’t exist until recently, that explains how certain macronutrients are utilized in the human body and how these nutrients can have an impact on athletic performance, building muscle mass, and shredding unwanted body fat. Bodybuilding and fitness magazines that line newsstands are filled with advertisements and articles that explain the importance of a certain supplement or nutrient, Many of the facts laid out in these ads and articles are often based on information from research studies.

Many of the research studies used are privately funded by a supplement company, and the individuals that lead these studies have an agenda to produce data that shows a particular ingredient or supplement blend is effective or show that a competitive ingredient or blend is ineffective. The goal of certain large supplement companies that fund these studies is to sway consumers towards certain supplements and away from others. This creates trends in the supplement industry, and it’s often fueled by profit margins. Whey protein has gone through various trends, and with all of the contradicting information, it’s not easy to determine whether or not whey protein, or protein powder in general, has been overhyped in the past or overlooked.

About fifteen years ago, whey protein was receiving more praise than any other supplement in the industry. Information showed that whey was the key to recovery, following a workout due to its fast absorption rate and superior amino acid profile. No other supplement or nutrient had received as much attention as whey protein since creatine monohydrate. In the early 1990’s, when creatine monohydrate was first brought into the retail market, it was said to be the next best thing to anabolic steroids for putting on muscle mass and increasing strength. Many self-described ‘gurus’ even compared strength and muscle gains from creatine to that of particular anabolic steroids, such as oxandrolone and nandrolone. While creatine has proven to be a very effective supplement, comparing it to any anabolic steroid is reaching. These comparisons are just sly marketing, which proved to be successful.

After the initial introduction of creatine monohydrate to the market, supplement companies decided they would have to bring new creatine formulas to the table to keep consumers coming back and record profits coming in. Over the past twenty years, countless versions of creatine have been marketed by supplement companies, while research has shown that the original creatine monohydrate is just as effective, if not more effective, than any other version released.

Similar to creatine, protein powders have gone through many changes in the industry. Beliefs about protein powder, more specifically, whey protein, have gone back and forth for over a decade. Information regarding protein intake from whole-foods and protein powders have constantly changed. One magazine article may state that large amounts of protein must be ingested to grow, while competing magazines may say protein consumed in large amounts is a waste and most of it will be excreted without being utilized, while putting stress on the kidneys and other digestive organs. It takes some real digging to determine what information holds any weight, and what information is intended to steer readers away from a particular supplement and towards another.

Protein powders have been available as long as nutritional supplements have been marketed and sold. Before whey, protein powders available consisted of mostly of soy, egg and milk powders. These old-school powders were chalky, clumpy when mixed, and the nutritional profile was inferior to what is available today. Advances in filtering fats and other byproducts from protein powders, and the addition of whey, have created a much cleaner and higher-grade protein powder.
Whey protein was first brought to the market as a nutritional supplement in the early nineties. Whey gave bodybuilders a way to take in larger amounts of protein without choking down more whole foods and avoiding large amounts of sugar and fat that was commonly found in many protein powders on the market. Whey protein contains a superior amino acid profile compared to any other protein powder available, tastes good and mixes easily. This would make whey an instant hit and many other protein powders would simply become obsolete.

Similar to what happened to creatine, whey protein would go through its own changes and trends. Whey protein powder was first sold as a whey protein concentrate, which contained anywhere from 34% to 80% protein, with the remainder being comprised of lactose, fat and ash. While still superior to other forms of protein prior to this, supplement companies knew there was room to improve and generate more revenue from whey. Newer filtration processes would allow manufacturers to produce a whey protein isolate that would have a protein content above 90%. This process would raise the cost to distributors, but the low cost of whey at the time, would still allow wholesalers and retailers to pull in favorable profit margins. In the past decade, the cost of whey at the wholesale level has increased dramatically. To keep profit margins where they have been with whey, supplement companies would either have to increase the sales price or decrease their product cost in some way.

Some companies have turned to “amino acid spiking” to make up for the rising price of whey. This is where a free form amino acid such as taurine or glycine, which costs just a fraction of whey, is added to the whey and added to the protein count on the label. In this situation, retail cost does not have to be raised and profits remain good. Many companies haven’t turned to amino acid spiking, but have had to raise the retail price to keep profit margins in a favorable range. This rise in price has to be justified to the consumer, and consumers are more likely to pay a price increase for a product if they feel they are benefiting from it. Supplement companies have made the consumer feel that the price increase is valid by adding digestive enzymes, creatine or other inexpensive supplements, and then calling it, “new and improved.” Some companies have now started to down play the role that protein may play in muscle growth. Some research is now questioning a person’s ability to assimilate large amounts of protein and how much is really essential for muscle for muscle growth. New information would make one think that high protein intake may have been overhyped for years, or are big supplement companies attempting to now steer consumers away from protein powders and towards more profitable supplements? Part II will cover this and more.

Protein is a nutrient that is essential for the repair and development of tissue throughout the human body. Without adequate protein, the body is forced to break down its own muscle tissue to repair damaged tissues. This prolonged catabolic state will result in muscle wasting, a weakened immune system, and poor organ function. Protein is a versatile nutrient that is comprised of a series of amino acids linked together chain. These amino acids are considered the building blocks within the body. Carbohydrates and fats are the body’s first option for supplying energy, but when they have been depleted over a period of time, protein can be broken down and converted to glycogen to be used as fuel. While protein has the ability to fill in the energy gap in the case of missing carbohydrates and fats, carbs and fats cannot perform the job that protein does of repairing tissue.

It is known that protein provides numerous benefits for optimal health, and most of the benefits are advantageous to bodybuilders. Keeping a positive nitrogen balance by consuming enough protein helps to keep the body in an anabolic state, which equates to the construction instead of destruction of muscle tissue. There are several ways that a surplus of protein can positively impact muscle growth. Growth hormone contains 190 amino acids and eating enough protein insures that the body has the building blocks required to construct growth hormone. Low growth hormone levels slow the metabolism and can lead to muscle loss.

IGF-1 is required for muscle cells to properly respond to growth hormone. IGF-1 contains over 70 amino acids and without proper protein intake, IGF-1 levels can be lowered. This can make it harder to utilize available growth hormone. Protein also has been shown to aid in fat loss. This happens a few different ways. First, more energy is required to digest protein making high protein foods thermogenic. The human body uses 30% more calories digesting protein than it does carbs and fats. Protein also helps to lower insulin levels in the blood, which helps control cravings for high glycemic foods.

Whether or not protein should be a staple in a bodybuilders diet is obviously a no-brainer, but how much protein should be consumed to be most beneficial is another big question. The recommended daily allowance in the United States is .36 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. For a 180-pound person, the minimum requirement is only 65 grams of protein per day. Many bodybuilders laugh at this requirement, while often taking in this much protein in one sitting. For years, bodybuilders have believed that consuming 2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight would yield the most beneficial muscle mass. While 1.5 grams was the standard number for maintaining muscle mass.

There is a large variance between the protein requirements suggested by the recommended daily allowance and the bodybuilding community. With this large gap, many people are confused about how much protein they should consume to gain quality muscle. Recently, many coaches and nutritionists have started to suggest what the medical community has reported for years, and that is large amounts of protein is not needed to build muscle.

Some are now reporting that the average person can assimilate no more than 25 to 30 grams of protein at one time. These reports are true in one sense, but false in another. If an individual that ordinarily consumes a diet low in protein is switched to a high protein diet, the protein wont all be utilized in the beginning. It will take some time to adjust to allow enzyme production to increase in order to assimilate larger amounts of protein. This can be compared to a person that rarely drinks milk that would suffer from an upset stomach after drinking several glasses. Many believe that they are completely lactose intolerant, when in fact; they just don’t produce enough of the enzyme needed to breakdown the lactose because there hasn’t been a need for it. Bodybuilders carry more muscle mass and exercise at a higher level than the average person. This increases the need for more protein intake.

Whey protein continues to rise in cost and now there are many options to replace this once most popular protein supplement, such as pea and wheat proteins. With less emphasis today on high protein intake, consumers are not as concerned about switching to an inferior protein, especially if it is more cost effective than whey protein.

Many intra and post workout formulas have been marketed that contain a variety of free-form amino acids and numerous other ingredients. These products are intended to decrease muscle breakdown and increase muscle recovery. While the concept behind many of these products is good, the amino acid content is not high enough to repair muscle tissue alone. These products should not replace high protein intake after training or on a daily basis. Many consumers don’t understand this and protein supplementation is no longer a staple for the majority of gym goers. A few large supplement companies are responsible for this while downplaying the importance of protein powders and hyping up other products with deceptive advertising. The new generation of athletes and bodybuilders have been sucked in by this deception, which is a win for a few large supplement companies. Newer recovery formulas cost only a fraction to produce compared to protein powders. This has pushed the industry to focus on products that have a higher profit margin than whey protein and other protein powders.

The protein craze that had supplement companies marketing protein powders as their top product may have to come to an end, but the amount of protein needed to pack on quality muscle remains the same. It is still wise to consume 2 grams of protein or more per pound of bodyweight to experience the most from protein’s muscle building capabilities.