Does Whey Protein Help Build Muscle? How Much Protein Do I Need?

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 295 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

Working out and protein… they go together like peanut butter, and, uh… well not jelly… something more nutritious… they go together like peanut butter and banana.

How much protein do you need to eat now that you’re working out regularly?

First, I will use my psychic abilities and go out on a limb by saying chances are, you’re probably already consuming enough protein. How could I possibly know this? This is because there have been a lot of data collected on how much and what types of food populations around the world consume regularly. What we’ve learned is that most consume plenty of protein each day. Is that enough protein to support muscle growth and help build strength? That’s the answer everyone wants to know, right?

The American College of Sports Medicine says that if your goal is to build strength and muscle, you need to consume 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kg of body weight. Frustrating that their recommendations don’t use ounces of protein and pounds of body weight, I know. But luckily the math isn’t too hard. We’ll figure this out together… stay with me here.

Let’s say Robbie weighs 125 lbs. To use the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendations, we need to convert Robbie’s weight into kg. Luckily, the math is simple: take 125 lbs. and divide that by 2.2. You would do the same thing for your body weight. So if you weigh 150 lbs., divide 150 by 2.2. If you weigh, 110 lbs., divide 110 by 2.2. That gives you your weight in kg. Robbie’s weight in kg is 125 divided by 2.2 which is 56.82 kg.

Now, what? Now that we know Robbie’s body weight in kg, we can figure out how much protein she needs to consume each day. Like I mentioned before, the American College of Sports Medicine says if you want to build strength and muscle, you need somewhere between 1.2 and 1.7 grams of protein per kg of body weight. We know Robbie’s hypothetical body weight in kg–we just figured that out to be 56.82. We take 56.82 and multiply it by the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendations.

We’ll start by multiplying 56.82 (remember, that’s her body weight in kg) by 1.2 grams protein. Plug that into your calculator and you’d get about 68 grams of protein. That means, at a minimum, Robbie needs to consume about 68 grams of protein each day to build strength and muscle.

Let’s find out how much she should consume at a maximum, according to these recommendations. We’ll take her body weight in kg again, 56.82 and multiply that by the 1.7 (remember, the recommendations said 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein should be consumed each day, so we’re using the higher number here). 56.82 times 1.7 is 97 grams of protein. If Robbie (or, really, anyone else that weights 125 lbs.) wants to be sure they’re getting enough protein to support muscle growth, they need to consume anywhere between 68 and 97 grams of protein per day. For those of us in the states, we still don’t quite know how to make sense of grams, so bear with us. 68 and 97 grams of protein is about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of cooked chicken for example. For someone that weighs 125 lbs., they need to eat about 1/2 cup of cooked chicken each day to ensure they’re getting enough protein to build strength and muscle. Not much, I know! Plus this doesn’t include any protein they’re getting from other sources: eggs, meat, dairy, beans, soy, breads, etc.

Sadly, I’m not really psychic. I just know that most people get way more protein than that each day.

Aren’t some forms of protein better for muscle growth? Yes, this is true.

What about whey protein?

You hear about people using whey protein supplements a lot because it’s an easily absorbed form of protein. Unfortunately, “easily absorbed” sometimes translates to “better for you” in many people’s minds. But this isn’t always true. Alcohol for example, is easily absorbed by the body, but that’s not always a good thing.

The studies on whey protein have found that, for most people, it is safe to use. It is, of course, important that you select a supplement relatively free of impurities and follow the right dosing pattern.

It’s safe, but is it helpful? What we’re learning is that consuming whey protein as a supplement is really only helpful for certain groups of people. For example, those that follow a vegan lifestyle may consider taking a whey protein supplement (yes, there are vegan whey protein supplements). By avoiding all animal products, they may not consume enough protein each day.

Those that are 55 years of age and older may also benefit from taking whey protein supplements. This is because, as we age, we’re not so good at maintaining and growing muscle anymore. Researchers are finding whey protein can help with that.

I’m going to share with you an even better trick: rather than supplementing with whey protein, try and eat some leucine-rich sources of protein within 30 minutes after your workout. We’re learning that leucine really helps to support muscle growth, especially when it’s consumed soon after a workout. Many common foods, like yogurt, whole eggs and egg whites, chicken, and even nuts and seeds are good sources of leucine.

The Bottom Line

First, you likely don’t need a protein supplement like whey protein unless you follow a vegan meal pattern or are 55 years of age and older and work out consistently. This is because you’re probably consuming enough protein each day as it is. If you want to help your body build strength and muscle as efficiently as possible, consider focusing instead on consuming some leucine-rich foods within 30 minutes of finishing your workout. Then do your best to stay consistent and follow a meal plan full of balance and variety, and you’ll build that strength and see those muscles popping in due time.

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 295 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.