Skinny man training and drinking a protein shake

So, you’re new to the gym. You’ve decided to take control of your health and figured you’d start working out more often. Awesome! It’s always exciting to see someone new and — wait. Have you started paying attention to your diet? Because if you haven’t, you’re going to have quite the uphill battle on your hands.

Let’s forget about the fats and carbs for a second. If you’re here to build muscle, you’re going to need to start by focusing on protein. More specifically, how much you’re getting and when you’re getting it.

Sidenote: if you’re a seasoned veteran of the weight room (aka you can’t remember the last time you skipped legs day), you might need a bit of a refresher in proper protein consumption. Understanding more about protein can only improve your diet, right?  

Protein 101: How it works

Before we dive into the crux of this article, it’s important we take some time to decipher exactly what protein is (and how it helps you build muscle).

Proteins are essentially just the amino acids that your body needs to function properly. More specifically, proteins are composed of 20 different amino acids. Your body can actually produce 12 of them. The eight that it can’t? Those are your essential amino acids (the kind that have to be consumed). Forget about muscles; your body’s cells, organs, and tissues couldn’t exist without protein. Bones, skin, and cartilage all rely on protein to function.  

So, muscles are made up of protein building-blocks called amino acids. These muscles are stretched while you lift weights, causing them to tear. If you take some time to rest, the muscle will heal, using amino acids and other nutrients that travel through your bloodstream. Simple enough, right?

Keep in mind that eating the most protein possible isn’t the goal. What we’re after is the M.E.D, or Minimum Effective Dose. Essentially, what’s the least amount of protein you need to consume to get optimal results? Answering that question does more than just simplify your diet; it makes eating properly an attainable goal. What gets measured gets managed, after all.

If you’re not keeping track of your protein consumption daily (at least at first), you’re basically just guessing that you got enough today. If you’re an experienced weightlifter, your guesses are probably going to be accurate. If you’re not? Well, let’s just say you’re chances of being instinctively right go down significantly.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, weightlifters will need to consume anywhere from 0.63-0.77 grams of protein per pound of body weight every day to build muscle mass. So, if you weigh 200 pounds, you’re looking at consuming 126 grams of protein per day. That’s… quite a bit of protein. Especially when you consider that the average sedentary man only consumes 56 grams per day.

Before you start to freak out and head to your nearest GNC to pick up a tub of protein powder, let’s take a moment to think about this.

Real food vs. Supplements

Ready to hear something crazy? In 2013, the Journal of the International Society of Sport Nutrition published a study that concluded that “evidence-based support for such an ‘anabolic window of opportunity’” is far from definitive. While fasted exercise might be a reason to immediately consume protein and carbs afterwards, there’s no data to support the idea that consuming protein within the “anabolic window” actually helps build muscle. Whoa.

So, seeing as how the main argument for protein shakes is built around the idea that you need protein as soon as humanly possible, there’s a chance that quite a few people reading this article don’t need to spend the money on protein powder.

Honestly, there are only three kinds of people who should be purchasing protein powder:

  1. People who exercise first thing in the morning without breakfast
  2. People who legitimately don’t have time to sit down and eat real food after a workout
  3. People who are new to fitness and couldn’t possibly hope to eat 126 grams of protein a day

If you’re new to the gym, you’ll probably have a brand-new nutrition plan to get “maximum gains.” My advice? Tone that plan down a bit. You’re not going to be able to eat chicken and broccoli every meal. You’re going to have a really tough time eating 5 real meals a day. Your best bet is to ease into the process and build momentum with small victories. Drink the protein shake and get 40 grams of protein out of the way. Believe me, it’ll make a world of difference.

Real food is the gold standard, people. The nutrient density, the bio-availability… the fact that it actually tastes good. Even the best protein shake can’t hold a candle to a nice cut of steak. Given the choice between the two of them, choose real food and build muscle the way our ancestors have for centuries.