Skimmed milk destroys protein supplement myth

Many people think that muscles love protein supplements, and quickly gain mass as a result, but new research shows that skimmed milk has the same effect.

"What leads to increased muscle mass and muscle strength is training. People need to stop believing that they get more muscle and strength when they train on external things such as protein powder, and take credit themselves," says Håvard Hamarsland, a PhD student at the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences.

Hamarsland is putting the finishing touches to his doctoral dissertation "Milk Protein and Bodybuilding" in which he has compared the effects of three different milk protein products on the muscle mass and muscle strength of all ages practising bodybuilding.

Proteins are called 'the body's building blocks'. During the digestion process, they are broken down into amino acids, which the body uses to build up muscles.

Strength is especially important for the elderly

In an adult, the muscles make up almost half of body weight, depending on age, sex, genes, nutrition and fitness, according to the Store Norske Leksikon. Hamarsland believes that the ability to maintain normal muscle mass is interesting from both a sports and health perspective. In particular, it is important for the ever-increasing elderly segment of the population,

"Age-related muscle and strength loss limit the ability to fend for yourself, and the risk of disease and death increases. Studies show that seniors with good muscle mass have better survival rates. Good muscle mass is also an indicator of staying active," says Hamarsland.

He shows a graph on a PC illustrating muscle mass growing until the age of 25-30 years old, whereupon it remains pretty stable even if the curve goes slightly downward from the age of 45. But past the age of 60, it drops drastically, and strength training then becomes especially important for the elderly.

"Muscular strength falls twice as fast as muscle mass," adds Hamarsland.

More leucine in the blood from native whey

Three milk protein products were tested on young people between the ages of 20 and 35, and on seniors over the age of 70 who practised bodybuilding. One was skimmed milk, the second was WPC-80 (also known as 'whey powder' and the most widely used in Norway), and the third was the new powdered 'native whey', which contains more of the amino acid leucine than normal whey powder.

The first study looked at young men who practised bodybuilding regularly. Here they found that native whey led to a higher concentration of leucine in the blood.

"More leucine is fine in theory, but we only proved a higher presence in the bloodstream. We then did a study to see how the difference in concentration affected the muscle-stimulating signals in cells, and how protein synthesis changed five hours after a workout among both study subject age groups."

Hamarsland states that this study found that native whey had more effect than milk, but was no better than plain whey. The result was the same both for age groups.

Long-term impact on building muscle

"But what happens five hours after a workout doesn't tell the whole story of how effective a protein supplement is. We therefore went ahead and did a long-term study on training to see the effect over time."

Since plain whey and native whey proved to have the same effect in the previous study, they now compared skimmed milk and native whey only. 36 members of the young age group and 30 of the old group followed a workout program three times a week, and received supplements of 20 grams of protein twice per day. The older group trained for 11 weeks, the younger 12. But the big question was whether those who received native whey developed more muscle and strength than those who received skimmed milk?

"We measured how muscle strength and mass increased over the period. But there was no difference between the two proteins. It can thus be concluded that milk is just as effective as the new super protein over time," concludes Hamarsland.

Milk contains the proteins casein and whey, and whey is called a 'quick protein' because it is easily absorbed into the body. Why do both studies not show a better effect of native whey? Hamarsland believes that one explanation may be that native whey is quickly absorbed into the body and gives a greater effect the first five hours after intake, while milk is absorbed slower than whey and can have a longer-lasting effect.

6 kg more muscle in 12 weeks

Some readers might be curious about how much the study subjects increased in muscle strength and muscle mass. Both groups increased just as much in strength and muscle mass compared to their starting point. But despite the same training program, individual differences were considerable.

"People think they get the same result as long as they follow the same training program. That's not the case, as their genes and lifestyle are also factors. Both groups increased muscle strength, but there were also some who had no improvement in muscle mass. The biggest individual increase in muscle strength was a whopping 6 kg in 12 weeks," states Hamarsland.

Varied diet provides enough proteins

A survey by the Consumer Council shows that 25% of boys between the ages of 16 – 18 use protein supplements. And the biggest reason for doing so is that they want bigger muscles. The Consumer Council describes such use as 'unhealthy'.

"Pure protein powder itself is not hazardous, as it's made from milk protein. It becomes a problem when powder replaces a regular diet, because that prevents intake of the nutrients the body needs."

Hamarsland argues that protein supplements are not needed if you have a normal diet including food with good protein sources such as meat, fish, eggs, milk and other dairy products, which is in line with other research. Several international studies show that there is little to gain from additional protein supplements in relation to the effect gained from exercise alone. A varied diet also ensures the build-up of muscle.


Increase in muscle and strength after long-term study

The old and young age groups participated in the same training program three times a week for 11 weeks (old) and 12 weeks (young). The subject who put on the most muscle mass gained 6 kg in 12 weeks, equivalent to 165 g each session. The subject who increased the least showed no change. On average, the young group put on 2.8 kg in muscle mass within 12 weeks.

All participants improved muscle strength. Doing leg presses, the subjects with the least progression increased their max. lift by 35 kg, while the subjects with the best results managed 115 kg more than at the start of the training programme. The average among the young group was an increase of 80 kg for the leg press.