When it comes to strength training, few things are more important than nutrition. After all, protein intake is the key to muscle growth, and failure to take in the right amount of protein at the right time can limit the efficiency of your efforts.
Protein is found in food like meats, poultry, beans and dairy products, and soy products like tofu, nuts, and eggs. While many of those foods have their drawbacks – nuts are generally fatty and high in calories, while eggs are high in cholesterol – chicken provides a large amount of protein per serving without the calories of other protein sources. Even so, weightlifters often turn to powdered protein supplements, most often those made from dehydrated whey.
So, what is the best protein source for putting on muscle?
To understand the importance of protein, first it’s important to understand why lifting weights leads to muscle growth and increased strength. During a weightlifting session, the muscle groups being worked are slightly damaged.
“Our bodies are very good at repairing themselves, and by adding more protein to the damaged muscles, the small tears are repaired and the muscle becomes larger and stronger,” said Eric Davenport, a registered dietitian with St. Elizabeth Physicians Weight Management Center. “How well the muscles are repaired is based on how quickly protein is consumed after a workout, and the quality of that protein.”
That’s why weightlifters are often seen drinking protein shakes immediately after a workout. Protein gets introduced to the body when the muscles need it most. After all, the faster protein gets absorbed, the faster the muscles can receive the nutrients they need to start building and repairing, Davenport said.
“Because whey has been processed into a powder, it doesn’t need to be broken down much further to be digested,” Davenport said. “Chicken, having more structure than whey, needs more stomach acid, enzymes, and time to be completely broken down to be used by the body. This means that it starts repairing tired muscles slower than whey.”
Obviously, that makes whey protein the clear choice for putting on muscle, right? Not so fast, Davenport warned. Because whey is so easy for the body to digest, its effects don’t last as long. Chicken, meanwhile, takes longer for the body to break down, but the protein it contains gets used over a longer period of time. That leads to a larger net-growth over the gains that come with using whey, Davenport said.
And that’s not to even mention the other nutritional benefits of chicken, which are many. Chicken contains several micronutrients, including niacin, selenium, zinc and iron. Whey protein, meanwhile, is nearly devoid of micronutrients save for calcium. That doesn’t mean it’s not useful, though.
Used in concert, a nutrition plan that includes chicken and whey protein can produce great results, Davenport said.
“Overall chicken is a better source of protein for muscle building and general healthy eating,” Davenport said. “While you would not want to make whey your main source of protein for the day, it can be useful in your workout regimen. If you are unable to consume a meal within at least an hour after exercising, whey protein would be a good and easy way to give your body the nutrients to start repairing and building muscle.
“But if it is possible, the best-case scenario would be to structure your workout and eating schedule so that you can have a meal with a low fat, whole food protein such as chicken shortly after working out.”