Ok, so you’re working on your macros. You’re getting an understanding of how much protein, carbohydrates and fat your body needs (maybe because you read my blog on macros and received a breakdown number from me). At this point, I often get the question “Should I drink protein shakes?” It’s pretty well known that bodybuilders and gym rats love their protein, but is it right for you? I always advocate getting as much of your nutrition as you can through solid food. But as you are probably finding out, it is not always easy to hit your protein numbers through solid food, especially if you live a busy life and/or are new at macro tracking. This is where protein supplementation can come into play… for anyone!
First, lets review why we need protein. Well, protein is used for the production of cellular tissue, manufacturing of hormones, enzymes, and other biochemical substances important for immunity, growth and healing. So, we all need protein to be healthy and strong in general, and even more so when we have a muscle building goal. You cause tiny microtears in your muscles when you work them hard, so a liquid form of protein can begin the muscle healing and growing process immediately. When you think of a protein shake as just a simple liquid form of protein, it becomes clear that you don’t need to be a body builder to justify including it in your diet, even on days you didn’t workout. Do you fret over eating a piece of chicken for the protein on a day that you didn’t workout? Protein shakes aren’t as different from solid food protein sources as you may think. With that being said, they do contain calories and count in your overall macro number just as a food would… AND while shakes are great, they are not a magic drink. They will likely not make or break your chances at reaching your goals but they can sure come in handy. I will say that taking in more protein than you might need, especially in the form of shakes, reportedly can cause extra flatulence. I certainly wouldn’t know! 😉
Let’s discuss the types and what they’re made of so you can make good choices.
The major proteins in milk are casein and whey. These two milk proteins are both excellent sources of all the essential amino acids (the building blocks of new muscle formation), but their major differentiation is that whey is a fast-digesting protein and casein is a slow-digesting protein.Whey protein is what most people are referring to when they think of a protein shake. The fast-digesting properties make it perfect for providing immediate fuel pre- or post- workout. Here’s a list of benefits of adding Whey to your routine. Casein is a great choice for providing fuel through the night or during any time that you won’t be able to refuel for hours. Thus, many people use both of these common protein choices as a part of their diet. Casein is thicker though, so be prepared for a different texture than your whey shake!
If you have an intolerance for lactose, a whey isolate will have less lactose, and hydrolyzed whey will have even less. Many lactose-intolerant people, among others, opt for plant based proteins like soy or hemp. This article from bodybuilding.com explains a few of the various protein powder options.
So hopefully, you’re thinking “Yeah, ok, protein shakes aren’t the secret to my success, but they sound like something that might be a good idea.” I do not, at this point, officially endorse any particular brand, but I certainly have my favorite ones personally, and will give you my honest opinion about one you’re considering. I will say, as general rules:
Keep it simple. People are often confused by the name-tags “weight loss,” “recovery,” “for women,” etc that are added to protein (and other) packaging. The companies aren’t trying to confuse you, but they are trying to make you think their product is exactly what you need, when it may not be. Or it may just not be much different from another product. You can see this in the grocery store, too, and it frustrates the heck out of me. See this article on Cheerios Protein to see what I’m talking about. I’m that person that immediately turns a package to the nutrition label to read and see what it’s all about. Don’t be fooled by simple marketing. It takes time to learn about nutrition and be able to properly understand what you’re looking at, but just as any food… shorter ingredient lists are typically best, and don’t judge the book by it’s cover (the front of the package).
- So, it’s labeled “weight loss”… this one typically doesn’t mean a thing other than that using a shake appropriately in your macros will cause you to lose weight. It doesn’t have to be that shake. Sometimes they have added herbs, proprietary blends, etc, but I personally suggest that you only add in things that you think you need, and it can be done separately (you’ve probably heard me say something similar a couple times now). You don’t need to be afraid of every extra ingredient, just don’t be too quick to be swayed by what the product is touting it will do simply because of the one thing that is different between it and another product.
- In general, I don’t agree with “meal replacement” shakes. Whey protein shakes are not meal replacements. Again, think of it as a source of protein. You wouldn’t typically eat JUST the piece of chicken and call it a meal. Meal replacement shakes contain fats and carbohydrates, too, to make it more of a meal, macro-wise.They can be useful for some people who have a lot of weight to lose or never have time to eat, and I won’t be mad at you if you use them. But I’m a big fan of building lifelong habits. You’re not going to drink a shake in place of meals for the rest of your life. So why not focus on learning about real foods and your nutrition requirements instead… then use protein shakes and other useful tools to fill in the gaps?
- “Recovery” drinks often are simply a protein shake (often lower in protein than a basic whey) with added simple sugars. Simple carbs are useful post-workout (again, see my macros blog for an explanation on that), but what if you want to take a shake another time when you didn’t just workout and you don’t need those extra carbs? This is why I generally suggest having a regular simple protein powder then adding a banana or gatorade or some other simple sugar immediately after you workout.
- The “for women” drinks are just a joke to me, honestly. Do you buy chicken that is “for women?” Usually it just means that there is less protein than a traditional whey, maybe with some extra ingredients. If you’ve been counting your macros, you’re probably already like “uh, no, I have a hard enough time getting my protein, don’t put less in my shake!”
All that being said, most products out there aren’t really terrible and you end up with something that will overall bring positive results. They’re just not necessarily the the right match, or you are overspending because of marketing tricks, cute labels, and ingredients you may not even need. I very rarely say NOOOO don’t take that… most of the time it’s just that you can find a better matched product for your needs and at a lower price. However, unless you have a weight gain goal, you do want to avoid products labels as “weight gainers,” as they’ll likely have added ingredients for that purpose. Seems simple enough.
You’ll see I add protein powder to recipes all the time. It’s because it can add flavor and sweetness with simple healthy macros that fit nicely into my daily numbers/needs. Again, I don’t officially endorse any particular product or brand currently, (if/when I do, it will only be because I believe in it!) but I personally love Dymatize for flavor and affordability. Optimum Nutrition is a good one, and Muscle Pharm is one of the best flavor-wise (their cookies and cream is to die for). There are several brands I’ve never tried, so don’t think that these are the only good ones!
So, in conclusion: