So, you want to take protein shakes, but…you don’t know where to start. Did you go to your local supermarket supplement aisle and walk away in disgust yet? (I know supermarket supplement aisles are horrible)
Or have you gone to your closest supplement store only to be put off by the hall of mirrors that are supplement labels and their promises of ‘superior results’?
How about looking online, I mean there’s only 100,000,000 possible options right?!
I know how you feel.
It used to be me shaking my head in despair as I tried to decide which person to believe and which protein to buy.
I get it.
I really do.
I even simply gave up on protein shakes for a while.
The one I was using upset my stomach, tasted mediocre with water, was kinda expensive and honestly, I’d grown tired of the whole routine.
However, after some time away I decided to look around a little, learn a little more and give protein shakes, another shake (yeah, I went there).
Now I use them most days, but instead of using stinky shakers, mixing with water and chugging it down quick I use a host of different recipes to suit my protein needs and taste buds.
All in all, protein shakes are now a useful and tasty way for me to ensure I get the protein I need.
I know at this point you’ve got protein questions and I’ve got protein answers.
So, this article will answer them for you.
We’ll look at;
If you’re already here, then the chances are that I don’t need to sell you on the benefits of protein shakes.
However, if for some reason you’re on the fence because maybe your workmate Colin told that protein shakes will make you fat, then here are a few benefits of including protein shakes in your diet.
Now, you can tell Colin to shut up.
Great, let’s look at why you need protein in your diet in the first place.
Protein, along with fat and carbs, is one of 3 macronutrients that provide calories to the body through the food you eat.
Protein is best thought of as the main building block for muscle and helps to fuel a process called muscle protein synthesis.
Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is the technical way of saying building muscle.
Working in opposition to MPS is muscle protein breakdown (MPB) which does the opposite and breaks your muscle down.
These 2 competing states can have 3 outcomes;
These 2 processes are continually happening in your body with muscle tissue being broken down and rebuilt.
However, it’s the rate at which MPS and MPB occur which will determine whether you’re building, maintaining or losing muscle mass.
Across any normal day, you will naturally switch between being in a positive protein balance where the rate of MPS is greater than MPB and a negative balance where the opposite is true.
The key to building muscle is to spend more accumulative time in a positive balance than a negative one.
There are a few factors that play into being able to do this;
2 most important factors are training (specifically weight training) and calorie intake with focus on total protein intake.
Both factors increase your rate of muscle protein synthesis, often for a prolonged period of time.
This is because every time you perform weight training, particularly if you’re focusing on progressive overload you damage the cells in your muscle fibres and this damage signals your body to increase muscle protein synthesis in order to repair itself (1).
After training it’s not uncommon to see a rise in muscle protein synthesis that lasts anywhere from 3 days to 24 hours depending on your training experience (2).
This effect reduces in line with the amount of training experience you have as your body becomes better adjusted to recovering from exercise, which is why beginners can progress with less training volume than intermediate or advanced lifters (more on this in another article).
However, as well as this increase in muscle protein synthesis there is also an increase in muscle protein breakdown after strength training (3).
It’s here that your nutrition plays a big role as without sufficient protein intake this increase in MPB can see you switch into a negative protein balance where muscle protein breakdown outstrips muscle protein synthesis.
Protein is important because it also directly stimulates muscle protein synthesis helping to ensure that MPS is greater than MPB (4).
How much do you need to achieve this effect?
That’s what we look at next.
The first thing to know about protein intake is that you don’t need as much as you think you do.
What I have found particularly effective is to use a bracketed amount of protein to give you some flexibility.
This means when trying to preserve my muscle when eating in a calorie deficit to lose weight I will aim for between 0.8g – 1.1g of protein per day with the idea that most days I’ll hit about 1g per pound of body weight.
This gives me the flexibility to eat a little more or little less without feeling like I’ve ‘messed up my diet’.
Of course, if you feel a stricter, set amount of protein works better for you, then, by all means, do that.
The important thing to remember is to balance your protein needs.
This is because;
You’ve probably heard that you should eat a small amount of protein often.
It’s not true.
So, if you’ve been meticulously eating small bites of protein spread perfectly across the day it’s time for a shakeup.
You see, this idea that you must eat protein in small amounts, often, comes from the myth that you can only absorb 20g of protein in a single sitting.
This idea came from research showing that eating more than 20 – 25g of protein doesn’t appear to cause a larger rise in muscle protein synthesis (8).
However, contrary to this long-held belief, more recent studies have shown that larger amounts of protein could be more beneficial than smaller ones (9).
Well, research now shows that total protein intake is much more important when compared to when you eat protein (12).
In other words, eating less protein than you need perfectly spaced over the day is less optimal than sufficient protein imperfectly spaced over the day.
Getting enough protein is the most important thing, more important than when you eat it.
Let’s move on and look at the different types of protein available to you when shopping for the right protein shake for you.
When it comes to protein shakes you have several different options, each option varies in the amount of protein per serving, cost and mixability.
However, you should know that there is no wrong or right answer, only what works best for you.
Below we breakdown the different types of protein;
Whey is the most popular and well-known protein supplement powder and is a milk-based product.
In fact, whey is the liquid product created when making cheese, as part of the process the milk is treated and splits into solids (curds) and a liquid (whey).
Whey protein is water soluble and therefore mixes well with water, milk and other liquids without becoming lumpy.
Whey is often sold as a ‘fast digesting’ protein that’s absorbed quickly and supports muscle growth.
Whilst both these statements are true (it is digested quickly, and protein supports muscle growth) whether or not faster digestion equals more muscle is debated and most likely oversold in advertising.
Whey also contains all essential amino acids needed by the body and is considered a complete source of protein.
When it comes to protein shakes, whey comes in 2 forms; concentrate and isolate.
Whey protein concentrate is probably the most common and cheapest type of protein due to it the simplicity of making it.
You see to be called protein concentrate all manufacturers need to do is ensure that their product is 35% – 80% protein by weight.
This means for every 100g their protein powder must contain 35g – 80g protein.
Whey protein isolate is similar to whey protein concentrate except for the fact that it must contain 90% protein by weight.
This means for every 100g, 90g must be protein.
Whey protein isolate is also a very popular protein shake due to its high protein content.
These protein powders are often sold as ‘pure’ and/or ‘smoother’ than protein concentrate however this is as a result of the processing done by the manufacturer and not an inherent quality of whey protein isolate itself.
For the above reasons, whey protein isolate is typically more expensive than protein concentrate.
Casein is another protein that comes from milk.
In comparison to whey which is a fast digesting form of protein, casein is slow digesting. This means it’s digested and released into the body more slowly.
As with whey it also contains the full set of 9 essential amino acids and is considered a complete protein.
Aside from being slow digesting, casein also contains gel forming properties which means it mixes badly with water and shouldn’t be used in a traditional shaker, but on the upside when mixed with milk in a bowl it turns into ‘pudding’ type consistency.
As a result of its gel forming properties casein can be used to make high protein, low calories snacks and puddings.
Soy protein is made from defatted soybean flakes which have been washed in alcohol or water to remove the sugars and dietary fibre, its then dehydrated and turned into a powder.
It is one of the few plant proteins to contain all essential amino acids and can be a viable alternative to dairy based protein products if you have a dairy intolerance or allergy.
There is debate surround whether to supplement with soy protein or not as it contains phytoestrogens, which in large quantities may decrease testosterone and increase oestrogen (13).
More than this, research does not appear to support these claims with one extensive review study showing that neither soy foods nor soy isoflavone supplements altered testosterone levels in men (16).
Hemp protein is made from the Cannabis Sativa plant but has no or barely measurable levels of the THC (psychoactive) compound that Cannabis is famous for.
It is another plant-based protein that boasts 20 amino acids, including all 9 essential amino acids that your body needs.
It also contains more healthy omega fatty acids and fibre than most common protein powders.
Owing to the fact that levels of THC are near or completely non-existent in hemp protein, this means you get none of the negative side effects and all of the benefits.
On top of this there is also research (17) showing that hemp based protein may improve fatigue and have positive effects on your immune system.
For all the reasons listed above hemp protein makes for an excellent alternative to whey or other plant-based proteins.
Another great source of vegan protein, rice and pea protein are often included together as separately they contain incomplete amino acid profiles, but together, they can provide all 9 essential amino acids the body needs.
Rice and pea protein is a good alternative for those with allergies and contains a similar amino acid profile as whey protein.
Egg protein, as you might have guessed from the name, comes from eggs. It too is a complete protein, providing all 9 essential amino acids the body needs.
It is made by separating the egg white from the yolks, then the egg white is heated, treated and turned into powder form.
The result is egg protein powder.
Although generally considered a complete protein it is possible for egg protein not to contain a full amino acid profile depending on the process used to make it.
It’s also typically an expensive form of protein that sometimes retains a slight eggy taste.
However, on the plus side egg protein contains a lot of vitamins and minerals that can contribute to a healthy diet.
All in all, egg can be a good alternative for those who have a milk allergy or are unable to properly digest whey or casein proteins.
For the average gym goer getting overly caught up in the speed of digestion or any other claimed benefit of protein powder is a pointless exercise.
At the end of the day protein powders are a quick and easy way to get more protein in your diet and all of the protein listed above fits the bill on that front.
However, this being said you aim should always be to get the majority of your protein from whole food sources, only supplementing when needed to boost your intake or plug any holes.
Ultimately your decision should be based on your needs in relation to the following criteria;
Protein is an important part of the diet for both fat loss and muscle building, with a recommended intake of 0.6 – 1.1 g per lb of bodyweight depending on your goal.
For this reason, it can be useful to supplement your protein intake using protein shakes. If you decide to do this there are numerous different options to choose from depending on your needs and budget available.
Whey protein is the most popular and well-known but can case stomach issues from some people, casein is slow digesting and better for making desserts than shakes, whilst soy, hemp, pea and rice proteins are a good alternative for those who cannot take whey or want a vegan option.