The Essential Guide to Protein Shakes

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;

  • The benefits of protein shakes

  • Why you need protein in your diet

  • How much protein you need daily

  • When’s the best time to take your protein shake

  • The different types of protein

  • Tips for buying protein shakes

  • Quick and easy protein shake recipes


The Benefits of Protein Shakes

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.

  1. Speed: Protein shakes are quick to make, which means if you’re tight on time (because work is hectic, or you’ve got a family) then protein shakes are a speedy and easy way to get more protein into your diet without having to stop and cook a full meal.

  2. Convenient: We alluded to this in the point above, protein shakes are a convenient way to get more protein that doesn’t involved having to plan and cook a full meal. Saving you time and money at the times you most need it.

  3. Transportable: Protein shakes are also transportable, you can drink them on the go or take them to work to drink before or after your workout.

  4. High Protein: This goes without saying really but one of the main benefits of protein shakes are the fact they give you a high dose of protein with little else. Of course, you can add carbs and fats if you want/need to, but if you’re lacking protein in your diet then protein shakes are a great way of plugging that gap.

Now, you can tell Colin to shut up.

Great, let’s look at why you need protein in your diet in the first place.


Why You Need Protein In Your Diet

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;

  1. Positive balance where MPS is greater than MPB which leads to muscle growth

  2. Negative balance where MPS is less than MPB which leads to muscle loss

  3. Equal balance where MPS and MPB are the same, which leads to muscle maintenance

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;

  • Rest and recovery

  • Training intensity

  • Training frequency

  • Calorie intake

  • Protein intake

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 out strips 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.


How Much Protein Do You Need?

The first thing to know about protein intake is that you don’t need as much as you think you do.

Research (5, 6, 7) consistently shows that an intake of between 0.6g – 1.1g per pound of bodyweight is enough to both preserve or build muscle depending on the circumstances.

For example;

  • When in a calorie deficit aim to get as much as 1.1g per lb of body weight per day

  • When in a calorie surplus aim to get as little as 0.6g per day

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;

  • If you eat too much protein you restrict the amount of fat and carbohydrate you can have in your diet, which can impact health and performance

  • If you eat too little protein you drastically increase the chances of losing muscle mass


When is the Best Time to Take Your Protein Shake?

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).

With studies showing that eating up to 40g of protein provides a greater increase in muscle protein synthesis (10) and, a more effective reduction in muscle protein breakdown (11).

The result?

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.

Got it?

Getting enough protein is the most important thing, more important than when you eat it.

Ok, good.

Let’s move on and look at the different types of protein available to you when shopping for the right protein shake for you.

The Different Types of Protein Powder

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

  • Casein

  • Soy

  • Hemp

  • Rice & pea

  • Egg


Whey 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 consider a complete source of protein.

When it comes to protein shakes, whey comes in 2 forms; concentrate and isolate.


Whey Protein Concentrate

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

Whey protein isolate is similar to whey protein concentrate expect 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.

The Final Word on Whey Protein (Concentrate & Isolate):

Whey is the most popular form of protein and is a by-product of the cheese making process. It is considered a complete protein as it provides all amino acids and comes in 2 main forms; concentrate and isolate.


Casein Protein

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.

The Final Word on Casein Protein:

Casein is a slow digesting, milk-based protein that contains a full amino acid profile and is considered a complete protein. However, due to it’s gel forming properties it is badly suited for making protein shakes but perfect for making protein desserts.


Soy Protein Isolate

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).

However, because soy protein is made by rinsing the soybeans in alcohol and water a good portion of phytoestrogen content is removed (14, 15).

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).

The Final Word on Soy Protein:

Whilst some debate exists around the effect of phytoestrogens on testosterone soy protein contains all 9 essential amino acids and can be a good alternative to whey or other high-quality sources of protein.


Hemp Protein

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.

The Final Word on Hemp Protein:

If you’re looking for a whey alternative or want a vegan friendly protein powder, then hemp may be the protein powder for you. Containing all 9 essential amino acids with health benefits to boot hemp is a great choice.


Rice & Pea Protein

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.

The Final Word on Rice & Pea Protein:

Another great alternative for those who cannot use whey protein. Although independently rice and pea protein is incomplete together they provide all 9 essential amino acids with a profile comparable with whey.


Egg 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.

The Final Word on Egg Protein:

Egg protein is generally considered a complete protein and is made from the whites of eggs. However, it is typically quite expensive and sometimes retains a slight eggy taste.


Tips For Buying Protein Shakes

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;

  • Cost

  • Allergies

  • Carb content

  • Calorie content

  • Flavourings

  • Dietary requirements


Quick & Easy Protein Shake Recipes

All shakes are best made in a Nutri bullet or similar type of food blender instead of being hand shaken and can be adjusted to suit your macronutrients needs and personal tastes.

Fruit Protein Shake

1 x 30g scoop unflavoured protein powder

250g fresh melon

1 banana

5g creatine

250ml semi-skimmed milk

Nutrition Content

Calories - 374 calories

Protein - 36 grams

Fat - 4 grams

Carbs - 52 grams

Chocolate Peanut Butter Shake

1 x 30g scoop chocolate protein powder

30g oats

20g peanut butter

250ml semi-skimmed milk

Cinnamon to taste

Nutrition Content

Calories - 431 calories

Protein - 42 grams

Fat - 15 grams

Carbs -  30 grams

Berry Protein Shake

1 x 30g scoop unflavoured protein powder

100g frozen raspberries

200g frozen strawberries

250ml semi-skimmed milk

Nutrition Content

Calories - 346 calories

Protein - 36 grams

Fat - 4 grams

Carbs - 45 grams

Takeaway Point

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 body weight 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 good alternative for those who cannot take whey or want a vegan option.

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