Do you need protein shakes?

To shake or not to shake? Scroll through any fitness influencer's Instagram or take a step inside most gyms and you’ll notice that protein supplements and exercise seem to go hand in hand. It’s true that protein is essential for muscle growth and recovery, with protein powders being a quick and convenient source.

Typically a blend of liquid (milk or water), fruits, peanut butter and your favourite protein powder, a protein shake is a thick concoction delivering muscle rebuilding nutrients for a post-workout fix. Through supplement brands teaming up with global fitness influencer, the protein powder, and shake, industry has exploded, with cheap options available within minutes of searching the internet.

And with such an emphasis put on making the most of your day, many are turning to them to both replace workout snacks and sit down meals. With the help of a shakes, by mixing just water or milk with your favourite protein powder, protein shakes can be readily available within minutes, on the go and without the needs for ingredients or kitchenware.

But who needs these protein shakes, and when it comes to your training goals, are whole foods just as good? Here’s the scoop, so you can figure out if a supplement is right for you.

The Ingredients

There are a wide variety of protein powders available on the market, however the differences between them can be pinpointed to three main characteristics:

  • The type of protein used (animal or plant-based)

  • The carbohydrate content

  • Any additional extras such as sweeteners, specific amino acids, proposed fat burners, thickeners and emulsifiers.

The most common type of protein used is whey, which is derived from milk. The two main varieties are whey concentrate and whey isolate. Whey protein concentrate is slightly lower in protein than whey isolate, and also contains small amounts of carbohydrate (primarily the sugar lactose) and fat. Whey isolate, which is 90% protein by weight, is seen as the superior form because it is more rapidly absorbed and often tastes better. However, if dairy doesn’t work for you, there are several plant-based proteins available, including soy, pea, and rice-based formulas.

How Much Protein Do You Need To Create Results?

The type and amount of protein you need in your diet will depend on your overall diet, how often and how intensely you exercise, as well as your budget. Overall, a dietary protein intake that represents about 15% of the total energy intake, with an energy-sufficient diet should cover the requirements for most people. This translates to roughly 0.8 – 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight. For example, a 65kg female will require between 52g – 65g of protein per day. However, individuals who lift heavy weights, are training for an endurance event, or looking to add size to their frame will have a slightly higher protein requirement of roughly 1.5 – 4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For example, a 90kg male will require between 135g – 180g of protein per day.

After a post-workout snack? Here's how to choose that protein hit!

Can You Have Too Much Protein?

Almost everyone in Western society eats more protein than necessary, with the average person consuming roughly 1.0 to 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Therefore, that same 65kg female would eat, on average, 65g – 97.5g of protein per day – more than the recommended amount. If more protein is eaten than is required, the excess protein means excess calories which can lead to weight gain. 

How can you avoid the overconsumption of protein? If you find yourself having nutritious and protein-packed meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner and your meeting your daily protein goals, you can afford to pass on the shake.

Further, research points to a maximum protein intake of around 30g in one sitting, which means that anything extra is likely to be passed through. Not only will you miss out on any protein above that mark, you'll also miss out on fibrous and nutritious foods if your plate lacks balance. So next time you're thinking about adding that protein shake straight after breakfast or dinner, it might not be as beneficial for your gains as you might think.

Supplements VS. Whole Foods  

Increased training usually means increased appetite. As a result, most people generally consume enough protein throughout the day (via eating more food), without the addition of a supplement. Whole foods also provide other nutrients, including vitamins and minerals that supplements often lack, and are more cost-effective. For example, 600ml of skim milk provides 22g of protein and only costs $0.75. Obtaining the same amount of protein from a supplement may cost anywhere from $2.00 – $4.00 depending on the type you purchase, such as supplement drinks or protein bars. 

Further, protein alternatives such as supplement drinks, may not be as appetising as a peanut butter and apple, or greek yoghurt and granola.    

Should You Consume Protein Shakes Before Or After A Workout? 

While protein is typically encouraged post-workout as it's crucial to recovery, a 2017 study found that taking pre or post-workout resulted in similar increases in muscle size and strength. Researchers concluded that as long as you consumed protein around the time of your workout, it would be effective in providing gains.    

What Types Of Workouts Best Suit Consuming Protein Shakes 

Protein shakes are beneficial after any exercise. However, there's certainly more benefit to consuming protein after workouts aimed at building muscle, such as a strength session or even HIIT. 

The Bottom Line  

Eating a moderate amount of protein, whether from a supplement or whole foods, is essential for muscle recovery and growth. For those in a rush, a shake is a convenient way to consume your post-workout protein requirements or replace a meal on a busy day. However, eating a nutritious balanced diet should not be overlooked. Balancing your protein intake (eg. nuts, dairy, lean meats, tofu, legumes) with lots of fresh vegetables, fruit and whole grains will provide your body with all the building blocks it needs so you can perform at your peak. 

If you find yourself working out 3 or more times a week, you're taking part in weight lifting and want to see results, supplementing your protein intake might be an efficient way to build muscle quick. If your body doesn't require the excess protein, there's a good chance you might wasting money on supplements and will see those excess nutrients pass through you without much use.  

Who should replace a meal with a protein shake? It's always best to consult with your GP who may refer you to a dietitian. They'll be able to provide a professional opinion on whether it's safe and beneficial for you to do so.   

High Protein Foods 

  • Grilled salmon (100g cooked) = 24g protein 

  • Tofu (100g) = 12g protein 

  • Tuna, canned (95g) = 21g protein 

  • Chickpeas, canned (1 cup) = 12g protein 

  • Natural yoghurt (100g) = 6 g protein 

  • Raw almonds (30g) = 7 g protein 

  • Beef fillet, cooked (100g) = 32g protein 


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