The advertisements make each of the dozens of varieties and flavors of protein shake available at your favorite health store or website sound like some sort of miracle supplement. The fact is though, that not all protein supplements are created equal – and with so many options available, selecting the right one can quickly become an overwhelming experience for a newbie.
Below we’ll break down some of the most important details to help you determine if a protein supplement is right for you, why you need a protein supplement in your arsenal, which type of protein you should be taking (and when) and we’ll cover some of the potential downsides of regular protein supplementation.
Why You Might Need Protein Supplementation
Your body needs protein to build and maintain lean muscle, to the tune of about 1 gram per pound of bodyweight per day on average. Depending on your schedule, your specific fitness goals and your dietary restrictions, a high-quality protein supplement may be a necessity.
For Busy Schedules
If you are constantly on the run from the office to the gym to the school to pick up kids or to other commitments, time may not be on your side for meal proper meal prepping. If you just can’t find a chance to clean, cook and prepare chicken, fish and lean red meat, adding a quality protein shake to your repertoire can help you hit your macro goals with little to no guilt. This ensures that the hard work that you put in at the gym will produce the results you are after.
Dietary Choices or Restrictions
If you are a vegetarian or vegan or if you are just a picky eater it becomes a major challenge to hit your daily macronutrient requirements without issues. A high-quality shake can add a tremendous amount of protein to your daily intake without adding an overabundance of unnecessary calories, carbohydrates or fat.
Your Body Goals
If you want to pack on even more lean muscle (think body builder or physique competitor), you may need more than the 1 gram per pound of body weight estimate above. Adding an extra half gram of protein per pound of bodyweight to your target would mean a whole lot more eating during the course of your day. Using a quality protein shake to make up the difference makes it quite a bit easier to hit those loftier protein intake goals without adding additional solid meals into the mix.
If you want to trim excess body fat without sacrificing lean muscle, protein needs to be a focal point of your diet. The right protein shake can serve as a low calorie, low fat meal replacement that allows you to create the necessary caloric deficit to drop pounds without unwanted or unnecessary muscle loss.
Different Types of Protein
Whey protein is one of the most readily available and affordable protein powders around. Whey protein is derived from milk and contains each of the nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. Whey protein can not only be found in almost limitless flavors (depending on the manufacturer), and this subsection of protein varieties has its own variety of types you can choose from. Whey protein can be found in Isolate, Concentrate, and hydrolysate and each sub type have its advantages.
- Whey protein isolate goes through processing to make it a little more “gut friendly” by removing the majority of lactose. Isolate is also very low in fat content making it easy to fit into your dietary structure.
- Whey protein concentrate is a low carb, low fat, low-calorie option but may not be as easy on the digestive system as the other two varieties of Whey supplements.
- Whey protein hydrolysate is produced with ease of digestion in mind; it is processed specifically to be easy on the body and with minimal allergy reaction potential for the user.
Even the processed forms of Whey can have an adverse impact on you if you are lactose intolerant though – sensitive users may suffer from gas, bloating and other digestive distress when using whey protein.
Casein is another protein derived from milk, but this one is touted as being “slow digesting” as opposed to whey which is “fast digesting.” Casein protein doesn’t cause the same spike in amino acids in the system as whey but instead delivers a slower, steadier release over a much longer period (in the range of 6-8 hours). This slower absorption makes casein a night time favorite of body builders and strength athletes who feel that the lengthier absorption process will help preserve lean mass overnight when no food is being consumed.
As casein is derived from milk, users need to be wary of the same potential downsides as whey. Those with milk allergies or lactose issues might want to seek out a different source to meet their daily protein goals.
The egg is one of the most nutritious, complete whole foods available – but not everyone loves them scrambled, in an omelet or over easy. Egg protein supplements come from the egg whites, so you don’t get the full nutritional profile of a whole egg (with the healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals), but you do get a high quality, low fat and relatively easy to digest supplement.
On the downside, egg protein tends to be quite a bit more expensive than whey protein, and there are a number of people out there who may have allergies issues with eggs and egg products.
Hemp, soy, and pea protein supplements serve as an excellent option for vegans, those with allergies or lactose intolerance and those who have issues with gluten. If you are considering plant protein as your shake of choice, just make sure to pay close attention to the nutrition profile of the brand you pick. There are some excellent options out there, but other products are loaded with sugar or unnecessary fillers and fail to deliver the quality protein you’ll need to reach your goals.
This option likely appeals greatly to the carnivores out there, but don’t get too excited by the term “beef.” These shakes aren’t quite the filet mignon in a glass you might be imagining, but are made from other parts (ligaments, etc.). This means that your beef protein doesn’t have the same nutritional profile as your steak or burger and in fact likely has a good portion of the essential amino acids added in order to be able to be called a complete protein.
Beef protein does have a lower allergy potential but does carry a pretty hefty price tag in most cases. If you are adhering to a specific dietary style (Paleo or primal) or if you’ve got food sensitivities, beef protein is a potential tool to add to your arsenal to help reach your daily protein goal.
How Much Protein to Use
The answer to the question “how much?” depends entirely on your body and the specific goals you have set for transforming it. You need to begin tracking your intake of whole foods to determine how much protein you are getting in your diet currently, then put together a plan for supplementing according to your desired goal.
If you have a fairly well-balanced diet where you consume some lean protein with each meal, chances are you won’t need an overabundance of supplementing to hit your goals. A single serving in the morning and a single serving following a resistance training session may be enough to get you to your daily intake target.
In terms of how much powder to use –a typical scoop of protein powder is approximately 30 grams, and those 30 grams of powder contain on average anywhere from 18-26 grams of protein (depending on brand, flavor and type). Begin by calculating your daily target (1 – 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight), evaluate your intake to find out what you are getting from whole food sources, then begin adding shakes (with one to one and a half scoops of powder) to make up the difference.
Primary Advantages of Protein Shakes
The big reason most people take protein supplements revolves around reaching their goals when it comes to physique and athletic ability. In addition to helping you pack on lean muscle, here are a few other outstanding benefits of adding protein powder to your dietary arsenal.
- Speed – a good protein shake allows you to consume as much protein as you would get from a full meal in a matter of minutes, including prep. This is huge for people who are pressed for time.
- Portability – can you imagine trying to eat a sirloin steak while you are walking down the street, on the bus or in a locker room? A protein shake lets you get that protein anywhere, even on the go.
- Meal Replacement – there are brands out there that deliver an outstanding nutrition profile, including a host of necessary vitamins and minerals. This lets folks who are trying to lose excess weight to get a full meal’s nutrients at a fraction of the calories.
Disadvantages of Protein Powder
As valuable as a quality protein powder can be, there is also a potential downside to supplementing with protein shakes.
Unwanted Weight Gain
Protein powder isn’t a silver bullet to your physique goals. When you misuse it, supplementing with protein powder can actually cause you to pack on unwanted pounds. If you want to build lean muscle, you need to put in the work in the gym.
Just adding protein shakes to your diet when you aren’t doing the work in the weight room will result in gaining fat. If protein isn’t being used to rebuild muscle after intense resistance training, it will ultimately be stored as fat.
Even when taking protein supplements as directed, users can still experience digestive issues. Possible problems can come in the form of gas, bloating, diarrhea or constipation depending on the type and unique ingredients in the protein supplement that you use.
These adverse effects can be a relatively minor annoyance or a major, potentially dangerous issue. As a whole, protein is typically one of the safest and most effective supplements an athlete can take, but be sure to monitor your body’s reactions to specific brands, types of proteins or individual ingredients to ensure you can avoid digestive problems.
Food allergies and sensitivities can cause pain and misery. The best way to avoid this is to pay careful attention to supplement labels and avoid those that you know that you are sensitive or allergic to.
There are a lot of options for protein shake supplementation out there – but getting your hands on one that will work doesn’t have to be overly complicated. If you’ve got no food allergy or sensitivity issues, Whey protein tends to offer the most bang for your buck – allowing you to get 20+ grams of complete, high-quality protein for less than a dollar per serving.
If you suffer from allergies, have dietary restrictions or follow a special diet (vegan, Paleo, etc.), there are still tons of options available to you – you just might need to participate in a little more trial and error to find one that agrees with your belly and your wallet.
When shopping for protein, start with the reputable manufacturers and then begin scrutinizing the labels. Find a protein that delivers the right nutrition profile to help you meet your goals, that fits into your dietary preference and lifestyle, and that fits within your budget – then add a scoop to the shaker bottle and start building the body you’ve always wanted.