This is a common question in my office, especially from people looking to lose weight and/or build muscle. While protein shakes can be a helpful tool, they’re not for everyone. To understand whether it’s right for you, consider your goals and the science behind it.
Eating or drink more protein won’t maintain or increase your muscle. In order to maintain or build muscle, you need to challenge it with physical activity such as strength training. When you challenge your muscle, you cause little bits of microscopic damage to the part of the muscle that contracted. The body repairs that damage and adapts. The harder the work, the more damage that occurs, and the greater the repair/adaptation - building muscle. The body does a lot of this within the first hour of exercise and then continues for the next 24-48 hours. We refer to this time period as “recovery.”
Nutrition is helpful with this repair process. When you eat or drink protein (paired with a little carbohydrate and antioxidants) within an hour of the damage, the body does a better job repairing the damage and builds better/stronger muscle. This allows you to workout harder the next time, causing more damage...then repair/adaptation....and the process continues.
The body will still repair the muscle even if you don’t eat or drink protein, but the repair won’t be as great as it could be if you eat/drink within that hour.
Whenever possible, opt for the real food (eg, meat, eggs, dairy paired with a grain or fruit or starchy vegetable).
Real food has elements that aid in the recovery process that you just can’t find in a protein drink (eg, antioxidants, electrolytes, iron, b-vitamins).
However, if you can’t get “enough” real food (eg, no appetite after exercise, no access to real food within that hour, stomach can’t tolerate the amount of food you need to manage your weight), then a protein drink is an awesome tool to get you there.
PS: It’s helpful to know that this process also works in reverse. If your body notices that you’re not using the muscle that you have, it doesn’t maintain it. Then the muscle might be used to metabolism and disappear...unless you rebuild it again. This is where the phrase, “use it or lose it” totally applies
Protein will not cause you to shed pounds. The only way a protein shake helps with weight loss is if it replaces a meal or a snack and contains less calories than that meal or snack normally would.
However, I haven't met a patient for whom this works. Protein shakes don't keep you full for long and they're rarely satisfying. The longer you feel hungry/unsatisfied, the more likely you are to overeat later in the day.
Protein shakes can be a helpful tool for weight gain. They’re an easy and convenient way to add extra calories when you can’t tolerate a lot of food in your stomach. I still encourage people to use calorie dense foods before protein drinks (eg, avocado, nuts, dry fruit, seeds, fatty fish, olive oil) because the food contains vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that protein shakes just can’t replace.
Choosing a protein shake
Keep in mind that protein shakes are supplements. They are not food. This means they are not regulated for safety standards. Some general things to keep in mind...
A few of favorites
There are a lot of protein brands out there that can fit the bill. These are a few of my favorites:
DISCLAIMER: The information presented here is meant to be for general education. If you want individual guidance to reach your unique health goals, please contact me or a local dietitian directly
Dietitian, personal trainer, mother, wife, runner, and triathlete staying healthy one bit and bite at a time