Protein shakes | All you need to know about protein supplements

Abigail Green Abigail Green Senior Health and Wellbeing Physiologist
With interest in protein shakes and powders growing more every year, questions around usage, benefits, training supplementation, and how much is too much are more common than ever. Keep reading to learn more about protein powders and muscle growth, and whether they’re a viable option to help you reach your training goals.

What is a protein shake?

You can buy readymade protein shakes or purchase a bag of powder to make your own at home. Protein powder can be dissolved and mixed with milk, water, juice or certain types of food to enhance your daily protein intake.

The benefits of protein powder drinks are that they are quick, easy, and are a great source of protein for people who exercise regularly and find it hard to get 100% of their protein from food alone.

Most people take a protein shake after the gym to avoid eating a full meal before bed. They’re also a common supplementation for those of us with specific dietary requirements who struggle to meet their daily protein intake from food alone.

Understanding the value of pure protein

There are many different types of protein powder, so it's important you get the right one. Pure proteins are exactly what they say they are.

They are proteins that are free of additives. Pure protein powders include:

  • Whey protein powders
  • Pea protein powders
  • Hemp protein powders
  • Soya powders
  • Egg powders

These powders can be mixed with water, fruit, or juice. You can even add your protein powder to porridge. Doing this is a useful way for someone intolerant to the common breakfast proteins of eggs and yoghurt to supplement their protein intake at the start of the day.

Not all protein powders are equal

Many non-pure protein powders contain added carbohydrates, sugars, and unnatural flavourings. These are less desirable for people who exercise a couple of times a week as these sugars add calories and lack the purity of the powders mentioned above.

Even more frequent exercisers should check ingredients for added sugars and carbohydrates. Protein bars tend to contain a lot of added sugar, which can provide too much energy if your aim is weight loss or maintenance.

Having a balanced meal after exercise, like chicken, tofu and vegetables or a protein source with wholemeal rice would be more nutritious and provide a great source of protein.

What are the benefits of protein shakes?

No matter what your goals are, protein shakes are a quick and easy way of getting some extra protein into your diet. Take a look below to find out why so many people are turning to food replacement powders to supplement their food intake:

  • Quick and easy: if you’re in a rush, you can quickly mix your powder with water or milk. Whilst they should never be viewed as a regular meal replacement
  • Build extra muscle: protein is the most vital macronutrient for muscle growth. If you workout regularly, you need to fuel your body with an adequate amount of protein. Take your shaker to the gym and mix it there if you want
  • Great for vegans: if you follow a vegan diet, you may struggle to get enough protein. Vegan protein powders are available everywhere and are a great way to supplement your plant based diet with additional protein
  • Versatility: protein powders are dynamic and can be added to cakes, cookies, oats, breads, smoothies, porridge, and much, much more
  • Cost-efficient: protein powder is very cost-efficient when viewed against other protein supplements.

Does protein help build muscle?

No. Protein powder won't naturally build you extra muscle. 

Rather, it contributes to your protein intake for the day. For some people, just eating a meal high in protein does the same thing. They’re a convenient, quick, and easy way of accessing protein if you can’t get all that you need from foods alone. 

Are shakes and powder the same thing?

A protein shake can be bought readymade (these tend to contain more added sugar than a bag of powder) or made at home using a blender or shaker cup.

All shakes are made with powder. Protein powder has the advantage of being cheaper per scoop and more versatile. You can add powder to certain foods (porridge, oats, and cakes) to really bolster your protein intake.

When is the best time to drink a protein shake?

This all depends on your goals. If you’re not particularly interested in muscle growth, timing doesn’t matter. If you are, timing is a little bit more important.

You may have heard how important it is to take your protein shake within thirty minutes of exercise or you’re losing out on valuable gains. Consuming a protein shake shortly after a workout is a common practice. However, the need to take it immediately after working out is overplayed.

During exercise, muscle fibres are broken down. Consuming protein post-workout provides the body with the necessary amino acids to support their repair and growth. Aiming to have your protein shake within 30 minutes to an hour after your workout will provide optimal results, but don’t stress if you can’t.

Modern research suggests that this optimal muscle growth window may in fact be two hours instead of one. If you’re going to have a shake after working out, taking your shaker to the gym to mix there is a great way to make sure you aren’t missing out.

Even if you miss this two hour window, the protein you ingested doesn’t simply go to waste.

Can protein shakes help with weight loss?

Protein shakes can help with weight loss because they’re a plentiful drink that helps you feel full and satisfied. A scoop of protein is relatively low in calories compared to a larger meal.

Protein also has a higher thermic effect, meaning it requires more energy to digest. This can ultimately help boost your metabolism.

It’s important that you don’t use protein shakes as a meal replacement. Protein shakes should not replace food as a way of filling up on a relatively low-calorie food source. This is because they lack nutritional versatility and they ultimately aren’t proven to help with long term, sustainable weight loss.

Can protein shakes help with muscle gain?

Protein is crucial for muscle repair and growth. This makes a protein shake a quick and convenient way of increasing your intake after a workout. You might not be into the idea of eating a full plate of chicken and rice at 10pm, whereas a shake sits easier on the stomach before bed.

Consuming protein shortly after exercise can promote muscle recovery and synthesis. This process is much debated and should be largely ignored unless you’re a professional or semi-professional athlete. This is because muscle gain is affected more by several other factors like training intensity, volume, and your overall diet.

How much protein do I need in a day?

The amount of protein you need depends on a variety of factors like age, sex, activity level, and your goals. As a general guideline, active individuals looking to maintain or build muscle should aim for between 0.7 and 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight (or 1.6 to 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight).

If weight loss is your focus, this number is slightly different. Those focusing on weight loss should aim for the higher end of this range to help preserve muscle mass whilst losing fat.

These numbers are a rough guide and are no replacement for a tailored made plan by a dietician or nutritionist. Before undertaking any change to your diet, always consult a healthcare professional to assess what changes are best for you and your body.

How much powder is right for me?

How much powder to take and whether you should drink protein shakes everyday is a commonly asked question.

Using the information above, you should now know how much protein you need to meet your goals. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with having a shake or protein smoothie every day, you should aim to get as much of your protein from your diet as possible. You can then supplement where necessary with shakes, bars, and powders.

Bottled protein shakes typically contain between 20g and 30g of protein. Powders that you take yourself differ because you can use as much or as little as you like, however a typical protein powder scoop will provide roughly the same amount of protein per serving as a readymade shake.

How much is too much?

Consuming extremely high amounts of protein can strain the kidneys and lead to serious health issues. Whilst it’s unlikely you’ll take enough powder to cause you problems, it's generally recommended you stay within the recommended protein intake range. You should also not be relying on protein powder as your primary protein source.

Most adults get an adequate amount of protein from their diet alone. If you are using protein powder to supplement this, it’s recommended you don’t exceed serving suggestions.

Do I need protein powder if I work out?

Absolutely not. Because of the close marketing link between the gym and protein supplements, powders and supplements are often viewed as a necessary tool for working out.

This couldn’t be further from the case. Protein powder is a great way for people who train hard to supplement their hard work in the gym. There are many other factors that influence muscle growth which are far more important than your protein supplementation.

If you’re looking to build muscle, adopt a regimented weightlifting routine, ensure you’re eating a healthy diet rich in macronutrients, and prioritise rest and recovery in between workouts.

How do I balance diet and protein supplements?

Most people don’t need to supplement their diet with protein powder. A balanced diet consisting of a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, macronutrients, and protein shouldn’t require any additional protein to maintain muscle, weight or activity levels.

Are protein shakes a viable meal replacement?

No, you should not regularly substitute meals for protein shakes. This is because a protein shake or smoothie isn’t enough of a well-rounded vitamin and nutrient source.

Protein shakes should be viewed as a way of supplementing your protein intake after a workout if you know that your diet lacks protein.

Can I drink protein shakes if I’m pregnant?

When you’re pregnant, diet becomes a lot more important. After all, it’s not just you you’re eating for.

Protein powders are safe for consumption during pregnancy. Whilst protein shakes are a quick and easy way of improving your protein intake whilst pregnant, you should always look to fuller, more rounded sources first.

It’s important to remember that most women get enough protein from their diet already and don’t require protein supplementation. Unrefined and cheap powders often contain unhealthy additives that can actually do more harm than good if you’re already meeting your protein requirements.

Can I drink protein shakes if I’m breastfeeding?

Just like with pregnancy, protein powders are safe for intake whilst breastfeeding an infant. If you’re concerned about your powder of choice, research what’s in it and have a chat with your GP. They will be happy to confirm whether there are any additives or sugars you should be concerned about in your powder.

Are protein powders vegan?

Traditionally, protein powders were all made using whey isolate (a derivative of dairy milk).

Today, in line with the rising popularity of veganism and plant-based diets, there are many vegan protein powders available on the market that use pea, soya, or hemp as their protein source.

Typically, plant-based protein powders are lower than whey powders in saturated fat and cholesterol. Whey however does tend to have a higher concentration of amino acids and a higher concentration of protein.

If you’re vegan and are concerned about the amount of protein you’re getting, a protein shake can be a great way to up your intake during the day. They are particularly beneficial if the protein powder you consume includes a complete amino acid profile (only soy and quinoa currently offer this as part of a plant-based diet).

Last updated Monday 29 April 2024

First published on Wednesday 17 February 2016