Protein shakes are more popular than ever. Just look around any supermarket, convenience store or health-food shop, and you’re sure to find shelves loaded with ready-made and powdered drinks promising to help you lose weight, build muscle and boost your metabolism.
With all the hype, it can be hard to know which promises protein shakes can fulfill and which are simply wishful thinking. So, to help us understand whether it’s OK to grab a quick shake for breakfast or after a workout, we asked a registered dietitian — “Protein shakes: Yes? Or no?”
“As a registered dietitian, my answer would have to be: It depends,” said Kensie Weatherstone, of CoreLife Novant Health in Pineville, North Carolina.
“Protein shakes are like fruit juice — I’d always recommend eating the actual fruit instead of drinking it,” she said. “In the same way, I’d encourage you to reach for protein-dense foods like meat or beans because — unlike protein shakes — whole foods deliver vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients that work perfectly together.”
Protein shakes versus ‘real meals’
In certain situations, however, Weatherstone recommends protein shakes as supplements, to help her patients meet their nutritional goals. In particular, she finds them useful for weight-related purposes, including:
- Body-building/exercise: To gain and/or maintain lean muscle mass.
- Weight loss: To control calorie intake, keep you feeling full and support your metabolism.
- Long-term care/rehabilitation settings: To combat malnutrition, promote healing and ensure a healthy, stable weight.
“Replacing the occasional meal with a protein shake is fine, especially for those who have trouble eating in the morning,” she said. “And, if you’re too busy for breakfast, it’s easy to throw a protein powder in your smoothie, or grab a piece of fruit and ready-made shake — one that gives you about 30 grams of protein — as you head out the door.”
Too much of a good thing?
“Protein helps maintain our muscle mass and metabolism, but it’s not what powers our bodies,” Weatherstone said. “They actually run on carbohydrates, such as whole grains and starchy vegetables. So, if you tend to lean toward a nutritious whole-food diet, you should get plenty of protein without needing to worry about it.”
Who helps us figure out food? Registered dietitians.
For most people, she recommends a daily intake of about 2 grams of protein for every 2.2 pounds of body weight. Bodybuilders and other athletes, as well as people with certain medical conditions may need more, and should check with their health care providers. Otherwise, she encourages her patients to limit their protein intake to no more than 50 grams per meal to avoid complications.
“When we consume too much protein, our bodies turn the excess into stored fat,” she said. “Also, because our kidneys are responsible for processing the protein we eat, taking in too much can actually cause damage that could contribute to the worsening of kidney disease.”
No substitute for sweat
When it comes to building muscle, protein shakes alone will not do the trick. Exercise — including weight training and other strength-building activities — is an essential part of the recipe.
“Exercising causes tiny rips and tears in your muscle tissue,” Weatherstone said. “Then, when you consume protein — including protein shakes — it helps repair those muscles, making them larger and stronger.”
On the other hand, drinking protein shakes without hitting the gym can actually result in unwanted weight gain. So, for optimal health, remember that protein shakes are supplements that work best in conjunction with a healthy diet and exercise program.
Shopping for shakes
Protein shakes differ from brand to brand. Whether you’re looking for a ready-made shake or mix-it-yourself powder, you’ll find a wide variety of protein sources to choose from, including:
- Whey and casein: Milk proteins containing all the essential amino acids (molecules that form protein) our bodies need.
- Soy protein: Made from soybeans, provides high-quality plant protein with no cholesterol.
- Pea protein: A vegan option that offers iron and all of the amino acids our bodies need.
- Hemp protein: A plant-based protein rich in amino acids and healthy fats. (Hemp protein does not contain THC, marijuana’s psychoactive compound.)
Weatherstone prefers products containing the fewest ingredients, and making sure those ingredients are recognizable. Those containing fiber are more filling, and can help keep you satisfied between meals. And, when it comes to sweeteners — natural or artificial — she is a firm believer in moderation.
“Most brands are trying to minimize all types of sugar in their products,” she said. “But a general recommendation is not to exceed 8 to 9 grams of added sugar per serving.”
Also, because protein shakes and other supplements are not considered food products, they’re not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, she said. That means consumers must rely on manufacturers to be truthful about produce safety and ingredients.
With this in mind, brands Weatherstone feels comfortable recommending include Premier Protein, Quest, Equate (Walmart’s store brand), Glucerna, Orgain and Ripple.
“I’m all about shopping on a budget,” she said. “But, when it comes to protein shakes and other supplements, you should definitely look into trusted brand names, rather than buying companies you’ve never heard of.”