The truth about protein shakes

Do protein shakes really hold the key to improved athletic performance? Physiotherapist and PT Josh Bryant explores the facts about protein and the best time to reach for a shake.

The truth about protein shakes

Protein shakes are currently all the rage in fitness circles. The idea of a simple powder to improve your performance and appearance sounds like a dream come true. However, while there are many benefits to the consumption of protein shakes, they also come with a lot of marketing hype, which is ever growing and can mislead people to think it is an essential aspect of training and nutrition. 

What is protein?

For those who don’t know, protein has a large responsibility in the structure, function and regulation of the body’s tissue and organs. This is why it is important to consume a certain amount of protein in order to aid our body’s functions and to help our muscles to recover and repair.

How much protein do you really need?


Daily protein requirements
Activity Level Grams of protein to KG of body weight
Average adult – no strenuous exercise 0.8
Adult involved in recreational activities 1.1 – 1.4
Competitive athletes 1.2 – 1.4
Athletes building muscle mass 1.5 – 2.0


From the table above you can see that there is a significant difference in the requirement of protein depending on your activity levels and goal. For example, an 80kg man who does little to no exercise would require 64g of protein, while an 80kg athlete who is focused on building muscle may require up to 160g of protein.

64g of protein is equal to about two large chicken breasts, while 160g is about 5-6 portions which is probably a lot more portions than anyone would want to eat.

What is a protein shake?

Protein powder is an easily accessible source of protein that can be added to water, which allows you to reach your protein requirements when training to help your muscles to recover and repair. There are many types and flavours out there:

  • Whey: This is a water soluble milk protein which can be absorbed quickly and is said to be best to consumed within 20 minutes after your workout for quicker recovery.
  • Casein: This is a slow digesting protein also derived from milk. Due to its slow absorption it is said to be best taken before bed so that you are provided with a sufficient amount of protein while you sleep.
  • Vegan: There are various types of protein powders that are suitable for vegans such as soy, hemp and pea. This protein is usually advised to be taken during the same times as the protein powders mentioned above.

When should I take protein?

While it makes sense to take each of these types of proteins at optimal times due to their nature and absorption rate, this is not as essential as some fitness experts would have you believe.

In fact, research shows that the nutrients required after a workout is 5-1 carbohydrates to protein, so the most important nutrient required immediately around you finish your workout is actually carbohydrates, as your energy stores need to be replenished, particularly if you have just participated in an endurance activity.

The main benefit of protein powder is actually to assist you in reaching the sufficient amount of protein you require depending on your activity level and goal. So you can take the protein shake whenever you like, it does not have any added benefit to when you take it.

What are the benefits of protein shakes?

Timing may not be important, but protein shakes still come with numerous health benefits:

  • Reach your protein goals: As mentioned above, they allow you to reach your protein requirements in order to function, grow, repair and recover after exercise. Especially when you find it hard to eat so much food.
  • It’s cheaper: It works out cheaper than most other protein sources like meat per serving. For example an average protein tub will cost about £30-£40 and will last you for about 4-8 weeks if you were to have 1-2 servings per day. A serving of chicken per day would cost you about £20-£30 per week for the same amount of protein.
  • It’s easy: You can carry it with you anywhere and easily shake it up with some water and it’s ready.
  • It’s tasty: There are so many flavours out there which taste like actual milk shakes. So if you have a sweet tooth then you’re in luck.
  • If you are going vegan: If you are a vegan it is a lot harder to get in your protein requirements so protein powder is the perfect supplement to ensure you reach your target intake.

What are the dangers of protein shakes?

Consuming too much protein comes with its own set of problems, so getting the amount right is essential. Excess protein can lead to: 

  • Weight gain: Too much converts to sugar and fat.
  • Kidney problems: Your body cannot eliminate the extra waste, such as the extra nitrogen.
  • Dehydration: High levels of nitrogen can be toxic.
  • Bad breath: People substitute protein shakes for carbs which leaves your breath smelling bad. "When you don't eat enough carbs, the body burns fat and protein for fuel. It does so by a process called ketosis. Unfortunately, ketones have an awful smell that cannot be masked by brushing or flossing," says registered dietitian Isabel Smith.
  • Indigestion and nausea: Excessive protein can affect your digestion system.

In conclusion, protein shakes can aid your exercise and recovery and it doesn’t matter when you take it. Work out how much protein you actually need and consume accordingly.

It is important to note that while protein powder has its benefits it should not be taken instead of healthy whole food and should be used as a supplement alongside a healthy diet with a maximum of 1-2 servings per day.

Josh Bryant is a Physiotherapist and Personal Trainer. Visit capitalphysio.com for details.

 

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