If you follow fitness trends or have spent any time in a gym of late, likely you’ve heard the buzz around protein shakes, bars and powders. Once the preserve of bodybuilders and professional athletes, protein supplements have trickled down to the mass market and are now being consumed by everyone from amateur athletes to ordinary gym-goers and those simply trying to lose weight.
But what benefits do these supplements have, and are they something you really need to support your diet and workouts? Read on for a look at the pros and cons of protein drinks.
What are protein shakes?
Protein shakes are thick beverages usually made from protein powder (also used in protein bars), a nutritional supplement most commonly made from whey, casein, soy, hemp, rice, egg or pea proteins, each of which have their own nutritional profile and characteristics. These powders were originally developed to provide an extra hit of protein to help muscles recover and develop following an intense session of strength training, with bodybuilders and other fans using the powder to mix their own drinks or other concoctions.
With the growing popularity of protein powders amongst the general fitness population, the supplements have increasingly become available as pre-mixed shakes and bars for ease of consumption. They are no longer used purely as a supplement to accompany a workout, but also as a snack or meal replacement (particularly at breakfast) for those watching their weight.
Benefits of protein shakes
The idea behind protein supplements is that during heavy exercise, muscles are damaged slightly and require a larger amount of protein than usual in order to repair the damage and knit themselves back together again stronger than before. You may know of someone who after every gym session, top up their intake with a different flavoured protein shake daily. They are trying to get as many benefits from this product as they can and help optimise their health. This is why bodybuilders and other athletes putting severe stress on their muscles need protein immediately after a workout, when their muscles need it most.
While meat, eggs or any other common food source of protein can fill this gap just as well, the major advantage of protein shakes and bars is that they’re easier and more convenient to transport and consume than other options, and easier than immediately sitting down to a proper meal.
When used as a snack or meal replacement, they tend to be more filling than a food consisting predominantly of carbohydrates, thus helping you feel satisfied for longer and thus potentially consume fewer calories overall.
Potential downsides of protein supplements
With the popularity of low-carb diets in recent years, there is sometimes a misconception that the more protein you consume, the better – but this isn’t necessarily the case. Overall, the average western diet supplies more than enough protein to meet the body’s needs – it’s more a matter of eating a balanced blend of protein and carbs at each meal and snack to help you feel satisfied and keep your blood sugar levels in check. Furthermore, although some extra protein may be beneficial after exercise, you may not need quite as much as you think. Most experts stress that after exercise your body really needs carbs (accompanied by a small amount of protein) in order to recuperate – so if you do use a protein shake as your post-workout snack, make sure it has an adequate carbohydrate content as well.
Consuming too much protein can put excess pressure on the kidneys as any additional protein not used for building muscle is broken down to carbohydrate and a nitrogen group which is excreted by the kidney , and can cause an increase in weight. Aside from this, you may get minimal muscle-building benefit if you take in more protein than can be absorbed by your body at a particular time – which, given the high cost of many protein supplements, may represent a bit of a financial drain as well.
Another misconception is that protein shakes and supplements deliver a higher quality or more concentrated dose of protein than natural food sources. Again, this isn’t the case – meat and other sources of complete proteins (which contain all the amino acids needed by the body) are just as good. Indeed, some cheaper protein shakes may actually contain poorer-quality protein that the body struggles to use due to the intense processing the proteins undergo.
So should I be drinking protein shakes?
In short, consuming protein shakes in moderation is unlikely to do any harm and they can be a convenient way to refuel after a workout, particularly if you’re engaged in heavy lifting or any other strenuous activity and choose a shake that also offers a sufficient quantity of carbohydrates. Take the time to work out how much protein you should be aiming for though, and choose your post-workout snacks accordingly.
Similarly, in a pinch they can provide a balanced, calorie-controlled snack or meal replacement – just make sure to eat plenty of natural, whole foods the rest of the time. Another thing to keep in mind is your total calorie intake, particularly if you’re watching your weight – some protein shakes can be highly calorific. Try to choose brands that contain a minimum of added fat and sugar, and only consume shakes and bars as a replacement for other meals and snacks – not in addition to them.
That being said, if you’d rather not spend money on shakes, bars and other supplements, there’s no reason to fear you’re missing out. With a little nutritional knowledge you can just as easily obtain all the protein you need from food, often at a lower cost.