Walk into any gym nowadays, and you’re just as likely to hear the rattling of a shaker bottle as the clanking of weights. Powders, bars and other supplements have become so ingrained in our culture that it’s hard to imagine not following up a great workout with a shake of some sort (and sometimes even mid-workout). Protein powder is, in many ways, leading the supplement charge. Created by various sources — from whey to soy to pea — and popping up everywhere from GNC’s to neighborhood grocery stores, the popular supplement has cemented its place in our minds and in our diets.
Regardless of whether you’re an elite athlete or just a weekend warrior, chances are you have a tub of protein powder sitting somewhere in your house. At the very least, you’ve gulped down a shake at one point or another — maybe even a smoothie. But do you really know what’s inside your protein powder or how it should be used to give you the biggest advantage and best results? To help you more effectively decide how, when and if you should use this supplement, we created this beginner guide, answering the most popular questions about protein powder.
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Protein Powder Primer: The Why’s and What’s
Many gym-goers grab a tub and start adding shakes to their diet without first considering why or if they need protein powder at all. As Brian St. Pierre, sports dietitian and nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition, puts it, the most obvious reason to supplement with protein powder is to reach your protein intake goal for the day. However, they aren’t absolutely needed. “If you can meet your protein needs with whole foods, that’s fine,” says St. Pierre. If you find yourself taking in a quality whole-food source of protein three to four times a day, generally a gram of protein per pound of body weight, you might not even need the powder fallback. But, when you’re crunched for time, protein supplements can be your biggest ally.
Although the labels may claim otherwise, the various tubs are more equal than you think. At the heart of all protein powders is just what one would assume (or hope) — protein — whether it’s from whey, hemp, soy, or elsewhere. Still, you might see terms like “hydrolyzed” and “cutting edge” to spruce up bottles. St. Pierre argues that the pursuit of better and faster digesting protein powders may be frivolous in the grand scheme of things (research agrees). “A lot of companies will push for getting you to pay big bucks for grass fed whey or cold-filtered whey,” St. Pierre says. “These could be things that make them better, but how much better is up for debate.”
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So, if spending more doesn’t necessarily make a protein powder better, what should consumers look for when shopping the supplement aisle? St. Pierre recommends first looking for a reputable company that has good manufacturing practices (they’ll often advertise that on the label). He also suggests buyers vet out various products using third-party certifying brands like Informed Choice. Certifying companies buy actual products off of store shelves (just like a normal buyer) and run tests to make sure the bottle contains what the label advertises.
After narrowing your protein search down to a handful of brands, it’s time to investigate the nutritional facts. While the numbers and words may sound foreign, St. Pierre recommends just looking at a handful of characteristics. He likes a protein powder that is relatively low in fat and carbs.
When to Mix It Up
So, you’ve done your research and brought home a tub of high-quality protein powder. What now? Figuring out the best times to supplement can be difficult. Here are the two most common uses for protein powder during the day and specific applications for each.
1. Meal Replacement
When you’re rushing out the door late for work in the morning, the last thing you have time for is to make a quick breakfast to kickstart your day. That’s one scenario where protein shakes can come in handy. In general, St Pierre recommends adding in a source of vegetables, a serving or two of fruit and some healthy fats alongside a scoop or two of protein powder. In fact, he and the team at Precision Nutrition have coined a term for these massive meal-replacers — “super shakes.” These shakes can be used in place of a meal or in addition to a regular meal when trying to gain weight. Here’s their recommend recipe for both men and women:
2 scoops of protein powder
1-2 cups of vegetables (like spinach, which doesn’t affect the taste)
2 handfuls of fruit (fresh or frozen)
2 tablespoons of healthy fat (a nut butter or seed for example)
Mixer (almond milk, regular milk, water — your choice)
1 scoop of protein powder
1 cup of vegetables
1 handful of fruit
1 tablespoon of healthy fat
Mixer (almond milk, regular milk, water — your choice)
These recipes bring up another topic of concern — gender differences. Workout supplements are often viewed as a male-dominated industry, but protein powders are also effective for women. St. Pierre points out, however, that women have different nutritional needs than men. In general, they need less protein per pound of bodyweight (primarily due to differences in body composition). For that reason, St. Pierre initially recommends for females to use one scoop instead of two. However, he’s quick to admit that the “cut in half” lesson isn’t the definitive solution. “It’s not that women need exactly half as much as men…Ultimately, it’s just giving you a framework to start something. You can adjust it from there based on your needs,” says St. Pierre.
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Gender differences aside, if these shakes are so nutrient-dense, why shouldn’t you just blend up a shaker bottle for each meal and ditch cooking (and dirty dishes) for good? St. Pierre cautions that although the shakes are great, they still aren’t the same as whole food. “There is more nutrients inherent to whole foods then there ever will be in a powder,” he says. You can also sometimes lose nutritional value drinking your nutrients and vitamins instead of eating them. For that reason, he recommends supplementing with no more than two shakes in one day (even that is pushing it). The key is to use shakes in a pinch and rely on whole food sources for the rest of your meals.
With the advent of the post-workout window — a thin slice of time to intake nutrients after a workout for the biggest benefit — protein shakes and shaker bottles became a necessity for a gym trip. If you didn’t slug a shake before you walked out the door, the notion went, you were compromising recovery time and crippling the benefits you could reap from your workout. Protein supplementation post-workout has been shown to be beneficial, particularly in helping individuals recover after a tough session and potentially increase muscle and strength gain. However, the post-exercise window may have been a bit overblown. St. Pierre acknowledges that post-workout nutrition is important but not as much as you may have previously thought. “Basically, it’s not a bad thing to have a shake right after you work out, but you don’t have to,” he explains. “Don’t drive yourself crazy thinking that you’ve wasted a workout because you didn’t have a shake right after working out.”
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So, how should post-workout shakes fit into your nutrition? It’s really up to personal preference. Previously, protein shakes were thought to digest faster in the stomach than whole foods providing muscle-building nutrients to the recovering muscles quicker. St. Pierre explains that new research indicates this isn’t the case. Now, he advises clients use whatever is most convenient. “If you want to have a shake, that’s cool. If you want to make a whole food meal, that’s more than OK, too. Either approach is valid, so it’s personal preference,” says the coach. Stomach sensitivity may also play a role as well. Some individuals have a harder time taking in whole food directly after a workout. In those cases, a shake would be a proper substitution to get in a quick dose of protein.
Protein powders have seemingly become a necessity for an active lifestyle right alongside high-tech fitness trackers and cutting-edge footwear. Although protein shakes may be a convenient way to take in calories, it doesn’t mean that they’re always the best option. Whole food sources are still your best bet for getting vital nutrients. The takeaway is to build your diet with a base of solid food and use protein powder as a — you guessed it — supplement when it’s healthy and convenient.
Originally posted July 2014. Updated July 2015.