When Do You Actually Need Protein Shakes?

When Do You Actually Need Protein Shakes?
Photo: Syda Productions, Shutterstock

I love my protein shaker. (In fact, I’ve been known to mix cocktails in it.) It’s a staple in my meathead life because I find protein shakes helpful to my muscle-building goals. But a protein shake isn’t an automatic necessity if you’re lifting weights, so let’s talk about how you know whether you need one.

Protein is important for everyone

Everyone needs protein, but most casual exercisers can get as much as they need from a normal, healthy-ish diet. If you’re trying to build muscle, you may need more protein than you can conveniently get from your diet. And if you’re losing weight, you’ll want to keep protein intake high so that you don’t lose too much muscle along with fat.

The amount of protein you need, no matter which of these categories you fall into, is obtainable through a normal healthy diet. Meats, eggs, dairy, tofu, fake meats, and to a lesser extent grains and beans, are all great sources of protein. Protein shakes and supplements aren’t necessary; they’re just a convenience food.

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So what’s with all those shaker bottles at the gym?

If you need to get a lot of protein in your diet, a shake before (or during) your workout is one way to get some of it in. One school of thought holds that you should space protein out throughout the day for greater muscle protein synthesis, so the shake would be just one of many high-protein meals that gym bro has in a day.

Still, if you’re new to hitting the gym, you don’t need to dial in your nutrient timing or drink pre-workout powder or other specific supplements. Exercising and chugging shakes are not a package deal. You can just do your workout and eat healthy meals before and after; don’t add anything else into your routine unless you have a specific reason to do so.

Think of protein powder as a food, not a supplement

Sure, heath bodies regulate it as a “supplement,” but I prefer to think of protein powder as a food. If I want to get 30 grams of protein in a meal, I could meet that goal with a chicken sandwich or with a protein shake. Which I choose will depend on which one does a better job of meeting my goals.

Do you want something filling? If you’re hungry, the sandwich is a better choice. But if you’re trying to get something in your stomach before an early-morning workout, a shake with protein and carbs can do the job without making you feel too full.

Are you tracking your macros? Protein powder contains protein with very few other nutrients. If you’re counting calories, or limiting macronutrients like carbs, the powder can be handy because it is low in total calories while still packing a huge protein punch.

Are you lazy? Protein powder is cheaper than a lot of other protein sources, and shaking a blender bottle is quicker than cooking a fancy meal. To be totally honest, this is probably the main reason it’s popular with bodybuilders, especially those who eat four to six meals a day. A shake is just a meal you don’t have to cook.

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How to make a great protein shake

Alright, let’s say you’ve decided you do want to drink a protein shake. What’s the best way to make one?

First, you’ll want to decide on a protein powder. Do not buy whatever can at GNC has the most jacked dude on the label. A lot of products that are marketed like protein shakes are actually “mass gainers” that provide a ton of calories, not just protein. If you want to increase your calories to gain weight, that’s a fine thing to do, but think carefully about whether you would maybe prefer to eat food instead of a maltodextrin slurry.

Next, once you have your actual protein powder — we have a guide to the most common types here — you’ll need something to mix it in. I use a Blender Bottle (no allegiance to the brand, it’s just the one I picked up in my grocery store). Any shaker with a whisk ball inside it will do. Unfortunately, stirring with a spoon or shaking a normal jar just doesn’t mix the powder into the liquid well enough.

If you intend to make thicker smoothies with lots of fruit and other ingredients, you’ll want a real blender. But let’s consider the quick and easy type of protein shake, which I would argue is the best kind.

I use a 450 gram bottle, which is the smallest I was able to find, and then I pour in 226.80 g of either water (if I’m trying to minimise calories) or sweetened flavoured almond milk (if I’m trying to maximise flavour). I love the blueberry-lavender and the matcha flavoured almond milks from Trader Joe’s, but chocolate or vanilla would be fine too.

Then I dump in a scoop of unflavoured whey powder. Protein powder comes in a great variety of flavours, so I will just say that if you choose a flavour, make sure you like it before you commit to getting a whole jug. The unflavoured stuff mixes well into any beverage (or other foods like yogurt), but that’s the choice I’ve made. If your powder is flavoured, you might prefer water or a more neutral tasting milk or beverage rather than my flavoured almond milk.

Finally, plop in the whisk ball and seal the lid tightly. I like to swirl the mixture for a few seconds before I start shaking, because otherwise I find that some of the dry powder gets crammed into the drinking spout.

The result is 230 grams (give or take) of a thin, proteinaceous liquid you can chug quickly before getting on with your workout. If you find the taste kind of gross, I recommend making it with less liquid, so there’s less of the mixture to drink. Or, you can throw the whole thing down the drain and eat a sandwich instead. That’s always an option, too.

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