Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen someone or you yourself have ever consumed a protein shake post-workout as fast as possible like your life depended on it?
All of our hands should be up. Or at least most of us. This was something I truly believed seven years ago when I first got started because this is all I ever heard – you need to get protein in.
Next question – how many of you actually like protein shakes?
Personally, I go back and forth with liking shakes. Nothing is more frustrating than investing in a tub of protein powder to find that it doesn’t mix well, had a bad aftertaste or in general, tastes like trash.
But after these two questions, the more important questions are: do you even need protein shakes to be successful in your goals and does everyone need a post-workout meal or snack?
First thing to remember, it’s a dietary supplement and supplements are to help you fill in the gaps in your regular diet.
What are the general protein recommendations?
The general recommendation for protein consumption is roughly a minimum of .8g/kg/day (Thompson & Manore, 2015). However, keep in mind other unique factors like overall health of an individual, activity level, gender and goals (weight loss, maintenance, muscle growth) will impact how you should determine the best amount for you. For example, those with kidney issues should talk to their doctor or get a referral to a registered dietician about protein needs because too much protein (for them) can be harmful.
“The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine suggest that athletes have higher protein needs than the general population and advise endurance athletes to consume about 1.2g to 1.4g/kg of protein per day, and strength-trained athletes consume up to 1.6g to 1.7g/kg of protein per day (Digate Muth, 2015).” There is still controversy around how much protein should be consumed and how beneficial high protein consumption can be in relation to muscle development and because of this, research is ongoing. This is where it can get confusing for someone who is looking to create a healthy lifestyle in general versus someone seeking athletic performance and even extreme aesthetics.
In general, individuals could consider a range within the standard guidelines of 10 to 35% of total daily calories. My personal consumption follows athletic recommendations, and still falls into the range for standard guidelines.
Dancing between general health and athletic performance, post-workout recommendations can get tricky as well. There’s also misinformation – do you need protein or do you need carbohydrates?
The truth, you need both, but the ratios will be different depending on the activity you endured.
The purpose of a post-workout snack or meal is to help replenish glycogen stores that were depleted during exercise and assist in muscle repair, which means a post-workout snack should contain both carbohydrates and protein (Kreider et al., 2010). What is glycogen? It’s stored carbohydrates that will be used later for energy. Your liver can store about 90g of glycogen and your muscles can store around 150g, however, storage capacity in muscle will change based on how much muscle an individual has (Thompson & Manore, 2015).
For most people who train at a moderate intensity aggressive post-workout isn’t necessary. So you don’t need to chug that protein shake like you think you do or gobble up your oats.
The activity duration and intensity will dictate the specific amounts of carbohydrates and protein you may need. For those who participate in endurance sports like running or swimming, more carbohydrates may be required post-workout than someone who participates in strength training because of how the body utilizes different nutrients during different kinds of activity (Muth, 2015).
For athletes who train vigorously or train multiple sessions a day like a triathlete, a strategic schedule that includes timed snacks and meals pre-, intra- and post-workout may be helpful (Muth, 2015).
I’ve worked with a few clients who participate in total body workouts at their gyms like CrossFit, functional training and kickboxing who have experienced a change in their performance and recovery just by making slight shifts to their nutrient timing before and after workouts. Other than these snacks and meals, specific meal times didn’t make much of a difference for these clients because while the duration and intensity of the workouts are greater than many, they are still a small component of their day – their day doesn’t revolve around their workouts.
Early research suggested a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein (like 30C and 10P), but newer research suggests a carbohydrate intake of 1.5g/kg of body weight in the first 30 minutes after exercise and then every two hours for four to six hours may be helpful for those engaging in rigorously, endurance training (Coggan & Coyle, 1991; Rodriguez, Di Marco &Langley, 2009).
I’m sure some of you are wide-eye – trust me I get it. But this is also the difference in eating for performance versus eating for weight loss. The approaches overall will be different, but there may be similarities in the principles.
Like mentioned above, protein needs are going to vary person to person and sport to sport, which means that protein shakes may not be necessary. However, that doesn’t mean that they’re not convenient and won’t be helpful for someone working on implementing healthier habits. It just means that if you’re not interest in them, you don’t need to worry.
Let’s talk shakes first.
Three common protein types are whey, casein and soy.
Whey is one of two milk proteins and it’s the liquid left after the milk has curled and been strained (Muth, 2015). There are also three varieties: whey protein powder, whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate.
Things to note:
- Whey isolate is lactose-free so if you do have a hard time digesting lactose, this may be helpful for you
- In general, whey is digested and absorbed faster than casein and soy, which makes it optimal for post-workout
Casein is the second milk protein and provides the color to milk. Casein is found in micelle, which breaks down in the stomach causing the release of casein, which make the digestion process of casein slower.
Things to note:
- Some studies suggest that a combination of whey and casein may assist greater in strength development
- Because casein is found in micelle, the digestion process can lead to some bloating in some individuals
Soy is one of the only vegetable proteins that has all the essential amino acids. Consumption types: flour, concentrates and isolates. There has been some controversy around soy, and in 2006 the Nutrition Committee of the American Heart Association said that “isoflavone supplements in food or pills isn’t recommended, but soy consumption through tofu, soy burgers and soy nuts may be beneficial” (Sacks, et al., 2006).
Protein shakes are a tricky thing because they used to be marketed towards athletes, and now they target everyone. Some companies change the branding depending on the gender they want to target as well. Have you ever seen a pink bottle for women? There aren’t a lot of changes made to the formula to support women versus men.
Ok, so is it just a change in marketing or does science say you need a shake?
It’s important to know that you don’t need protein shakes to be successful regardless of your goals.
It’s crazy to think that there was a time when shakes didn’t exist, but this reminds of a few things: capitalism is real, shakes can be helpful in some situations, but they aren’t detrimental to progress.
We do also need to remember that protein quality is also important and it varies source to source. The term bioavailability means “the portion of a drug or other substance (including food) which enters the circulation when introduced into the body and so is able to have an active effect.” This means just because you consume something doesn’t mean you’re getting the full benefit of it.
In general, eating protein versus drinking it is going to be helpful because protein doesn’t just exist to be that – there are a lot of other benefits. Beef for example is one of the most bioavailable sources of iron which reduces fatigue, immune system function and boosting hemoglobin (which can be important during menstrual periods) (Office of Dietary Supplements, 2018). Beans are a good source of protein, but they also add fiber to our diets too.
While there are other sources of protein other than animal sources, essential amino acids will be found in animal sources like meat, eggs and milk with the exception of chia and soy. Fruits, vegetables and grains are incomplete protein and will need to be combined with each other to obtain all the essential amino acids necessary for optimal function. An example of combining incomplete proteins would be whole grain toast with peanut butter. Learn more about protein here.
So if you’re skipping the protein shake, what are some other things you could have post-workout?
There are variances in research regarding protein timing, resulting in a wide window for consumption for the average gym-goer. So for the average person going to the gym, a post-workout protein bar or piece of fruit for the car may be more helpful so you can get home and make dinner. This is more psychological than anything.
For those who participating in endurance or power training, refueling within 30 minutes post-workout with up 2 hours post-workout to have the first post-workout meal could contain between be a protein shake and a banana between 30 minutes and 2 hours post-workout.
Regardless of which category you fall into, there are a lot of options you have that aren’t shakes.
- Cottage cheese
You could have this on it’s own for about 13g of protein and 6 to 8g of carbohydrates for half a cup. You could also pair with fruit, vegetables or granola, which would increase the carbohydrate intake, provide fiber and other micronutrients.
- Greek yogurt
Like cottage cheese, Greek yogurt is packed with protein. A one cup serving (which may or may not be realistic) has about 22g or protein and 6 to 8g of carbohydrates.
- Whole grain toast with peanut butter
Most whole grain breads will average around 5g of protein with a serving of peanut butter averaging 6g for a total of 11g of protein.
- Oats with seeds, nuts or nut butter
A standard half cup serving of oats has 8g of protein, adding seeds, nuts or nut butter can add helpful omega 3s and protein
- A smoothie with fruit and vegetables (like spinach) with milk or soymilk
This will be higher in carbohydrates, but will also provide more micronutrients. Milk is an excellent source of protein and some milk alternatives also have protein.
- Bean salad that includes black beans and chickpeas
Beans while higher in carbohydrates also provide protein and fiber to our diets that can also help us regulate digestion and control blood sugar levels.
My go-to’s post-workout
- Cottage cheese with berries and cinnamon or granola and nuts
- Yogurt with chia seeds and fruit (bananas, berries or grapes)
- Sandwich on whole grain bread with cheese and turkey or chicken breast and honey mustard
- Sweet potatoes (roasted or mashed) with peanut butter…while I figure out if there’s still chicken in the fridge
Beck, K. L., Thomson, J. S., Swift, R. J., & von Hurst, P. R. (2015). Role of nutrition in performance enhancement and postexercise recovery. Journal of Sports Medicine, 259-267.
Muth, N. D. (2015). Nutrition Strategies for Optimal Athletic Performance. In N. D. Muth, Sports Nutrition for Health Professionals (pp. 134-146). Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company.
Office of Dietary Supplements . (2018, December 7). Iron. Retrieved from Office of Dietary Supplements: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/
Phillips, S., & Van Loon, L. (2011). Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. Journal of Sports Science, 29-38.
Poole, C., Wilborn, C., Taylor, L., & Kerksick, C. (2010). The role of post-exercise nutrient administration on muscle protein synthesis and glycogen synthesis. Journal of Sports Science Medicine, 354-363.
Thompson, J., & Manore, M. (2015). Proteins: Crucial components of all body tissues. In J. Thompson, & M. Manore, Nutrition: An Applied Approach (pp. 190-223). Boston: Pearson.
Timberlake, Karen. (2018). Amino Acids, Proteins and Enzymes. In K. Timberlake, Chemistry: An introduction to general, organic, and biological chemistry (pp. 548-583). New York: Pearson.
Wolfe, R. R. (2017). Branched-chain amino acids and muscle protein synthesis in humans: myth or reality? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14-30.