Protein shakes: What are they and do you need them? | Supplements 101The complete beginner guide.
Protein supplementation is a massive thing these days.
Protein shakes. Protein bars. Protein bread, noodles, water, everything you can think of.
However they’re still so misunderstood by so many people.
Thankfully, this is a topic I feel I can cover in relatively few words (compared to some of my other articles anyway, that is).
That means a lot less sciencey mumbo-jumbo for this one, as I just want to quickly explain to anybody who may be misinformed – what they even are.
In subsequent articles, I plan on breaking protein supplementation down further and further.
So what exactly are they?
They are, quite literally: Protein supplements.
They’re not steroids, they’re not magic, they’re not dangerous.
They supplement your daily diet to help you get additional protein in, should you need more (which is the crux of the issue, we’ll get to this).
Remember, protein is simply a macronutrient, which contributes 4 calories per gram. Your other macronutrients are carbohydrates and fats (also fibre & alcohol) – this is where your calories come from.
So a protein supplement is really no different to a carbohydrate supplement, or a fat supplement – it’s just that the media has massively capitalised on the fact that we require a certain amount of protein per day to build muscle, recover adequately from workouts, help fat-loss diets etc.
Because of this requirement for protein in our diets, companies can now sell protein supplements with captions such as “builds muscle!” or “burns fat!” – in actual fact; the supplement in and of itself does none of that.
However, because hitting adequate dietary protein (combined with proper exercise) can aid both of them goals, companies are able to write this on the packaging because of the indirect effect, they aren’t technically lying (I guess).
This is what further propagates this negative stigma around protein shakes. People still avoid them because they “don’t want to get too big”.
When you realise what these supplements actually are, you’ll understand why that statement absolutely blows my mind every time I hear it.
If you’re willing to consume meat, beans, lentils, dairy, pasta – literally anything with protein in it, without a fear of getting to big, well then you can consume a protein supplement without the same concern.
Ladies, they won’t make you any “bulkier” than a small chicken breast, or a tin of beans. Fellas, they’re not the secret to looking like the guy on the cover of Flex magazine – that’s anabolic steroids (I’m truly sorry).
Treat protein like the macronutrient it is, not as some mystical, profound element that either makes you massively muscular or massively fat depending on your usage (people assume that “excess protein” is immediately stored as body fat, incorrect entirely).
Back to the point.
Most of the time, these protein supplements are derived from whey protein.
Whey is basically a by-product of the cheese manufacturing process. It is low in fat and high in protein, as well as being cheap to produce – thus being perfect for the production of protein supplements.
It’s also a very fast digesting protein, hence the whole “drink protein after your workout to repair your muscles” idea (which may or may not have merit, research is still inconclusive – I’ll explain a little more later).
There are alternative types of protein sources for supplementation as well, such as soy protein, rice protein, casein etc.
The underlying idea is the same though, they are products that have a high protein content so that you can add them in to your current diet. The type of protein you use is probably never going to amount to a difference that’s noticeable/measurable.
So are they useful?
They can be both extremely useful and completely useless – it depends who I’m talking to really.
Is hitting adequate protein important, especially for active individuals who train? Yes, absolutely.
From my article about daily protein requirements:
“Protein is a part of every cell in the human body, whether that be muscle, nails, hair, bones etc. On top of this, proteins help regulate certain hormones, make up antibodies, but most importantly for the fitness fanatic – helps repair and build muscle tissue after exercise (and maintain new muscle once it has been “built”).”
So yes, consuming enough protein in your diet is definitely important. However, that doesn’t immediately mean you need to take supplements to achieve this benefit.
Supplements are useful when your daily intake cannot be met from whole foods alone.
Read that sentence over and over, because that is the most important line in this entire article (and in any article about supplements for that matter).
The reason this is so important to grasp is because; from the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with people over the years that don’t fully understand protein supplements; I’ve realised that people literally think protein supplements are in a different realm to protein as an actual macronutrient – as if consuming 40grams of protein from a shake has profound muscle building benefits compared to eating a regular/large sized chicken breast or a 6oz steak.
It really doesn’t. We all consume protein every single day, and we don’t even think about it.
Those of us who eat meat 1-2x a day probably consume far more than we realise (yes it’s perfectly plausible to have a high protein diet without meat also) – and therefore implying that consumption of a supplement here or there is going to magically produce gains in muscle that eating food doesn’t is nonsensical.
It’s important to accept protein supplements for all that they are, and not the magic pill they claim to be.
Now that you understand this, we can get in to the merits of them.
Should you buy some?
Buy some if you feel you would otherwise be lacking protein in your diet, and to consume your daily protein needs entirely through whole foods is too impractical for you.
If you believe you can hit your daily protein requirements without any supplementation – well then, do that & don’t waste your hard-earned money on shakes and bars.
They’re a convenience-food/drink, that’s all.
So what are your protein requirements?
I wrote an article outlining the optimal protein intakes from those who are cutting/bulking, which you can read here. In short;
For those currently “bulking”:
- 1.5grams – 2.2grams per kg of bodyweight.
- For individuals who struggle to gain weight on a bulk, opt towards the lower range.
- For individuals who tend to gain too much bodyfat on a bulk, opt towards the higher range.
- Higher protein intakes are fine but likely not beneficial for muscle mass gains.
For those currently “cutting”:
- 1.8grams – 2.8grams per kg of lean bodyweight.
- Protein intake should be scaled up as body fat gets lower/diet gets longer (higher bodyfat = less “need” for more protein)
- Higher protein intakes promote better satiety and can help retain muscle mass.
- Be wary to not increase protein so high that carbs & fats become unnecessarily low (problematic).
If you are currently a non-lifting individual who doesn’t think in terms of “bulking and cutting” – well then let me quickly outline an approach for you;
1. What is your current exercise regime? Everyone should be exercising, irrespective of goals (unless you’re chronically underweight and need to reduce energy expenditure/increase intake immediately).
I recommend that everyone should, within their exercise regime, incorporate some type of resistance training. I could ramble on about why this is, but this isn’t the article for it. Simply put though, resistance training at least twice a week will stand you in good stead for 99.9% of your fitness goals.
2. Because you are now exercising/resistance training – your protein requirements are slightly higher than the RDA (which is for sedentary people). Not to mention, protein is satiating (filling) and has a high thermic effect – that’s why higher protein diets generally work so well for fat loss.
3. At the minimum, I would try and start consuming 1g of protein per kg of bodyweight. So an 80kg individual would aim for 80grams of protein per day. Over time, I would try and scale this up towards 1.6grams per kg of bodyweight.
If you are overweight, opt for “grams per kg of desired bodyweight” (or lean body mass), not “actual bodyweight”.
Some science (only a very tiny amount).
I’m not going to go in to the science of protein as an actual macronutrient regarding fat loss/muscle gain, because I’ve done that in my article about protein, my article about fat loss and my article about gaining muscle.
However, is there science behind protein supplementation (as opposed to the macronutrient as a whole)?
Here’s two infographics showing a clear benefit to post-workout protein supplement ingestion:
(Infographics from www.strengthandconditioningresearch.com)
Just because there are numerous studies showing that post-workout protein enhances muscle protein synthesis, which in turn seems to result in increased hypoertrophy (muscle growth), strength, performance etc.
Well, that doesn’t tell the entire story.
Yes there is no doubt to this beneficial effect, however – does this resulting benefit on hypertrophy come from the post-workout shake, or from the increased total protein intake (regardless of timing and/or source of protein)?
The popular meta-analysis from Schoenfeld et al. (2013) regarding “protein timing” concluded that when factoring in for total protein intake, post-workout protein had a non-significant effect on muscle growth  (see infographic below from www.strengthandconditioningresearch.com) – i.e. Daily protein intake is the most important factor regarding muscular adaptations from resistance training, not post-workout protein supplementation.
This conclusion is in line with the recent meta analysis from Morton et al. (2017) which stated :
“Dietary protein supplementation significantly enhanced changes in muscle strength and size during prolonged RET in healthy adults.”
Then goes on to conclude:
“With protein supplementation, protein intakes at amounts greater than ~1.6 g/kg/day do not further contribute RET-induced gains in FFM”
(RET=Resistance exercise training).
Basically, increasing protein intake via any means is useful if you’re not currently eating enough – but once your demands are taken care of, supplementation is just a waste of money (if you’re doing it in hopes of achieving more growth/adaptation).
Finally, from www.examine.com: “If daily protein targets are achieved through dietary protein alone, supplementation is unnecessary.”
A final comment:
There are literally hundreds of studies and research papers conducted around protein supplementation and protein itself.
You can end up in a long-winded mental debate with yourself about which type of protein, what time to consume them and all of this – however the differences (if they even exist) are minimal in terms of the practical application to building muscle/strength and losing fat.
Focus on the bigger picture, which is hitting your daily protein requirements.
The final word & my recommendations:
Accept supplements for what they are, and they can be your friend.
That protein bar, protein yoghurt, protein bread isn’t going to magically make you muscular, it isn’t going to be stored as fat if you don’t go to the gym that day – it’s just food, with a higher protein content.
- Whey protein is a very fast absorbing protein and quite cost-effective.
Post workout consumption has been shown to elevate levels of muscle protein synthesis in the acute stages, as shown above.
Despite this, in the context of adequate daily protein, consuming protein shortly after a workout to promote additional hypertrophy is likely of no real importance. However, it definitely can be a convenient method/time to get some additional protein in & to help promote satiety after a workout. If not beneficial, it can not hurt.
- Convenience & taste – Nowadays there are so many different types of protein supplementation, many of which can be extremely tasty and seem like little treats. Not to mention, for people with busy schedules, consuming a quick shake maybe at work or on-the-go can be a life saver compared to cooking up a plate of chicken/beef.
- The real benefit: to help hit that daily protein goal.
My supplement recommendations – if you’re interested in investing:
I’ve bought all of my supplements from Myprotein for years now, they’ve never let me down (best value you’ll find, good quality, tons of flavours/types) so here’s some of my favourites:
For your standard whey protein, look no further than here. (I really like strawberry cream which goes well with greek yoghurt, or chocolate smooth which goes well with my oats).
If you’re trying to (struggling to) bulk, adding some chocolate smooth to some instant oats with some peanut butter and milk can be a huge, easy source of calories.
When I’m cutting I cannot get enough of their protein brownies. 20 seconds in the microwave – this is essential. Satisfies my sweet tooth (well, as good as it can, I still would rather eat 2,000 calories of cookies).
As always though – if you don’t need supplements, don’t buy them. Use them intelligently to help you hit your dietary goals.
-  Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA, Krieger JW. The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013 Dec
-  Morton RW, Murphy KT, McKellar SR, et al A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults Br J Sports Med Published Online First: 11 July 2017.