Protein shakes. Once upon a time, they were the “secret weapon” of serious bodybuilders, weight lifters and physique enthusiasts. If you drank them, it was like you were a part of some secret society. Maybe the League of Extraordinary Gainers, or something like that.
Then, little by little, the “secret” got out. Whispers about the power of protein shakes to make muscles grow, waistlines shrink and diets magically behave were heard in all corners of gym and fitness club locker rooms, even among casual exercisers.
Could protein shakes really be the answer to muscle gains, even for the puny and the “hardgainers?”
Would drinking protein shakes really fire up the fat burning, even for those with “slow metabolisms?”
Could protein shakes be the “magic bullet” the fitness enthusiasts had been looking for? That awesome nexus of convenience, nutritional punch and perfect macros?
Umm, no. Yes. Maybe. Okay, it depends.
I know, I answer my own questions with that phrase a lot. “It depends” is the answer to the vast majority of questions in the fitness world. I could probably write a huge piece just talking about that. Right now, however, we’re talking about protein shakes.
The question we all want answered right now is “should I use protein shakes in my diet?” You know the answer. It depends. Let’s take a closer look.
The body of research on the value, necessity and benefits of more protein in your diet continues to grow. A massive amount of information is available publicly.
But let’s look specifically at what protein shakes can do for you, along with the most common kinds of protein available. Then, you should be able to make a simple decision for yourself about whether they should be part of your diet and nutrition plan.
Protein shakes can increase metabolism by helping you add muscle mass. Muscle burns calories. So if you increase your muscle mass, you will burn more calories. Of course, you’ll have to do something else to stimulate that muscle mass increase. Like lift weights or take part in a strength training program.
Those who lift weights or otherwise engage in resistance training gain more mass when they eat more protein. In one study, participants were given protein-rich foods and shakes that either kept protein intake at 0.5 grams per pound of body weight or increased their protein intake to 1.1 grams per pound of body weight per day during a 6 week training program.
The result? Those getting 1.1gram per pound of body weight per day increased their muscle mass by 2.4 pounds more than the lower protein group. They also reduced their body fat by 2.9 pounds more than the other group! (1)
In another study, obese patients were given either 0 or 200 additional grams of protein per day during a 13 week training program. The group receiving 200 extra grams of protein per day gained 2.8 pounds more muscle mass than the group receiving 0 added grams per day. (2)
Protein shakes can help stimulate your metabolism. Often when people diet, especially successfully, the lower weight tends to slow their metabolism. The mechanisms are complex, but protein shakes may help counter that slowdown.
Protein has been shown to speed metabolism. In one study, women were given diets with 30% protein, while others were given a diet with 10% protein. The 30% protein group saw an increase in metabolic rate and higher rates of diet-induced calorie burn. (3)
In a study of men, half were given a normal protein, balanced diet while the other half ate a high protein, zero carbohydrate diet for 1.5 days. The resting metabolic rates (calories burned while resting) were significantly higher for the high protein group. (4)
One pretty cool effect of getting more protein is the increased metabolism that happens as a result of the higher thermic effect of food, or TEF, caused by protein. It takes more calories to digest protein than carbs or fat. As a result, energy output is greater and metabolism rises. (5)
Protein shakes can help prevent muscle loss while dieting. Earlier, there was mention of metabolic slowdown during weight loss dieting. One of the causes of this slowdown is a loss of muscle mass. Eating more protein can stave off that muscle loss. (6, 7, 8)
According to research, consuming a protein shake daily as part of your weight loss diet can improve muscle mass maintenance efficiency by 350%! (9)
In another study, athletes were provided weight loss diets comprised of either 35% or 15% protein. While both groups lost fat at about the same rate and in the same amounts, the group eating 35% protein lost 38% less muscle mass. (10)
For older adults, weight loss diets with more than 0.5 grams per pound of body weight per day of protein help them retain more muscle and lose more fat. (11)
Protein shakes decrease hunger and appetite. Protein helps you feel full longer. An increase in protein calories per day from 15% of total to 30% help participants in one study eat an average of 441 fewer calories per day and lose an average of 11 pounds. That reduction was accomplished with no effort to reduce portion size! (12)
In another study, a high-protein breakfast helped dieters reduce their total caloric intake by as much as 135 calories a day, with no other controls in place. (13)
Protein shakes may help you shed stubborn belly fat. Studies have shown that protein not only helps you lose fat, but in particular, it may help target belly fat. (14, 15)
In one study, participants getting 25% of their daily calories from protein saw their belly fat shrink by 10% more than those participants getting half that amount from protein. (16)
Protein shakes can help prevent weight re-gain after weight loss. You work hard to lose weight. It can be disappointing and demoralizing to see it come back. Protein may help prevent the rebound weight gain.
One study used two groups, one high-protein and one low-protein, to study rebound weight gain. While both groups regained some weight, the high-protein group regained only 9% of their lost weight, while the low-protein group regained a whopping 23% of their lost weight! (17)
In another study, one group that had recently lost weight received a protein supplement providing 48 grams of protein per day, while another group received no additional protein. The group that got the supplement had regained 50% less weight than the other group after 6 months. (18)
What kind of protein is best? Again, it depends. If you’re a vegan, whey or casein protein are not your cup of tea. But we’re getting a little ahead of the ball here. Here are some common protein types:
- Whey protein – Commercially available practically everywhere. Can be found in both ready to mix and ready to drink options. Whey protein has a complete amino acid profile. Personally, I’m a big fan of JayLab Pro Protein Powder. It’s the best I’ve found and comes from a great company.
- Casein protein – Casein is more slowly absorbed. It’s dairy-based and contains a complete essential amino acid profile.
- Soy Protein – Soy is plant based and contains all the essential amino acids. While there’s plenty of argument about whether soy is good or bad for you, it does contain soy isoflavones, which are reputed to have health benefits.
- Hemp protein – Don’t get the wrong idea :). Hemp protein is plant-based and high in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. However, it’s low in the essential amino acid lysine.
- Rice protein – Also plant-based and also low in the amino acid lysine.
- Pea protein – Plant-based. Low in the non-essential amino acids cystine and methionine.
If you’re not a vegan, have no issues with lactose and/or are new to protein shakes, I’d recommend starting with whey protein. 20-30 grams a day is a good place to start. That’s probably the amount you’ll get from one good shake.
Whether you mix with water or milk is really a matter of personal preference and how many calories you want to get from your shake. Remember, if weight loss is the goal, be sure to replace existing calories with your protein shake.
For those of you trying to add muscle or gain weight, add the shake to your total daily caloric intake. Be sure to monitor both your weight and body fat. After all, if you’re working out to gain muscle, you want to know that it’s working!
Protein shakes are no longer a bodybuilding “secret weapon.” One stroll through your local convenience store’s refrigerated section could tell you that. Hopefully, you now have enough to go on to know if adding a shake to your diet, or replacing existing calories with a protein shake, is the right move for your fitness goals.
Don’t tell anyone I let you in on the secret, okay?
Keep the faith and keep after it!