When Protein Shakes Are a Good Idea

Protein shake with banana.

It is the best-selling nutritional supplement in the fitness industry: protein powder. Before your workout, after your workout, in between meals, before going to bed – but do you really need it? And if so, which one?

How much protein does your body need?
The human body is made up largely of protein, which in turn consists of individual amino acids. It is responsible for a number of tasks in the body, including muscle growth and recovery after intense workouts. To maintain a balance between the break down and build up of muscle, our body must get protein through the food we eat.

Normally, you can easily cover your protein needs with a balanced diet. This is generally preferable because it also contains natural vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc. You can eat a high-protein diet by consuming low-fat sources of protein like lean meat, fish, eggs, cottage cheese, low-fat curd cheese (quark) and yogurt. Alternative vegetable sources include legumes, grains and soy. You can increase the biological value of your diet by combining certain foods like eggs with potatoes, beef with potatoes and wheat flour with milk. Keep in mind that carbohydrates are also important for quick recovery. The “biological value” of a protein specifies how many grams of the body’s own (endogenous) protein can be produced from 100 g of dietary protein. Whole eggs serve as the reference value and have a biological value of 100.

Photo of yogurt, low-fat curd and cheese on a wooden table.

Protein needs of adults in g/kg body weight/day:

  • Hobby sport: 0.8 – 1.0 g
  • Endurance sport: 1.2 – 1.6 g
  • Game sport (e.g. soccer): 1.4 – 1.7 g
  • Strength training, building: 1.5 – 1.7 g
  • Strength training, maintaining: 1 – 1.2 g

The average adult intake in Austria is 1.1. g/kg body weight/day.

Don’t overdo it!
If you consume more protein than your body actually needs, the following can happen: On the one hand, the excess protein will be stored in your body as fat and on the other, long-term overuse can lead to serious health problems. Too much protein can have adverse effects on your kidneys and bones and can negatively influence uric acid levels in your blood.

Incidentally, one serving of protein shake should contain no more than 30 g of powder.

When is protein powder a good idea?
A supplement is only a good idea when you cannot meet your needs through the food you eat because of intense training, you have no other option or there’s no other way with your busy schedule. Particularly after a workout, it is often easier to prepare a shake than to cook a full meal. Many protein powders contain hardly any fat, which means that your body absorbs the protein faster.

Image of various dairy products on a table.

Which protein powder?
There are numerous manufacturers, types and compositions. Apart from the brand name of the manufacturer, the price also depends on other factors like quality, degree of processing and composition of the protein powder. If a protein concentrate, for example, a whey protein concentrate, is broken down further into an isolate and finally a hydrolysate, the protein content – together with the price – increases. Plus, it is nearly fat and carbohydrate free. Whey can be absorbed by your body faster than other proteins. This makes it perfect for before and immediately after a workout because easily digestible protein during your workout is very important for optimal muscle building and recovery.

BEFORE your workout:

  • Endurance training: mainly carbohydrates
  • Strength training: carbohydrates + protein

Don’t work out on an empty stomach – make sure that the last meal before your workout contains plenty of carbohydrates and protein. This will provide you with sufficient energy.

AFTER your workout:

  • Endurance training: carbohydrates + protein
  • Strength training: mainly protein (+ carbohydrates, if needed)

The amino acid leucine has a particularly positive effect on muscle protein synthesis before, during and after your workout. Milk, curd cheese (quark), yogurt and yogurt-based homemade shakes, many types of fish and whey protein powder contain high amounts of leucine. Another good time to consume fast-absorbing protein is after you wake up because your body should be supplied with nutrients as soon as possible in the morning.

It also important to get plenty of high-quality protein in the evening to help aid muscle recovery during the night. Casein is particularly good for this. It is found in high quantities in low-fat cheeses and is absorbed slowly by the body. This way, your body is well provided for while you sleep.

Medium-digesting protein powders provide your body with extra protein in between meals.

Whey protein
Whey protein is the best-known of the protein powders. It is easy to digest, fast-absorbing and full of leucine, which makes it perfect for muscle protein synthesis before and immediately after your workout. Generally, the protein content is at least 85% and higher, depending of the degree of processing. The good news for those who are lactose intolerant is that whey protein contains very little lactose.

Milk protein (casein)
Compared to whey protein, milk protein contains less protein and more lactose. It is absorbed more slowly by the body and provides your body with protein over several hours. It is thus useful as a “night protein” before going to bed. Good sources of casein are low-fat cheeses, especially cottage cheese.

Photo of young woman drinking a glas of milk.

Egg protein
Made from egg whites, it has a lower biological value than whole egg. It is absorbed by the body at medium-speed, is practically fat and carbohydrate free like a whey protein hydrolysate and is thus good for supplying your muscles during your workout. However, it has a much weaker effect on muscle protein synthesis because it is low in the important amino acid leucine.

Multi-component protein
A mixture of mostly three or four different types of protein (e.g. whey, casein and soy) provides your body with medium-digesting protein, depending on the composition. The exact composition varies from product to product.

Beef protein
Beef protein is absorbed quickly by the body and has about as much protein content as whey. It has a lower leucine content, is lactose-free and contains natural creatine. It is mainly used in weight training and short, intense workouts.

Soy protein
The most well-known alternative to animal proteins for vegetarians and vegans is soy. The biological value is somewhat lower than that of animal protein powders and soy provides your body with energy at medium-speed. Because the long-term effects of the phytoestrogens contained in soy protein on your thyroid hormone metabolism have not been fully established, this protein powder should only be consumed in moderation.

Other vegan protein powders
Pea, hemp, rice and other vegetable proteins are also suitable for vegetarians and vegans to optimize their intake. It must be mentioned, however, that the biological value is much lower than that of supplements from animal sources or that of soy protein and the powder frequently contains more carbohydrates and fat.

Watch out for impurities
Supplements, including protein powders, can be contaminated with anabolic steroids or growth hormones. This can happen accidentally (when they come in contact with them during the production process) or small amounts can be added intentionally to produce a “bigger effect” and to make the product more popular – which is more than enough for a positive doping test or to damage your health.

Take away messages

  • Make sure to get plenty of protein before, during and after your workout
  • Cover your needs primarily with natural food
  • Protein powder is not absolutely necessary
  • Supplements are no substitute for a balanced diet
  • Do not exceed your protein needs – be careful with supplements
  • Choose a protein powder based on your needs
  • Make sure the powder is pure

Are you looking for suitable protein shakes after your workout? We have 3 delicious recipes for you without any supplements.

Homemade Protein Shakes

Pear cottage cheese shake
250 ml milk (1.5% fat)
125 g low-fat cottage cheese or quark (10% fat)
1 pear
1 tsp cocoa powder
1 pinch of cinnamon

Directions: Peel the pear before cutting to make it easier to digest. Afterwards, put all the ingredients into a suitable container and puree them with an immersion blender.  

Apple yogurt shake
250 g Greek yogurt (0% fat)
1 apple
1 Tbsp finely ground oats

Directions: Peel the apple before cutting to make it easier to digest or use unsweetened applesauce. Afterwards, put all the ingredients into a suitable container and puree them with an immersion blender.  

Mango soy shake
50 ml soy milk
200 ml soy yogurt
1 ripe mango
1 tsp coconut flakes

Directions: Peel the ripe mango, put all the ingredients into a suitable container and puree them with an immersion blender. Of course, other non-dairy milks like rice, oat or almond milk can be used instead of soy milk.  

As an alternative, other easily digestible types of fruit like a ripe banana, berries or a melon can be used for all the shakes. Cinnamon, vanilla, cocoa powder and coconut flakes can be used to give them an extra touch. If the shakes are too thick, add a little milk or water.

About the author:

René Franz

René Franz is a dietitian at IMSB Austria – High Performance Center (The Institute for Sports Medicine and Science). The IMSB was founded in 1982 to provide Austria’s top athletes with sports science and medicine support through interdisciplinary cooperation.



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