Do you enjoy the convenience of guzzling down a protein shake after a workout? Protein shakes are popular because they’re so quick, convenient, and easy to consume. Many are available in powder form, so you can mix and drink on the run.
Non-plant-based protein supplements typically contain whey or casein protein from dairy. Whey protein is more rapidly digested and leads to fast delivery of amino acids to muscle tissue. In contrast, casein is slowly digested. Both are beneficial for muscle repair and hypertrophy.
Some studies show that whey has health benefits that go beyond supplying protein to muscles. Research suggests that whey may modestly lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, aid in blood sugar control, and help keep hunger in check. All good things for your body composition!
If you do any type of exercise, particularly resistance training, whey protein and casein both boost muscle hypertrophy by supplying muscles with the amino acids they need to repair and rebuild. Whey is also rich in the amino acid, leucine, a critical amino acid for turning on pathways that promote muscle hypertrophy. In fact, it contains almost twice as much leucine as casein. So, a protein supplement that contains whey helps ensure you’re getting sufficient protein, along with leucine, to support muscle growth.
Can Protein Shakes Cause Weight Gain?
Protein supplements aren’t calorie free. One question people have is whether taking a protein supplement causes weight gain. A study carried out at Purdue University looked at this issue. In the study, researchers perused and analyzed over 2,000 nutritional articles pertaining to the use of protein supplements in healthy adults. The good news is protein supplements help to boost lean body mass. That’s why people take them, right? But, according to the analysis, whether they lead to weight gain depends on when you take them.
What they found was taking protein supplements between meals was linked with an increase in body weight. In contrast, taking a similar supplement WITH meals did not. Why might this be? It seems that people who take a protein supplement between meals don’t always compensate for the extra calories by eating less at subsequent meals. So, the extra calories lead to a calorie surplus for the day. This study suggests that if you take a protein supplement, taking it with meals is prudent if you’re trying to lose weight. If you don’t take it with meals, you need to eat less with meals to make up for the extra calories.
Although foods and high in protein are less likely to cause an increase in body fat, they CAN lead to fat gain if you consume enough of them. If your weight loss has stalled or you’re gaining weight, taking protein supplements between meals may be a factor. Often, we don’t compensate for the calories we take in between meals.
Do You Even Need Protein Shakes and Supplements?
If you’re eating a real food, nutrient-dense diet, you might not need a protein supplement at all. Many diehard body builders grab a protein shake after a workout for convenience. But, how many make up for the extra calories? If you’re knocking down protein shakes between meals and eating your regular meals, you’ll end up with a calorie surplus. So, should you cut back on the protein shakes or how much you eat at meals?
It’s also not a good idea to get the bulk of your protein from protein shakes supplements. That’s because food sources of protein contain other nutrients that support the health and maintenance of lean body tissue. In fact, one of the best sources of high-quality protein is eggs, as they supply all the essential amino acids in substantial quantity. In fact, eggs are the gold standard by which other protein sources are compared. Eggs are a good source of B-vitamins and selenium, and the yolk contains lutein and zeaxanthin. These compounds accumulate in the retina of the eye and help protect the retina of the eye against damage due to ultraviolet light. As such, getting more of these antioxidants may protect against certain eye-related diseases, such as cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.
What about Plant-Based Protein Supplements?
Although plant-based protein may be deficient in one or more essential amino acids when you eat a diversity of plant-based protein sources you get all the essential amino acids your body needs. Among plant-based protein sources, soy stands out as a plant-based protein source that’s complete. It’s complete because it contains all the essential amino acids just as animal protein does. Plant-based protein supplements are growing in popularity, particularly pea protein, but you can get plant-based protein from natural sources such as tofu, tempeh, beans, lentils, nuts, whole grains, and even some vegetables.
One of the main benefits that protein supplements, particularly ones that contain whey, have over food sources of protein is how rapidly it’s absorbed. If you’ve just completed a workout and want to get amino acids to your muscles quickly, a whey protein supplement is the fastest way to do it. Solid food takes longer for your body to break down and absorb. A protein supplement can reach your muscle tissue within 30 minutes. Some research suggests there’s an anabolic window after a workout. If you take in protein within this window period (within 1 hour after a workout), you’ll theoretically boost the rate of muscle protein synthesis. However, more recent studies call the idea of an anabolic window into question. The anabolic window may only be important if you trained in a fasted state. Ultimately, getting enough protein and consuming enough with every meal seems to matter most.
Also, be aware that independent testing of some protein supplements has turned up contaminants, including heavy metals. So, do your research before taking any type of protein supplement and buy from a reputable manufacturer. Some sources, like Consumer Labs, do independent testing on supplements and publish the results. Read those reports and know what you’re buying.
The Bottom Line
Supplements and protein shakes aren’t necessary to make muscle gains. Their biggest advantage is convenience and the fact that they deliver amino acids to your muscles faster than food. But, as more recent studies show, the anabolic window may be overstated. The key is to get enough protein and space it throughout the day. You can do that with whole food! Plus, as the Purdue study shows, protein supplements BETWEEN meals may contribute to weight gain. If you consume a protein shake, drink it with a meal or at least compensate for the extra calories by eating less.
Science Daily. “To manage weight, it may matter when protein supplements are consumed”
WebMD.com. “Good Eggs: For Nutrition, They’re Hard to Beat”
Annu Rev Nutr. 2016 Jul 17;36:571-602. doi: 10.1146/annurev-nutr-071715-051110.
J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013; 10: 5.
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