The Best Protein Shakes, According to a Dietitian

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The Best Protein Shakes, According to a Dietitian

Verywell / Chloe Jeong

The protein needs of active individuals are higher than the general population. Adequately refueling with enough protein and carbohydrates after exercise is critical if you want to optimize your training and recover quickly. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, protein needs can usually be met through diet alone, without the use of supplements. Protein can be found in foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, tofu, tempeh, and in varying amounts in grains and legumes.

However, there may be situations in which a ready-made protein shake can come in handy. Kathryn A. Bohling, MD, a family medicine specialist at Mercy Medical Center in Maryland, says “People who may benefit from protein shakes include people who aren't getting enough protein in their diet because of dietary restrictions, those who are trying to lose weight, or anyone trying to build muscle.”

So if you find yourself in need of a protein boost, a protein shake can be a quick and convenient way to help you meet your needs. When considering what protein shake to buy, consider the amount of protein, protein source, ingredients, and budget that is right for you.

Reviewed & Approved

Always speak with a healthcare provider before adding a supplement to your routine to ensure that the supplement is appropriate for your individual needs and which dosage to take.

Are Protein Shakes Beneficial?

While we recommend using food to meet your protein needs when possible, there are certain situations in which protein shakes may be useful.

We do not, however, recommend relying on protein shakes over whole food meals often, because shakes tend to be low in other necessary nutrients such as fiber, carbohydrates, and certain vitamins and minerals. Keep in mind that your carbohydrate needs will also be greater with exercise. Be sure your shake has adequate carbohydrates or pair it with a carbohydrate source such as grains, fruit, dairy, or starchy vegetables.

The following groups may benefit from protein shakes:

  • Those who are active and short on time: As an active person, your protein needs are higher (about 1.2-2 grams per kilogram per day). If you do not meet your protein needs, it can impact bone metabolism and athletic performance, and can contribute to menstrual irregularities. However, keep in mind that consuming more protein than this does not help you add more muscle. It is also best to spread your protein intake out throughout the day, rather than having it in one sitting. If you are exercising and know you will not have time to adequately refuel with a meal, you might consider using a protein shake to meet your increased protein needs.
  • Those with certain dietary restrictions: If you have dietary restrictions that prevent you from meeting your daily protein needs, a shake can be a helpful way to increase your intake alongside whole food sources.
  • Older adults: As we age, we begin to experience muscle loss and decreases in appetite. Consuming adequate protein can help combat this loss of muscle, especially when paired with resistance exercise. If you are not able to consume enough protein through foods, protein shakes may be beneficial.

Who May Not Benefit From Protein Shakes

While protein shakes may be useful in specific situations, there are certain groups of people who may not benefit from protein shakes. 

  • Those consuming a balanced diet: If you do not have any dietary restrictions and you consume protein on a regular basis, you can likely meet your needs through food alone.
  • Those with kidney disease: If you have kidney disease, you may need to be aware of your protein intake. Discuss your protein needs with your healthcare provider to determine if a protein shake will be appropriate.
  • Those with dairy allergies or sensitivities: Some protein shakes contain dairy products including milk or milk-derived proteins. If you have a dairy allergy or are lactose intolerant, you might consider a plant-based protein shake. 
  • Those with urea cycle disorder: Protein consumption can cause dangerously high levels of ammonia in those with urea cycle disorder, a rare genetic condition.

The Missing Carbohydrates in Protein Shakes

Low carbohydrate diets have become increasingly popular, and many protein shake companies have gotten on board with this trend. Because of this, we found it difficult to find good protein shake options that contain adequate carbohydrates for those who need them. Kate Farms Organic Vanilla Protein Shake, which contains 33 grams of non-fiber carbohydrates, is the exception.

“We wanted to highlight that including carbs actually makes for a more well-rounded, effective shake if you're using it to recover from moderate to high intensity physical activity or need to make up for a missed meal or snack,” says Autumn Rauchwerk, MS, RDN, RYT. "While it makes sense to want to choose options without much added sugar, sugar is usually the only way to find carbohydrates in a protein shake."

Many of the other shakes on the market are sweetened with low-calorie sweeteners and provide very small amounts of carbohydrates. “Most of the carbohydrates they do contain are in the form of fiber. While fiber has great health benefits, your body cannot use it as fuel,” Rauchwerk says. "Most people don't need protein shakes and would benefit more from eating food instead, but if you do need a protein shake and you choose one without added sugar, it's a good idea to pair it with a carbohydrate-containing food."

It is important to remember that non-fiber carbohydrates (including sugar!) are the body’s preferred fuel source during exercise. If you don't replenish these carbohydrates before and after exercise, the resulting depleted carbohydrate stores can make it difficult to recover and to exercise with strength and vitality.

Best Overall: OWYN Vegan Protein Shake

OWYN
Pros
  • Vegan and free from major allergens

  • Contains 5 grams of fiber and all essential amino acids

  • Contains omega-3 fats, iron, potassium, calcium

Cons
  • Fiber content may cause GI upset if used before exercise

  • Low in non-fiber carbohydrates

What do buyers say? 83% of 7,900+ Amazon reviewers rated this product 4 stars or above.

Owyn Plant-Based Protein Shake packs in 20 grams of pea and pumpkin seed protein per serving in addition to 30% of the daily value of iron and 5 grams of fiber. It contains all nine essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein, including the branched chain amino acids needed to enhance muscle recovery.

As an added benefit, Owyn contains flax oil, providing a source of omega-3 fats that you might struggle to obtain if you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet. It also contains a greens blend for additional nutrients such as iron, calcium, and potassium, which may be especially beneficial if you are an athlete.

We also like that Owyn Plant-Based Protein Shakes can be consumed by many people, regardless of your dietary needs. Owyn checks its protein shakes to ensure they are free from the top eight allergens, including dairy and soy. It also comes in a variety of flavors, such as dark chocolate, coffee, and strawberry banana, so you will be sure to find one you like. 

Please note, however, that Owyn is sweetened with monk fruit, a sugar- and calorie-free sweetener, so the shake only contains 10 grams of carbohydrates, which is lower than some other brands. If you are using this shake to recover after a workout, be sure to also eat a food source of carbohydrates, like a banana or pretzels, to help you adequately recover.

Form: Liquid | Grams of protein per serving: 20g | Protein Source: Pea protein, pumpkin seed protein | Grams of carbohydrates per serving: 10g | Grams of fat per serving: 7g

Best Whey Isolate: Momentous Essential Plant-Based Protein Chocolate

Momentous Essential Plant-Based Protein Chocolate
Pros
  • NSF Certified for Sport

  • Informed Sport Certified

  • Lower in lactose and fat, may aid in digestion

Cons
  • Expensive and low in non-fiber carbohydrates

  • Powdered form must be mixed into liquid

If you find that protein shakes and powders upset your stomach, Momentous Essential Protein may be a good choice for you. Momentous Essential Protein contains 20 grams of protein per scoop in the form of whey isolate. Whey isolates are whey proteins that have been processed to reduce fat, lactose, and cholesterol. This leaves mainly protein, which makes it easier for some to digest. However, Momentous also makes other protein powders likely to fit all needs, including a plant-based powder made with pea protein isolate and rice protein concentration, and a recovery powder. 

Take note that this powder, like many protein powder options, is low in carbohydrates and fat, which are important nutrients for recovery after exercise. Because of this, we recommend blending Momentus into a smoothie with other ingredients, such as yogurt, fruit, and nut or seed butter.

Momentous is a brand we can trust because its products are NSF and Informed Sport certified. These certifications ensure the powder is free from contaminants and substances prohibited for athletes and contains the amount of protein listed on the label. It comes in chocolate and vanilla flavors, and can be mixed into water or smoothies. It is, however, a more expensive option.

Form: Powder | Grams of protein per serving: 20g | Protein source: Whey isolate | Grams of carbohydrates per serving: 3g | Grams of fat per serving: 1.5g

Best Vegan: Evolve Plant-Based Protein Shake, Vanilla Bean

Evolve Plant-Based Protein Shake, Vanilla Bean

Amazon

Pros
  • Suitable for vegans

  • Contains vitamin B12, zinc, and iron

Cons
  • Low in non-fiber carbohydrates

  • 10 grams of fiber may cause digestive discomfort

If you are looking for a vegan protein shake, Evolve Plant Based Protein Shakes are an excellent option. These shakes contain 20 grams of protein in the form of pea protein isolate. Pea protein, similarly to whey and casein, is a complete protein, meaning it contains all of the essential amino acids (the amino acids we need to obtain from the diet) as well as the branched chain amino acids needed for recovery from exercise.

In addition to the high-quality protein, we like that Evolve contains vitamins vegans sometimes struggle to obtain. These shakes contain 15% of the Daily Value for vitamin B12 as well as zinc, and 25% of the Daily Value for iron. 

Evolve shakes have 15 grams of carbohydrates, with 10 of these grams coming from soluble corn fiber. Fiber has many health benefits, though this is a high amount of fiber for a protein shake and may cause digestive discomfort for some. Since fiber cannot be used as an energy source, Evolve shakes do not have many carbohydrates that can be used for energy. We recommend pairing them with a food source of carbohydrates. Please keep in mind that Evolve may contain soy, a major allergen.

Form: Liquid | Grams of protein per serving: 20g | Protein Source: Pea protein isolate | Grams of carbohydrates per serving: 15g | Grams of fat per serving: 2g

Best Coconut Base: Aloha Plant-Based Vanilla Protein Drink With MCT

Aloha Plant-Based Vanilla Protein Drink with MCT

Aloha

Pros
  • Creamy base

  • Suitable for vegans

  • No artificial sweeteners

Cons
  • Expensive and low in non-fiber carbohydrates

  • Not suitable for those with tree nut allergies

Many protein shakes are water or milk-based, which can lead to strong flavors. For a creamier option, Aloha makes a coconut-based protein shake. This shake contains 18-20 grams of protein (depending on the type of bottle) in the form of pea protein and brown rice protein. It also contains 9 to 11 grams of carbohydrates, which can help you recover from exercise. Of note, 3 grams come from dietary fiber, so the amount of carbohydrates your body can use for energy is limited. Therefore, you might want to pair this shake with a food source of carbohydrates.

Aloha shakes come in three flavors: vanilla, coconut, and chocolate sea salt. A common concern with protein shakes is that they can be overly sweet. Aloha is sweetened with coconut sugar and monk fruit, which allows for a subtle sweetness. In addition to being vegan, Aloha shakes are organic, non-GMO, and free from gluten, soy, and artificial flavors.

Form: Liquid | Grams of protein per serving: 18-20g | Protein source: Pea protein & Brown rice protein | Grams of carbohydrates per serving: 9-11g | Grams of fat per serving: 5-6g

Best High Calcium: Orgain Grass Fed Clean Protein Shake

Orgain grass fed
Pros
  • Contains 45% of the daily value for calcium

  • No artificial sweeteners

  • No preservatives

Cons
  • Contains milk, a major allergen

  • Low in non-fiber carbohydrates

As an active individual, it is important to get enough calcium to support bone strength and muscle function. Orgain Nutritional Shakes contain 45% of the Daily Value of calcium, so you can be sure you’re getting a good dose.

In addition to its calcium content, we like that Orgain Nutritional Shakes contain 20 grams of protein along with 11 grams of carbohydrates per serving, making this a bit more of a well-rounded post-exercise supplement. However, this amount of carbohydrates is likely still not high enough to support optimal recovery from exercise, so you might consider pairing it with carbohydrate-containing foods.

Orgain Nutritional Shakes contain protein from milk protein concentrate, so they are not suitable if you are lactose intolerant or allergic to milk. They do however also make a vegan version with pea protein and chia seeds.

Form: Liquid | Grams of protein per serving: 20g | Protein source: Milk protein concentrate | Grams of carbohydrates per serving: 11g | Grams of fat per serving: 2g

Best for Athletes: Vega Sport Premium Protein Powder

Vega Sport Premium Protein

Courtesy of Amazon

Pros
  • NSF Certified for Sport

  • Vegan and contains a higher amount of protein

  • Contains tart cherry and turmeric for recovery

Cons
  • Powder form must be mixed into liquid

  • Low in non-fiber carbohydrates

If you are an athlete looking for an easy way to boost your protein intake, Vega Sport Premium Protein might be a good choice for you. This protein powder contains 30 grams of protein per serving, which is higher than many other options. Active individuals require more protein than sedentary individuals, so this can help you meet your daily needs. Please note that this is another option that is low in carbs, so we recommend pairing it with a carbohydrate food source or blending it into a smoothie with a banana and some oats.

Vega contains protein from a mix of sources, including pea protein, pumpkin seed protein, sunflower seed protein, and alfalfa protein. We also like that this powder contains 5 grams of branched-chain amino acids, with 2.4 grams of leucine, one of the branched-chain amino acids critical for muscle growth.

Vega Sport Premium Protein is NSF Certified for Sport, so you can be sure that it is free from contaminants and that it contains the ingredients listed on the label. These ingredients include tart cherry powder and turmeric extract, which have been studied for their ability to help reduce post-exercise inflammation. Vega Sport is also non-GMO and gluten-free.

Form: Powder | Grams of protein per serving: 30g | Protein source: pea protein, pumpkin seed protein, sunflower seed protein, and alfalfa protein | Grams of carbohydrates per serving: 6g | Grams of fat per serving: 3g

Best Organic: Kate Farms Organic Vanilla Nutrition Shake

Kate Farms Organic Vanilla Nutrition Shake

Amazon

Pros
  • Higher carb for post workout

  • Phytonutrient blend and 5 grams of fiber

  • Vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free, soy-free, corn-free

Cons
  • Slightly lower in protein than other options

Kate Farms shakes are a higher carbohydrate, certified USDA Organic shake.

Since these shakes are higher in carbohydrates, they can be a useful supplement to support hard workouts. Kate Farms Organic Nutrition Shakes contain 38 grams of carbohydrates and 16 grams of protein per serving. They also contain 12 grams of fat from sunflower, coconut, and flaxseed oil, making this a more filling shake, which may help if you do not have time to consume a meal. Kate Farms uses a vegan protein source, pea protein, and adds 5 grams of dietary fiber from agave inulin. 

These shakes also contain a phytonutrient blend, with extracts from green tea, turmeric, kale, cinnamon, and others. Phytonutrients are compounds found naturally in plants that provide health benefits to humans. These shakes also contain many vitamins and minerals, including 35% of the daily value of vitamin D, 30% of the daily value of iron, and 90% of the daily value of vitamin B12.

Form: Liquid | Grams of protein per serving: 16g | Protein source: Pea protein | Grams of carbohydrates per serving: 38g | Grams of fat per serving: 12g

Final Verdict

For a protein shake you can grab while you’re on the go or after a hard workout, our top pick is Owyn Plant Based Protein Shakes. This shake is suitable for vegans and those with allergies, and it contains the essential amino acids needed for muscle recovery. If you’re looking for an organic option that has the carbohydrates to help you recover, we recommend Kate Farms Organic Nutrition Shakes.

How We Select Supplements

Our team works hard to be transparent about why we recommend certain supplements; you can read more about our dietary supplement methodology here

We support supplements that are evidence-based and rooted in science. We value certain product attributes that we find to be associated with the highest quality products. We prioritize products that are third-party tested and certified by one of three independent, third party certifiers: USP, NSF, or ConsumerLab.

It's important to note that the FDA does not review dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness before they go to market. Our team of experts has created a detailed, science-backed methodology to choose the supplements we recommend.

What to Look for in a Protein Shake

Third-Party Testing

Supplements that are third-party tested are sent to a lab where they are tested to ensure they contain what they say they contain and are not contaminated with specific high-risk, common contaminants. However, it’s important to note:

  1. Third-party testing does not test to see if a product is effective or safe for everyone, and it does not ensure the supplement will not interact with other supplements or medications.
  2. Not all third-party testing is created equal. It is not uncommon for supplement companies to pay labs for certificates after conducting minimal to no testing. 
  3. The third-party certifications we can trust are: ConsumerLabs, NSF, and USP. However, these certifications are difficult to obtain and/or expensive, so many companies choose not to get their products tested by one of these three organizations. 
  4. Sometimes products tested by these three companies are more expensive to try to offset the cost they pay for certification.
  5. Just because a supplement is not tested by one of these three companies, it does not mean it’s a bad product. We recommend doing some research on the reputability of the manufacturer, and calling up the manufacturer and their testing lab to determine their protocols and decide if you feel comfortable consuming the supplement.

Protein shakes and powders may be contaminated with heavy metals and toxins such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, or mercury. Protein supplements may also not contain the amount of protein listed on the label. It is therefore best to use protein shakes that have been third-party tested, especially if you are a competitive athlete.

Form

Protein shakes are typically sold as ready-made liquid drinks, or as powders that can be mixed with a liquid of choice. Ready-made drinks typically combine liquid, such as milk or plant-based milk, with a protein source and sometimes a carbohydrate source. Popular protein sources include milk-derived whey or casein or vegan sources such as pea or hemp.

The protein sources most commonly used in protein shakes and powders include:

  • Whey: Whey protein is derived from milk and is found in many protein shakes. Whey contains all of the essential amino acids, or the building blocks of protein that we need to obtain from food. It also contains high levels of branched-chain amino acids, which are often depleted after exercise and are necessary for muscle tissue maintenance. Whey protein is often digested and absorbed quickly.
  • Casein: Casein is another protein derived from milk. It also contains all of the essential amino acids and is particularly high in glutamine, the predominant amino acid in muscles. However, a lower percentage of protein is absorbed and utilized when compared to whey.
  • Soy: Soy protein may be a good choice if you are vegan or vegetarian. Soy protein contains all of the essential amino acids, although it is lower in the amino acid methionine, which is typically not an issue for most people. Studies show that compared with whey protein, soy protein paired with resistance exercise can result in similar increases in lean muscle mass. However, if you are allergic to soy, be sure to avoid soy-based supplements.
  • Pea: Pea protein is similarly suitable for vegans and vegetarians. It contains all essential amino acids and is rich in branched-chain amino acids. Studies show that pea protein may be equivalent to whey protein in terms of its ability to promote muscle growth.

All sources of protein can help build muscle, as long as you are also engaging in routine resistance exercise. In addition to the above, other popular sources include rice and hemp protein. You should consider the form that best suits your needs and preferences.

Ingredients & Potential Interactions

It is essential to carefully read the ingredient list and nutrition facts panel of a supplement to know which ingredients and how much of each ingredient is included, relative to the recommended daily value of that ingredient. Please bring the supplement label to a healthcare provider to review the different ingredients contained in the supplement and any potential interactions between these ingredients and other supplements and medications you are taking.

Some protein shakes and powders may contain additional ingredients such as vitamins, minerals, and herbs. If you are taking any vitamin or mineral supplements, be aware that you are not consuming harmful levels. Protein shakes also come in many flavors and may contain added sugars, artificial sweeteners, or additives. 

Whey protein may reduce absorption of drugs such as Albenza, Fosamex, and certain antibiotics. If you are using any of these medications, consult with your healthcare provider before using whey-based shakes.

Protein supplements may cause stomach upset such as gas or bloating in some people. If you are lactose intolerant or allergic to milk proteins, you may want to opt for a plant-based protein shake. If you have kidney disease, you should consult with your healthcare provider before using protein shakes.

Protein Shake Dosage

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, adults should consume around 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily, or 0.36 grams (g) per pound (lb). However, if you are engaging in strength or endurance exercise, the recommended protein intake increases to 1.2 to 2 grams per kilogram of body weight (0.5-0.9 g/lb), depending on gender, activity, intensity, and carbohydrate and calorie intake. The American College of Sports Medicine emphasizes that you must consume enough calories overall to maintain your body weight for optimal protein use and performance.

Higher intakes may be necessary during periods of intense training or when you first begin an exercise regimen. The essential amino acids, in particular leucine, are necessary to initiate the process of building new muscle.

Note that serving sizes of protein drinks vary widely, from one cup to over two cups for drinks, and can contain anywhere from 10 grams of protein per serving up to over 90 grams for powders. Consider the amount of protein appropriate for your needs when deciding on a supplement.

How Much Is Too Much?

Protein shakes are typically well tolerated, but they may cause gastrointestinal upset such as gas, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation in some individuals. Consuming excess protein (over 2 grams per kilogram of body weight) for long periods of time may increase your risk of digestive, kidney, and blood vessel related issues. Consuming protein beyond your needs will not help you build more muscle.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How many protein shakes should I have in a day?

    According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, adults should consume around 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily (0.36 g/lb). We advise having whole food meals in addition to protein shakes to ensure you are getting adequate protein and are not missing out on other important nutrients.

  • Do protein shakes help you lose weight?

    Weight loss happens when you consume fewer calories than your body utilizes for energy. Protein shakes do not themselves help you lose weight, but eating enough protein, some of which can come from protein shakes, can help you feel full and satisfied. This may help you eat in a way that better supports your body, which may or may not lead to weight loss. We recommend focusing on eating in a way that makes you feel good and maintains your energy levels rather than focusing on the number on the scale. We do not advise replacing meals with protein shakes on a regular basis as you may miss out on other key nutrients.

  • What time of day should I drink a protein shake?

    You can drink a protein shake at any time of day to help meet your protein needs. You might consider using one before or after a strength training session, but consuming adequate protein throughout the day is more important than precise timing.

  • How do I make my own protein shake?

    To make your own protein shake, combine a protein powder with a liquid of choice. You can turn it into a smoothie by adding in ingredients such as fruits, produce, and healthy fats.

    Try this homemade chocolate berry protein shake: 1 scoop of chocolate Vega protein powder, 1 cup non-dairy milk, ¼ cup frozen blueberries, ¼ cup frozen raspberries, 1 cup fresh spinach, 1 Tbsp almond butter, 1 small banana, 1 cup ice.

  • Do protein shakes help you build muscle?

    Protein shakes can help you build muscle when paired with resistance exercise. Protein however can also be obtained through whole food sources. Consuming protein drinks without exercise will not result in increases in muscle.

  • Can a protein shake replace a meal?

    Grabbing a protein shake if you don’t have time for a full meal can be helpful when you’re in a pinch. However, they likely will not provide enough calories to replace a full meal. We do not recommend using protein shakes to replace meals on a regular basis, since these shakes are often lower in other necessary nutrients such as carbohydrates, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. If you would like to use protein shakes, we recommend using them as a supplement to your diet, rather than as an ongoing meal replacement.

Why Trust Verywell Fit

Tamar Kane, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian and marathon runner. Tamar has her master's degree in nutrition and exercise physiology from Teachers College Columbia University and specializes in working with plant-based athletes in need of quick protein sources. Her goal is to help people understand how to properly fuel their bodies (and supplement if needed!) to optimize performance and wellbeing.

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