When Should You Drink A Protein Shake?

Women pouring a protein shake in a kitchen.

According to the latest 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), consumption of protein foods is close to the recommended amounts amongst the American population. However, with that said, about 90% of Americans do not meet their recommended intakes for dairy.

Dairy foods offer important nutrients, such as protein, calcium, vitamin D, and phosphorus, that provide an excellent opportunity for individuals to incorporate in their diets to increase their total nutrition intakes. Experts recommended Americans increase their intakes of dairy foods, like milk and yogurt in low-fat and skim forms or fortified soymilk, to reap the benefits of this food group.

Thankfully, protein shakes are an excellent opportunity for individuals to meet their protein needs, whether they consume dairy or non-dairy alternatives.

Let's take a closer look at how much protein you need and just how a protein shake can conveniently help you meet your nutrition goals.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

Protein needs vary depending on your age, physical fitness level, and current health state. But, as a general rule of thumb, healthy individuals should focus on eating 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight to prevent deficiency, but the dietary guidelines has a range of 10 to 35 percent of their daily energy needs from this macronutrient group.

There are other life stages and conditions that require higher protein intakes. For instance, protein needs increase during periods of sickness, wound healing, later in life, during endurance or strength training, and growth. Strength and endurance athletes also require more protein to help with muscle repair after a tough workout.

According to sports nutritionist Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, founder of Greenletes and host of the Greenletes Podcast, "Protein needs are higher for athletes, but they can range tremendously. It usually falls somewhere between 1 to 2 grams per kilogram of body weight (or 0.55 to 0.82 gram per pound)."

When a Protein Shake May Benefit You

After a Workout

Consuming protein after a workout has beneficial effects on your recovery, Not only does it help with muscle repair and synthesis, it helps keep you fuller for longer.

Rizzo shares that individuals can definitely get enough protein through food, but many find protein shakes convenient as a post-workout recovery option. This is especially true for plant-based athletes, who sometimes struggle to get enough protein in their diet due to plant-based proteins being less bioavailable.

She recommends athletes consider incorporating a protein shake after a workout with about 20 grams of protein to help with muscle recovery. Other experts advise that this can be can be up to 40 grams of protein depending on intensity and length of exercise. For maximum muscle recovery, adding carbohydrates can be beneficial as well. Adding 40-65 grams of carbohydrates post-workout may be recommended.

As A Snack or Part of a Meal When Time is Tight

According to sports and faith-based dietitian Jenna Braddock, founder of Off Season Athlete, "Protein shakes are perfect for busy, active people. Since they're easy to mix up on the go, they can be a quick, filling snack or part of a meal."

Braddock recommends incorporating a protein shake filled with whole fruits and veggies and other macronutrients depending on the purpose the shake is serving.

"If it's serving as part of a meal, you're going to want to add satisfying carbohydrates and healthy fats to the shake to help keep you fuller for longer."

As You Age

Growing older doesn't have to come with the negative health effects you may have seen in your grandparents, such as osteoporosis and muscle wasting. Findings from the 2020-2025 DGA noted that there are specific life stages when nutrients like protein, calcium, and vitamin D found in dairy-based protein foods become extremely important to promote optimal bone health.

If you're concerned about your dietary protein intakes or have noticed a decline in your dairy intake, consider incorporating a milk-based protein shake into your diet or opt for a fortified soymilk-based shake as a plant-based alternative.

Protein needs also fluctuate daily, depending on your activities and lifestyle. Here are three situations where a protein shake may benefit you.

Does the Type of Protein Matter?

Leucine is an essential protein and the protein that assists most effectively in protein synthesis out of the other two branched-chain amino acids valine and isoleucine. As a result, this needs to be heavily considered when choosing your protein shakes. Animal and animal by-products such as whey would have the highest leucine content.

While plant-based proteins have a different makeup of essential amino acids than animal-based proteins, both can be used in supplement or protein shake form alongside a balanced diet to provide your body with the protein it needs.

Braddock shares that she tends to recommend whey protein isolate because it contains essential amino acids. However, she notes studies have shown that plant-based protein powders like soy and pea can also provide needed amino acids.

Braddock recommends selecting a variety of plant-based proteins to ensure you are getting all the nutrients you need for those who follow a vegan or vegetarian eating style. For omnivores, Braddock suggests choosing the type of protein that you enjoy the most and delivers the needed benefits they are looking for. 

A good rule of thumb regardless, however, is simple is better when it comes to ingredients. Braddock notes, "A protein shake doesn't have to do EVERYTHING for you in terms of nutrients. Be aware that sometimes protein powders are loaded with other ingredients to mask the true protein content."

Another concern of protein supplements is the safety and efficacy of the product. The FDA doesn't regulate supplements, so there is potential for harm or illegal substances. Be certain that the product is third-party certified such as USP, NSF, or Consumer Labs to name a few.

Do-It-Yourself Protein Shake Formula

According to Rizzo, you don't have to invest in expensive ingredients to deliver a high-quality protein shake.

Consider adding in a variety of fruits and vegetables alongside a dairy or alternative plant-based protein with a healthy fat to make a delicious and nutritious protein shake at home.

Homemade Protein Shake Formula:

  • 1-2 handfuls of frozen fruit + 1/2 cup of Greek yogurt (or 1 scoop of protein powder, if preferred) + 1/2 cup milk, water, or juice + 2 tablespoons of nuts
  • For example: 1 cup frozen cherries + 1/2 cup Greek yogurt + 1/2 cup milk + 2 tablespoons walnuts

Convenient Grab & Go Protein Shakes

If you're tight on time and need something convenient, portable, and ready to go, check out these high-quality protein shakes for on-the-go lifestyles.

A Word From Verywell

Protein shakes come in a variety of options, both animal and plant-based. While not everyone may need or want a protein shake on a regular basis, they do provide a convenient and portable source of nutrients for a variety of consumers. Plus, they can help increase the consumption of other nutrient-dense foods, including fruits and vegetables.

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