Protein shakes can be a great tool to help improve your fitness performance by helping meet your macronutrient needs. Optimizing protein shake consumption is an important aspect of your training regimen. The online fitness industry has thoroughly covered the benefits of protein supplementation – We’ve even done it here.
However, maximizing the benefit requires you to know when are the best times to add the supplement to your diet. What we offer below is based on studies, and represents what the general population should follow.
How you consume a protein supplement depends on your goals. We will keep it simple here – are you trying to lose weight and preserve lean mass, or gain weight?
Protein Intake for Losing Weight
This section is not really about shakes – but rather protein consumption to lose weight. You can take shakes, but here we intend to help you understand the benefits of protein snacks in your efforts to burn fat.
Protein is a key macronutrient for fat loss. Its consumption increases metabolic activity, and reduces your appetite through the reduction of the hormone ghrelin. Thus, a steady intake of protein throughout the day will help your calorie management efforts – a key element to both losing and gaining weight.
A study published in 2014 examined whether a high-protein afternoon yogurt snack improves appetite control, satiety, and reduces subsequent food intake compared to other commonly-consumed, energy-dense, high-fat snacks. The findings demonstrate that when compared to high-fat snacks, eating less energy-dense, high-protein snacks like yogurt improves appetite control.
The summary is that consuming protein-rich snacks throughout the day, whether food or shakes, will help control your appetite and support your ability to eat less. Combined with effective calorie-burning resistance training, this method will directly support your efforts to burn fat.
Protein Shakes for Weight Gain
To build muscle, the science is simple – you need to consume more protein than your body uses during resistance training. But with that, we begin a tale of two proteins – whey and casein. Both support your efforts to build muscle tissue, but their make up varies:
One of two major milk proteins. It is the liquid remaining after the milk has been curdled and strained. There are three varieties of whey – protein powder, protein concentrate, and protein isolate. All provide high levels of essential and branched chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine).
Casein gives milk its white color and accounts for 70 – 80 percent of milk protein. The casein protein exists in a micelle – that has a hydrophobic inside and a hydrophilic outside. During digestion, casein is released as the micelle breaks down. The casein released from multiple micelles then aggregates and is digested via proteolysis. This is the process by which proteins break down into simpler, soluble compounds. Digestion is slow due to the aggregation of casein. This allows the protein to provide a sustained release of amino acids – sometimes lasting for hours.
There are other forms of protein, but as this is focusing on protein shakes – we’ll keep it to the most popular products as of this article’s publication.
When to shake, and when no to shake…
Optimizing protein shake consumption is not an exact science, although several studies demonstrate consistent data. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2017:
“…The timing of energy intake and the ratio of certain ingested macronutrients may enhance recovery and tissue repair, augment muscle protein synthesis (MPS), and improve mood states following high-volume or intense exercise…”
Here are highlights from the assessment:
- Consuming carbohydrate solely or in combination with protein during resistance exercise increases muscle glycogen stores, ameliorates muscle damage, and facilitates greater acute and chronic training adaptations
- Ingestion of essential amino acids (EAA; approximately 10 g) either in free form or as part of a protein bolus of approximately 20-40 g has been shown to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS)
- Post-exercise ingestion (immediately to 2-h post) of high-quality protein sources stimulates robust increases in MPS
- Ingesting a 20-40 g protein dose (0.25-0.40 g/kg body mass/dose) of a high-quality source every 3 to 4 hours appears to most favorably affect MPS rates when compared to other dietary patterns and is associated with improved body composition and performance outcomes
- Consuming casein protein (~ 30-40 g) prior to sleep can acutely increase MPS and metabolic rate throughout the night without influencing lipolysis
A 2002 study also suggested that consuming a small meal of mixed macronutrient composition (or perhaps even a very small quantity of a few indispensable amino acids) immediately before or following strength exercise bouts can alter significantly net protein balance, resulting in greater gains in both muscle mass and strength than observed with training alone. This suggests there is a window right before and after training that optimizes your protein intake.
What this means is you should be consuming protein throughout the day. How much depends on the macronutrient requirement for your fitness objectives. Ideally, you should consume as much protein as possible from lean, non-processed food sources. You can use the above findings in the study to help you understand when to assist and maximize your protein intake with a shake.
Now, why are we not saying explicitly to take X at the following times? Simple – your training plan, combined with your metabolism and diet requirements will create an “optimal window” unique to you. But you want to be following four rules in general:
- Consume most of your protein from whole, unprocessed food sources
- Target a good source of protein 2-3 hours prior to your workout (snacks right before the workout should be more carb-focused)
- Consuming a good quality, high-protein shake within two hours of resistance training is likely within your “optimal” window
- Casein protein shakes will work best before sleep, as it takes longer to digest and your body’s recovery will benefit from the sustained amino acid release.
And finally, remember – protein shakes are a supplement. They should be taken to supplement your whole food consumption – not as a replacement. If you use them, be sure to select ones with quality ingredients, without fillers and other non-essential ingredients.