What is a protein shake?
Protein shakes (or protein smoothies) are a protein drink typically consumed before or after a workout in order to aid in muscle recovery. Protein shakes are usually made with frozen fruit/ice, a protein source such as protein powder, and a liquid.
Are protein shakes good for you?
The healthiest protein shakes are the ones you make in your own blender because you can control what goes in them. The goal here is low sugar + high protein and no additives.
Benefits of protein shakes
Protein shakes are an excellent thing to drink after a workout to help your muscles properly recover. In addition to post-workout, protein shakes can be used as a meal preplacement if they have enough calories or even a high-protein snack.
Protein shake before or after workout?
My preferred time to drink a protein shake is post-workout, but it has been said that either before or after a workout or before bed will provide the same benefits.
Types of protein powder
When looking for the best protein powder, there is so much to consider. What protein source do you want? What does the nutrition profile look like? Is it gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, etc.? How many grams of protein are there per serving? How much sugar is involved? Are there sweeteners or flavours involved? And the list goes on...
To help you chose, first it would be wise to identify your fitness goals e.g. losing weight, building muscle etc.
I would most likely chose a vanilla based or unflavoured protein as this makes it easy to add any other food sources to make it extra healthy and tasty.
Protein powders are namely concentrated sources of protein from animal or plant foods, such as dairy, eggs, rice or peas or varying other plants. Although there are three common forms of a source which include:
Protein concentrates: Produced by extracting protein from whole food using heat and acid or enzymes. These typically supply 60–80% protein, with the remaining 20–40% composed of fat and carbs.
Protein isolates: An additional filtering process removes more fat and carbs, further concentrating the protein. Protein isolate powders contain about 90–95% protein.
Protein hydrolysates: Produced by further heating with acid or enzymes — which breaks the bonds between amino acids — hydrolysates are absorbed more quickly by your body and muscles.
Now let's digress further into the sources:
Whey protein - Whey protein comes from milk. It is the liquid that separates from the curds during the cheesemaking process. It’s high in protein but also harbours lactose, a milk sugar that many people have difficulty digesting. While whey protein concentrate retains some lactose, the isolate version contains very little because most of this milk sugar is lost during processing. Whey digests quickly and is rich in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Leucine, one of these BCAAs, plays a major role in promoting muscle growth and recovery after resistance and endurance exercise.
Casein protein - Like whey, casein is a protein found in milk. However, casein is digested and absorbed much more slowly. Casein forms a gel when it interacts with stomach acid, slowing down stomach emptying and delaying your bloodstream’s absorption of amino acids. This results in a gradual, steadier exposure of your muscles to amino acids, reducing the rate of muscle protein breakdown. This type of protein is usually most beneficial when you know you aren't going to be consuming much protein over prolonged periods of time. So for example having this protein before bed works great as you slowly digest the amino acids over 8-9 hours.
Egg protein - Eggs are an excellent source of high-quality protein. Of all whole foods, eggs have the highest protein digestibility. Eggs are also one of the best foods for decreasing appetite and helping you stay full for longer. However, egg protein powders are typically made from egg whites rather than whole eggs. Although the protein quality remains excellent, you may experience less fullness because the high-fat yolks have been removed. Like all animal products, eggs are a complete protein source. That means they provide all nine essential amino acids that your body can’t make itself. What’s more, egg protein is second only to whey as the highest source of leucine, the BCAA that plays the largest role in muscle health. Egg protein can be a great choice of protein at anytime of the day as it digests at a mid-range time of around 4-5 hours.
Pea protein - Pea protein powder is especially popular among vegetarians, vegans and people with allergies or sensitivities to dairy or eggs. It’s made from the yellow split pea, a high-fibre legume that boasts all but one of the essential amino acids. Pea protein is also particularly rich in BCAAs.
Hemp protein - Hemp protein powder is another plant-based supplement that is gaining popularity. Although hemp is related to marijuana, it only contains trace amounts of the psychoactive component THC. Hemp is rich in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and several essential amino acids. However, it is not considered a complete protein because it has very low levels of the amino acids lysine and leucine. While very little research exists on hemp protein, it appears to be a well-digested plant protein source.
Brown rice protein - Protein powders made from brown rice have been around for some time, but they are generally considered inferior to whey protein for building muscle. Although rice protein contains all of the essential amino acids, it is too low in lysine to be a complete protein.
Food sources to add to your protein shake to give flavour and depth
Nuts/nut butter - Nuts and nut butters are a favourite and delicious protein source to add to your protein shake. Not only will you get protein, but you’ll also pack in the fibre and healthy fats, too. You have many options for e.g. almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts etc.
Seeds/seed butter - Whether you’re topping your protein shake or adding them right into the mix, seeds are an excellent vegan, paleo, and keto-friendly protein addition. You have many options for e.g. sunflower, pumpkin, chia, hemp, flax, sesame etc.
Fruits/Vegetables - Most protein shakes begin with the base of frozen fruit because it’s easy to blend up and super flavourful. Examples of great fruit and veg you can add to your protein smoothies are; Kale, guava, banana, strawberries, blueberries, spinach, passionfruit etc.
5 steps to making a great tasting protein shake
1. The base (Fruit vs. Ice) - Start with a base of around 1 cup of ice or 1 cup of frozen fruit. My favourite base is frozen banana, but mixed berries are a close second. Add it right into your high-speed blender.
2. Protein - Next, choose your protein source(s). I typically use multiple protein sources when making a protein shake. For example, you could do a serving of protein powder + a teaspoon of chia/flax seed + a tablespoon of nut butter.
3. Sweetener - Now, decide if you’d like to add a sweetener. Depending on how sweet your protein powder is or what base fruit you used, you may not need to add one. If you are going to add one, I suggest an all-natural sweetener such as maple syrup, agave or stevia.
4. Liquid - Start with about 1/3 cup to 1/2 cup of liquid and add more from there. There’s nothing worse than a protein shake that’s too runny, so start conservatively. Feel free to use any liquid you like such as water, orange juice, apple juice, cow's milk or any other milk alternative like rice milk.
5. Blend - Now it’s time to blend it all up. The better the blender, the smoother your protein shake is going to be! If things are having a hard time mixing then this means you need to add more liquid.