Protein Shakes – A Beginner’s Guide
Curious about protein shakes but don’t know where to start? Here’s your go-to guide: how and why to use protein shakes, how to choose a protein shake mix, how to make a shake and how to personalize your protein shakes.
If protein shakes aren’t part of your regular diet, it may be because you think they’re only meant for heavy duty athletes or serious bodybuilders. While it’s true that many athletes use shakes to refuel after exercise, there are plenty of reasons why ‘regular folks’ might want to consider protein shakes, too. Plus, they’re quick, convenient, and fun to make.
What’s Goes in Protein Shakes?
While there is no set definition as to what a protein shake actually should include, it’s basically a drink that provides protein—and oftentimes additional nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals. Some shakes are designed to simply supplement the diet with protein, while others are more nutritionally complete and can be used to replace a meal. Some protein shakes are sold in ready-to-drink form, but many people prefer to make their own protein shakes by combining a protein powder and a liquid. These are often customized by the addition of other ingredients, such as fruits and vegetables.
When and Why to Use a Protein Shake
As a quick, balanced meal
Protein shakes that are designed to replace a meal are great for people who are meal-skippers. They’re quick and convenient and can provide balanced nutrition when time for meal preparation is limited.
As a meal replacement to help you lose weight
For those who are trying to lose weight, a meal replacement shake can be used to replace one or two meals per day. Aside from being convenient, protein shakes have a defined calorie content and are portion controlled, which makes it easier to accurately count calories and control total intake for the day.
As a supplement to help you gain weight
For those who are trying to gain weight, protein shakes can be used to provide supplementary calories. Drinking a protein shake between meals or at bedtime can help to boost calorie intake.
To supplement your protein intake
Another reason to consider using a protein shake is to boost your overall daily protein intake, if it’s difficult for you to meet needs from your meals alone. When you make your own protein shakes, you can adjust the amount of protein in your shake according to your individual needs.
As fuel before and after exercise
Many people use protein shakes after a workout, but they’re also useful as pre-exercise meals. Those who work out in the morning often like to ‘top off the tank’ with a light meal, and protein shakes can fill the bill.
As a means to improve your dietary balance
A simple protein shake is like a blank canvas. You can add all sorts of things to your shake that can help you meet your daily nutrition goals. It’s easy to add a serving of fruit or vegetables, but you can also boost your fiber or your intake of healthy fats with the proper add-ins.
Choosing the Right Mix for Your Protein Shake
Some protein shake mixes are “complete”—they’re designed to be prepared simply by mixing them with water. But, more typically, protein shake mixes are designed to be mixed with milk. The combination of shake mix and milk provides the right nutritional balance in a finished shake.
Protein powders derived from animal sources include whey and casein (both come from milk), as well as egg white protein. For those who prefer to get their protein from plant sources, there are powders derived from sources such as soy, rice, pea, quinoa or hemp.
Some protein powders contain a blend of proteins. One reason for this is that different proteins are digested at different rates. Whey protein is digested more quickly than casein, for example. So, some people feel that blends are better at satisfying hunger.
With the exception of soy, another reason is that vegetarian proteins are not considered nutritionally complete. Many vegetarian protein powders contain a blend of several plant proteins. This way, the final product provides the full complement of essential amino acids and it’s, therefore, a complete protein.
Many protein powders are flavored, although you can find plain, unflavored powders, too. Most people find that the tastiest shakes start with a flavored protein powder. Then they’ll customize the amount of protein in the shake by adding extra unflavored protein powder, if necessary for their needs.
Choosing a Liquid to Make Your Protein Shake
In order to get the proper nutritional balance in your shake, it’s important to make your shake according to the label directions.
If your protein shake mix calls for milk:
- Many protein shake mixes are designed to be mixed with milk, so that the finished product will have the nutritional balance that the manufacturer intended. For this reason, only cow’s milk or soy milk should be used in products that are designed to be mixed with milk.
- Both cow’s milk and soy milk contribute additional protein to your shake—another 9 grams or so. These milks also provide additional vitamins and minerals that complement the nutrients in the shake mix, making the finished shake more nutritionally complete.
If your protein shake mix calls for water:
- Water should be used only in those protein shake mixes that call for it. These products are nutritionally balanced on their own and do not rely on additional nutrients from the mixer liquid. In place of plain water, you can also use black coffee or brewed tea if you like.
- Rice, almond, hemp or oat milks provide very little protein, so these liquids are typically used in those protein shake mixes that are designed to be mixed with water. These milk alternatives will add a bit of flavor and a few extra calories to the shake, but with very little protein.
- Fruit juice doesn’t contribute any protein to your shake. So, again, it should be used in products that are designed to be mixed with water. But fruit juices contain quite a few calories, so keep that in mind if you’re being calorie conscious. On the other hand, if you’re trying to boost your calorie intake, using fruit juice in your shake might work for you.
- Of course, milk or soy milk can also be used with protein shake mixes that are designed to be mixed with water. The addition of milk or soy milk will just boost protein content, as well as calories.
Five Add-ons for Your Protein Shake
Even though your protein shake already contains protein, you might want to include more if your protein needs are high. You can add plain protein powder, of course, but you can also add foods like low-fat cottage cheese, yogurt, ricotta cheese or silken tofu to boost protein content.
Fruits and Vegetables
Adding fruits and vegetables to your protein shake is an easy way to get more servings of these healthy foods in your daily diet. Frozen fruits and vegetables are convenient, and they give your protein shake a thicker texture. Experiment with different fruits and vegetables, such as sweet veggies like carrots or butternut squash. And try different combinations, like pineapple with carrot, or banana with butternut squash. When you’re feeling a little bold, try adding more unusual ingredients to your shake, like baby spinach leaves or beets.
Most protein shake mixes don’t contain a lot of fiber, and most people don’t eat as much fiber as they should, so try adding high fiber foods to your shakes. Obviously you can choose a dedicated fiber powder or go with fruits and vegetables, rolled oats, bran or seeds such as sunflower, flax or chia seeds, which all contribute fiber.
If your calorie needs are high, you can add rolled oats, nuts, nut butter, avocado or dried fruit to boost the calorie content of your shake.
Ice makes a nice addition to a shake, because it thickens up the liquid. Ice also adds volume to your shake, so it increases the portion size without adding calories. A great trick for those who are watching their weight!