Myth vs. Science: Do Protein Shakes Actually Work?

On This Page

    Are you considering using protein shakes for muscle gain or weight management? This guide aims to explain if protein shakes actually work.

    The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilo for those who work out frequently. Protein is important for cell repair and recovery, and is crucial for building muscle.

    One way to enjoy a high-protein diet is through protein shakes. They are a great way to consume more protein, which becomes amino acids when digested. These amino acids build and maintain the most vital components of your body. To find out more about protein shakes and how they work, keep reading below.

    So, Do Protein Really Shakes Work? (Short Answer: Yes!)

    Protein shakes are proven to work and have been the subject of many studies by scientists and nutritionists. All have found that high-quality protein powder and whey protein are nutritious and can help build muscle.

    That's why protein shakes are so often used by gym-goers. They are especially effective for those who do resistance training to build muscle.

    If you're looking for new and healthy sources of protein to incorporate into your diet, protein shakes represent a quick way to quickly up your protein intake, especially when a high-protein meal may not be a convenient option.

    What Does the Research Say?

    Scientific evidence confirms that protein supplements and protein shakes are key for those wishing to build muscle. Protein shakes are also great for those who eat plant-based diets – people who sometimes struggle to eat enough rich protein foods, since protein is often found in animal products.

    Research also suggests that increased protein intake is important for weight management. This is because protein leaves you feeling fuller, which is important for successful weight control. Protein shakes are a scientifically recommended way to increase your protein intake for weight management.

    The role of protein in controlling appetite and reducing belly fat

    Let’s break down the science behind protein and its role in controlling appetite and reducing belly fat. During digestion, protein breaks down into smaller components known as amino acids. These amino acids are referred to as “building blocks” because they are used to make DNA, produce hormones, and manage structural integrity throughout the body. Interestingly, the digestive tract utilizes a significant amount of amino acids – nearly 50% of what you consume. The small intestine also acts as a storage site for amino acids, allowing for their controlled release based on the body's demand and even recycling some amino acids.

    When it comes to appetite regulation, two hormones, ghrelin and cholecystokinin (CCK), along with glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1), play pivotal roles. Ghrelin increases feelings of hunger, while CCK and GLP-1 decrease appetite. In the short term, protein intake can increase feelings of fullness, including measurable changes in these appetite-regulating hormones. However, longer-term studies examining the effects of protein on appetite control have yielded inconsistent findings. So protein, like any other food, can make you feel full in the moment but over time, it doesn’t have the ability to regulate appetite hormones or make you want to eat less or more.

    There are many physiological reasons why adipose tissue may increase in a person, particularly in the midsection. Protein, when consumed in excess, may also eventually be converted to fat storage, although the mechanisms aren’t as fully understood as they are with carbohydrates. So, does eating more protein or drinking protein shakes help to reduce belly fat? Well, while you can’t use protein to target certain areas of the body for weight loss necessarily, research does show that higher protein intake compared to higher carbohydrate intake does result in more body fat loss and greater muscle mass.

    Protein Powder For Building Muscle

    Building muscle has become the latest health trend. Workouts are increasingly being built around spot-targeting particular muscle areas. Because protein promotes muscle growth, protein powder is a great way to grow and maintain muscle.

    Is Protein Powder Necessary For Muscle Growth?

    While protein powder itself is not necessary for muscle growth, exercise and adequate protein intake are. When you work out using weights, cardio, or resistance training, you are targeting the muscles. You need protein to help build and repair muscle tissue that gets damaged during these exercises.

    Protein powder makes it easy to achieve your daily target protein intake. Protein shakes are easy to make and absorb, making them more convenient for most people than other ways of adding food sources of protein.

    Nutritionists and scientists have found that there is a strong correlation between protein intake and muscle growth. With the right protein shake and exercise regime, you can see muscle growth quickly. You may also recover faster from tough workouts as protein helps your muscles heal from intense exercise.

    Exercise and protein shakes

    Protein shakes serve as a convenient and efficient means to provide the body with protein, especially around the time of physical activity. Protein provides the amino acids that support the body’s repair and recovery after moderate to intense exercise. However, protein from foods, not just protein shakes, also supports this need.

    When to drink a protein shake for optimal performance

    Although protein supports healthy exercise recovery, whether we consume it before or after exercise shouldn’t affect the results. The key is to ensure an adequate protein intake overall, whatever the source.

    Protein Powder For Weight Management

    Increased consumption of protein is highly effective when it comes to weight management. Protein is a calorie-efficient nutrient because your body uses more calories to digest it than it uses to digest other foods.

    Because it’s harder to digest, protein can leave you feeling fuller for longer. This helps to curb the annoying cravings that interfere with diets and halt weight management. If you have eliminated animal products from your diet, protein shakes are a great way to replace those lost macronutrients.

    You also burn more calories when you have extra muscle. This is because the tissue that builds muscle is more metabolically active, meaning it’s burning calories even at rest.

    Protein Shakes as Meal Replacements

    Protein shakes have the potential to serve as meal replacements, but not all protein shakes will provide sufficient energy to fully replace a meal. If you want to replace a meal with a protein shake, consider the energy supply, as well as whether it includes fat and carbohydrates, which are found in typical meals and contribute to overall energy levels and stamina.

    How Do I Know If I Should Take a Protein Shake?

    Anyone can benefit from incorporating a protein shake into their diet. However, protein shakes are particularly important for those who do a lot of exercise.

    If weight management is your goal, protein shakes are a great low-calorie way to feel less hungry and more satisfied. You may also wish to start drinking protein shakes if you are generally concerned about your protein intake.

    A protein shake is also a good option for those who wish to build muscle and are lifting weights. Not only can protein shakes help you gain muscle more quickly alongside exercise, but they are also crucial for repair. If you repair damaged cells more quickly, you can get back to working out faster.

    For a true nutritional health kick, combine fruits, veggies, and other antioxidant-rich foods with your protein shake.

    How To Pick The Right Protein Powder

    Picking the right protein powder is not only about nutrition. You also want to choose one that tastes delicious and comes in a variety of different flavors.

    Care/of protein powders are a great choice for those who want to add extra protein to their diet. Not only are they highly nutritious, but they can also help you get the protein you need, whatever your health goals are. You'll enjoy drinking a Care/of protein shake every day.

    These protein shakes have a creamy texture and have 18g of protein per serving. They are the perfect addition to any diet or fitness plan.

    Care/of has both grass-fed and plant-based protein powders. The plant-based options are made from a range of different plants, including pea protein, hemp-seed protein, and pumpkin-seed protein.

    Different types of protein powders

    If you’ve ever shopped for protein powder, you’ve likely noticed that there is a wide variety of options to choose from. The best protein powder for you will depend on several factors. Both whey protein powder, which is derived from milk, and plant-based protein powder can provide similar amounts of protein. The choice between the two depends on individual preferences, dietary restrictions (such as lactose intolerance or veganism), and any specific goals or considerations.

    Protein powders for dietary restrictions

    If you have dietary restrictions, the type of protein powder that works for you may vary. Both the type of protein and the other ingredients in the product should be considered. If you have food allergies, it’s important to thoroughly read the “supplement facts” label and the other ingredients. There are many allergy-friendly protein powders that are gluten-free, peanut-free, or designed to work with specific dietary needs, like low sugar. And, as we previously mentioned, there are plant-based protein powders for those with lactose intolerance or who follow vegan diets.

    Are protein shakes as effective as protein found in whole foods?

    Of course, protein shakes can be a convenient source of protein, but it's important to consider their effectiveness compared to protein obtained from whole foods. Complete proteins, which contain all the essential amino acids, provide optimal nutritional benefits. In contrast, incomplete proteins lack one or more essential amino acids.

    When consuming protein shakes, it’s essential to consider not only the grams of protein but also the amino acid profile of the protein source. In most cases, protein shakes can be a great complement to your regular meal plan, but it is important to prioritize food variety to ensure the best nutrient profile. This includes amino acids, which are necessary for various bodily functions, including hormone synthesis and DNA production. There is no doubt that your body can get protein from protein shakes, but it’s best for your dietary protein needs to be met from a wide range of protein sources for optimal amino acid balance.

    Plant-based protein sources must be varied to ensure that all essential amino acids are consumed, as most plant-based proteins are considered incomplete proteins.

    Another interesting finding about protein shakes is that they can offer an advantage in terms of digestion. Since protein shakes are blenderized and use protein sources that are already partially broken down, they may be easier to digest and absorb in comparison to whole foods, simply because you don't have to chew them. Many people don’t chew their food thoroughly enough, which can slow down digestion.

    Considerations When Using Protein Shakes

    Like everything else with nutrition, protein shakes should be integrated into a balanced diet.

    Are protein powders safe?

    It’s important to recognize that individual responses to protein powder may vary. If you have any questions regarding the inclusion of protein powder in your diet, it’s recommended to consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian.

    Protein powders are categorized as dietary supplements, which means they technically don’t have to undergo any federal regulations. So, to ensure that you’re consuming a product that meets your desired standards and does not contain any undesired ingredients or contaminants, it’s advisable to choose a product that has undergone third-party testing and verification. This ensures a higher level of quality control and transparency.

    Lastly, take the time to read the labels on your protein powders. By doing so, you can ensure you’re getting the specific ingredients you desire while avoiding any unnecessary fillers.

    Can you take too much protein powder?

    Just like any dietary supplement, moderation is important. For most people, getting more protein than is needed from protein powder may result in digestive discomfort, like bloating or gas.

    Moreover, a long-term high intake of protein powder may cause some adverse effects. Those with kidney or liver problems, as well as individuals with other health conditions, should avoid excessive protein intake, and should not consume protein powder unless their healthcare provider has prescribed or recommended it.

    Potential risks of relying too heavily on protein shakes

    One concern is the presence of contaminants in protein powders. Due to the supplement industry's relatively loose regulations, some protein powders may contain contaminants such as heavy metals, pesticides, or other impurities.

    Another potential risk is the digestibility of protein powder sources. Animal-based protein powders are generally highly digestible, with a digestibility rate ranging from 90% to 99%. On the other hand, plant-based protein powders have a lower digestibility rate, typically ranging from 50% to 80% depending on the specific source. This lower digestibility can impact the absorption and utilization of amino acids.

    Furthermore, relying too heavily on protein shakes may lead to a lack of variety and distribution of amino acids in your diet. By consuming the same protein source consistently, you may miss out on certain essential amino acids and the potential benefits they offer.

    Specific protein needs of different populations (pregnant people, seniors, etc.)

    Determining the ideal protein intake for an individual requires consideration of various factors, including health status, body composition, level of physical activity (including type, intensity, duration, and frequency), assigned sex at birth, age, and pregnancy status.

    The general protein Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) in the United States for adults is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. However, individuals with kidney problems must closely monitor their protein intake and are often advised to follow a lower protein diet to support kidney health and metabolic function.

    Pregnant individuals typically have higher nutrient needs, including protein. Pregnant individuals may require an additional 10 grams of protein per day above the RDA. However, pregnant people with kidney conditions or other diagnoses may have different protein requirements. Pregnant people should not consume supplements, including protein powder, without first checking with their doctor. Adults over the age of 65 may benefit from higher protein intakes than the average adult RDA. Protein intake for this population is often recommended to be between 1.2 and 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Adequate protein intake is important for this population to maintain muscle mass and support healthy aging.

    The importance of balancing protein intake with overall caloric intake

    Protein plays a crucial role as a macronutrient, but it’s important to recognize that carbohydrates and fats also contribute to the body's energy requirements while offering their own distinct benefits. Consuming excess protein can potentially disrupt fluid balance in the body or lead to digestive discomfort.

    As with many aspects of health, balance, moderation, and variety are supportive of many aspects of wellness, from a more diverse gut microbiome to the avoidance of disordered eating patterns. Thus, striking a balance between protein, carbohydrates, and fats is vital for achieving a well-rounded and nourishing diet!

    The Bottom Line

    Protein shakes can be a convenient and effective method for individuals aiming to meet their protein requirements. They can be used for post-workout recovery, as a meal replacement, or to supplement specific dietary needs. However, it’s important to maintain a balanced approach by incorporating a variety of protein sources from whole foods as well. Achieving a balance between protein shakes and whole food sources is key to optimizing nutrition and reaping the benefits of both.

    You're unique. Your supplements should be too.

    Take the quiz
    Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS
    Medical Content Manager
    Dr. Montrond-Correia is a licensed naturopathic physician and a certified nutrition specialist (CNS). She holds degrees from University of Bridgeport, Georgetown University, and University of Saint Joseph, and supplemented her education with internships in the health and wellness space. She's focused on research, herbal medicine, nutrigenomics, and integrative and functional medicine. She makes time for exercise, artistic activities, and enjoying delicious food.
    Jordana Tobelem, RD
    Freelance Contributor
    Jordana Tobelem is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys helping others become the best versions of themselves through proper nutrition education. Jordana is passionate about promoting lifestyle changes through nutrition, physical activity, and behavior to create a superior quality of life. She uses her experience in the clinical field of dietetics to provide consulting services to an array of healthcare brands and companies. Jordana loves finding the most current research in nutrition to create meaningful content to share with her clients. Jordana has been a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics since 2018 and also holds certifications in both Personal Training and Health Coaching.