Just Wondering: Should I Drink a Protein Shake After I Work Out?

Are the gains worth the gas?

protein shake

Photo via Getty Images/ vbacarin

Your fitness journey usually follows a natural progression. First, it starts with regularly going to the gym. Then, you begin meal-prepping and have to invest in a small army of plastic containers. And lastly, you begin tinkering with supplements and gizmos-a-plenty that promise everything from even more weight loss to infinite strength gains.

But are the supplements actually helping? Protein powder, one of the most commonly used supplements, is often the first to be experimented with. Blended to perfection by the vigorous shaking in a shaker bottle and guzzled right outside the locker room post-workout, are protein shakes necessary? Kelli Fierras, a registered dietitian and EverybodyFights trainer, doesn’t think so.

While dissecting whether or not protein powder is something you need to add to your grocery list, it’s important to first understand what protein is and how it is essential to your health and wellbeing. Protein is one of the three macronutrients, or foods that are required in large amounts by the body. The other two are carbohydrates and fats. “It is needed for healing, growth, and supporting a healthy immune system,” Fierras says. “And it is essential to consume daily.” According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans men ages 19-30 should aim to eat 56 grams of protein per day and women within that same age range should aim to eat 46 grams a day. These recommendations increase the more active you are.

“If you can consume enough protein in your eating routine through food, it is not necessary to incorporate a protein powder in your diet,” Fierras says. And if you aren’t vegetarian/vegan, you’re probably well over the standard requirements if you eat a balanced diet, even without a protein shake. As for those who do choose a plant-based diet, or just have a harder time eating enough protein, this is when a protein supplement might be beneficial to help you feel satiated, control blood sugars, and facilitate muscle recovery, she explains.

Protein powders can be classified under two categories: animal-based and plant-based. Animal-based proteins include whey and casein derived from milk, and plant proteins include soy, rice, pea, and hemp, says Fierras. The most common protein powders you probably see are whey and casein. Fierras explains the difference is in their rate of digestion and absorption by the body. Whey can be digested much faster than casein because of its biological value. “Meaning, it can be used quickly by the body,” she says. “It is also one of the richest sources of leucine, an essential and branched-chain amino acid that activates muscle protein synthesis.” These properties make it a great option for a pre-workout snack.

This all still begs the question: Is it necessary? It’s a controversial topic, Fierras admits. “You should aim to consume some type of protein within a two hour window after your workout and if you don’t have access, or time, for a full meal, a protein shake is a great option,” she says. Otherwise, you can leave the tub of powder at home because protein shakes aren’t the end-all-be-all to big muscles. In fact, she adds that it’s a combination of proper strength training, caloric intake, and protein that facilitates muscle gains.

But if you do choose to purchase a protein supplement, she says to steer clear from ones with excessive chemicals, additives, thickeners, and gums like carrageenan, corn syrup, artificial flavoring, sucralose, aspartame, saccharin, xanthum gum, etc. “If you can’t pronounce it, put it back,” she says. She also mentions that some are still not regulated by the FDA, so it’s important to check with your doctor before starting any type of supplement routine.

And let’s not forget, you can incorporate protein powder into many other things, like sweet treats and smoothies. Protein powder might be a grand option for getting a little extra nutrition, but real food should always come first.