Should You Drink A Protein Shake?

Do you need to spend all that money on protein powder? Find out if you really need a protein shake before or after a workout to gain muscle!

Last week’s  introduction to Savvy Sports Nutrition was a huge hit! In case you missed it, my first article in the Savvy Sports Nutrition series discussed what to eat before a post-work gym session. From the feedback I received, it seems that many of you are struggling with questions about what to eat around workout times and you don’t know where to turn for information.  That’s why I’m really excited to educate on sports nutrition topics that come up in my counseling sessions or in conversations, and this week’s topic is so relevant because there is a ton of confusion regarding protein.

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Do you need to spend all that money on protein powder? Find out if you really need a protein shake before or after a workout to gain muscle! #protein #proteinshake #postworkout #fuel

Before I answer the title question, here’s a little info about protein.

How much protein do you need?

I want to reiterate what I said in my first blog post, “These sports nutrition posts are for active people, like myself, who exercise frequently but don’t do it as a profession.” When I’m using numbers to describe the amount of something to eat, it’s very difficult to generalize for everyone.

  • For the standard adult, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein is 0.8g per kg of body weight.
  • For the average gym goer/recreational athlete, the most protein needed is about 1- 1.2g per kg of body weight

I know this is rather complicated to understand. Basically, to figure out how much protein you need, divide your weight by 2.  That’s around the amount that a normal gym-goer should have in a day.  It’s not an exact science, but no one eats an exact number of grams of protein per day either… so, good enough!

What does protein do?

Protein is the building block of muscles and organs. It’s found in your muscles, skin, bones, hair, nails and basically every organ in your body.

Where does protein come from?

Protein is in many foods, but many people associate it with meat. Protein also comes from dairy, such as milk and yogurt, beans, nuts, and many whole grains.

When does an active individual need protein?

In general, carbohydrates are needed before a workout to give you energy and protein is needed after a workout to rebuild used muscles. Many people tell me that they have a protein shake in the morning and then go work-out. That’s not a great strategy because protein takes a long time to digest, so it sits in your stomach for an extended period of time. Yet, many people grab protein shakes because they are convenient, which leads me to my next (and title) point…

Do you need a protein shake?

I would much prefer that people eat food rather than supplements because no food serves just one purpose.  In other words, if you have a glass of milk, you get protein, vitamins and minerals.  Whereas, when you have a protein shake, you just get protein and artificial ingredients. To further express this point, let’s play a little game of “Eat This, Not That” using my handy chart (you know I love my charts).

Eat This Not That Comments
  • A 16 ounce glass of milk = 16g of protein + 9 essential vitamins and minerals
  • One scoop of protein powder = ~24g of protein + lecithin, cellulose, xantham gum, etc.
Did you know that the whey in protein powder comes from milk? Yup, whey is the main protein in milk, so why not just drink the real thing?
  • A smoothie with 8 ounces of milk + ½ container Greek yogurt + fruit = ~17g of protein + many vitamins, minerals & antioxidants
  • One scoop of protein powder = ~24g of protein + lecithin, cellulose, xantham gum, etc. + $50 from your pocket
Fruits have natural anti-inflammatory properties to fight post-workout inflammation.  And a smoothie is just as easy to make as a protein shake!
  • A small Greek yogurt = 12g of protein + calcium for strong bones
  • ½ scoop of protein powder = 12g of protein. Some protein powders have even been shown to contain heavy metals, like arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury!
Greek yogurt is one of the best sources of vegetarian protein.  If you don’t like it on it’s own, add some honey or fruit.  Or, use it as a substitute for sour cream in savory dishes.
  • 3 egg omelette with veggies = 18g of protein + antioxidants
  • One scoop of protein powder = ~24g of protein + artificial ingredients
Eating cholesterol is not associated with high blood cholesterol.  Therefore, cholesterol is no longer a nutrient of concern, according to the new Dietary Guidelines. Eat your eggs!
  • 3 ounces of turkey, chicken or fish = ~24g of protein + healthy fats
You know what I’m going to say…

  • One scoop of protein powder = ~24g of protein + artificial ingredients
Do you get the point that food has more benefits than supplements?

I know this isn’t the answer that many of you want to hear, but you can definitely get sufficient protein (and many other nutrients) from food without drinking a protein shake.  AND food has the added benefit of having many other nutrients in it, as well as protein.  AND food is much cheaper to buy that protein powder! If convenience is what  you are after, then make a smoothie with milk and yogurt. Your body will thank you for the extra vitamins and minerals!

Really? No one should drink protein shakes?

Of course there are always exceptions to the rule.  I recently counseled a male, vegan, triathlete, who is 6’4”.  He needs about 4,000 calories per day because of his activity level, and his diet consists of mostly vegetables, potatoes, rice, nuts and peanut butter.  He drinks protein shakes, and I told him to continue to do so.  Without the protein from those shakes, he would definitely become deficient and his body would be unable to recover from workouts. In extreme cases where meat, dairy, eggs or beans are not prevalent in the diet, protein shakes are appropriate.


  • Reply
    Nutty Nutritionist
    February 25, 2016 at 4:07 pm

    Love this post Natalie! I’m going to direct all my protein shake loving athletes/gym goers to this blog.

  • Reply
    February 25, 2016 at 4:50 pm

    Love this Natalie! I’m not a fan of protein shakes made with protein powders either. Love the chart you made too!

    • Reply
      Nutrition a la Natalie
      February 25, 2016 at 5:10 pm

      Thank you! I love my charts… I’m glad other RDs agree with my protein powder sentiment.

  • Reply
    Be Truly Nourished (@TrulyNourished)
    February 25, 2016 at 5:05 pm

    I love this! You did such a good job explaining the benefits of eating whole foods rather than using protein powder. It’s true that some people may need protein shakes, but generally you can get enough and more from food!

    • Reply
      Nutrition a la Natalie
      February 25, 2016 at 5:09 pm

      Thank you! I wanted people to really see how they can get protein easily from foods. Glad I conveyed that message

  • Reply
    Amber @ Homemade Nutrition
    February 25, 2016 at 8:34 pm

    Love the food comparisons and all of the information here!! Excellent post, Natalie! 🙂

  • Reply
    February 26, 2016 at 12:51 am

    […] Savvy Sports Nutrition: Do You Need a Protein Shake via Nutrition a la Nat […]

  • Reply
    February 26, 2016 at 5:56 am

    I am a personal trainer. It amazes me how many people, including other trainers and sports professionals, recommend and use protein powders themselves. Great article. Thanks.

    • Reply
      Nutrition a la Natalie
      February 26, 2016 at 10:15 am

      I completely agree, which is why I wrote this article. Thanks for reading!

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