11 of the Most Common Protein Shake Mistakes, Explained by a Nutritionist
If you're looking to build muscle quickly, boost your macros and even shrink your recovery time, it's hard to beat a decent protein shake – whether it's whey or vegan. With numerous studies proving that protein supplementation, as part of a resistance training programme, can maintain lean body mass and increase strength, adding protein shakes to your diet quickly becomes a no-brainer if you're looking to build strength, size or athleticism.
Remember, as with any supplement, there are common pitfalls to be avoided if you want to make progress and not waste your hard-earned cash. Protein supplementation isn't a catch-all solution for guys looking to add mass quickly. Rather, it's a convenient way of increasing your protein intake day-to-day alongside a balanced diet. There are, however, certain hurdles you should overcome to truly become a master of the protein shake.
It's not just average Joes tripping up, either. In fact, a study conducted by the University of Montreal found that three in four professional athletes failed to improve their performance or recovery with the help of protein shakes because they don’t know how to take them properly.
We get it, it's confusing. With so much misinformation regarding amounts, types and timing, it can leave us asking; which type should we buy, when should we take it, are protein shakes good for you and if they even worth it. Thankfully, that needn't apply to you. Below, Men's Health walks you through your need-to-know guide.
Protein: What is it?
Firstly, before we even answer 'are protein shakes good for you?' let's go back to basics. If you know what you are actually consuming, then you are less likely to make mistakes. At its simplest, protein is a molecule made from chemicals called amino acids. Our bodies need these amino acids to function properly – they carry oxygen through blood, boost the immune system and build muscle.
There are 20 different amino acids in all, nine of which the human body can't produce. These are known as 'essential' amino acids and we need to get them from food.
Are Protein Shakes Good For You?
It seems that if we weren't to leave the gym shaker in hand, we'd be in the minority when it comes to post-workout nutrition, but is it actually good for you? Here are the benefits:
Convenient: Protein shakes are a quick and convenient way to increase your protein intake.
Low calorie: There are many low-calorie protein powder brands available meaning you can hit your calorie goals easily.
Weight loss: Protein Shakes can contribute to higher protein intake during an energy deficit and can aid muscle retention when weight loss is your goal.
Muscle gain: Protein supplementation will support your resistance training and increase muscle mass when gaining muscle is your goal.
Appetite regulation: Protein Shakes can contribute to overall protein intake. Higher protein diets can increase satiety and reduce appetite.
Increased caloric output: The energy required to digest each macronutrient is called the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF). Protein has a high thermic effect which could potentially aid during weight loss.
So, How Much Protein Do I Need?
It depends on your training goals. The US Food and Nutrition Board's current guidelines for the average adult is 0.8g of protein per kg of bodyweight. If you're looking to bulk up, you'll need to increase this number, but that's not as easy as simply stuffing your face.
You have to play it a bit smarter. Instead of reaching for calorie-dense foods, opt for high-protein foods. Not only will these cupboard staples build mass in your muscle groups — currently, research suggests, that 2.2g of protein per kg of body weight is your limit — but also help stave off any hunger pangs that could derail even the most diligent of dieters.
For example, if you weigh 100kg, you'd need to be eating the equivalent of seven chicken breasts every day. Seven. A tad unrealistic. This type of extreme eating (and this amount) is reserved for competitive bodybuilders, so an achievable alternative for a first-timer is 1.5g of protein per kg of bodyweight.
The amount you need to eat is a complex topic, and there is no one-size-fits-all. It's important to tailor your intake to your workouts. Here's how to do it.
4 Best Ways How To Increase Protein
It's vital to use a food-first approach when it comes to your diet. Protein shakes should never replace real foods. Ever. Protein shakes are supplements, and they are there to do just that — to supplement your diet. They are add-ons. Additional extras to help you reach your daily protein fix. Yes, we know, consuming a shed load of protein every day isn't easy. But it's important you don't cut corners. Protein shakes will never hold the same nutritional benefits as real food, which will generally contain more protein per serving than a shake. Here are some simple ways to increase protein in your diet:
Make it a habit: Try to include a portion of protein (20g+) at each meal to ensure your muscles recover well and gain strength. It's common to skip protein in your breakfast but perhaps try a new high-protein breakfast recipe to start the day strong.
Protein first: To ensure you have a good portion of protein in your meals when deciding what to cook, choose the protein source first and build your meal around it.
Protein snacks: Pack your bag with high-protein snacks to help keep you going. Protein bars, yoghurt and eggs are all good sources you can bring on the go.
Variety: Keeping your protein sources varied can not only improve enjoyment, but it can also benefit your heart health. Try new protein sources and recipes to keep things interesting.
Great-tasting breakfasts, lunches and dinners – consisting of a healthy balance of proteins, carbohydrates and fats – are full of vital minerals and vitamins that will strengthen the body and help it grow. They needn't be complicated either. Here's a list of a few of our favourite high-protein foods. If you're struggling with food ideas, check out our protein sources food guides (and snacks) below:
The Best Protein Sources (and Recipes) For Vegans and Vegetarians
Grab A Slice of Oozy Muscle Fuel With Our 6-Min Protein Pizza
Whey Protein or Casein Protein? What's the Difference?
Right, you now know if protein shakes are good for you, so you know what you should be eating and have stocked your larder with high-protein foods. Next up: knowing what is actually in your protein shake. Bear with us, your mistakes are coming. Quite simply, milk contains two main types of protein: whey and casein.
Whey protein is found in the watery portion of milk and is a mixture of protein isolates. It's considered a complete protein – it contains all nine essential amino acids, which the body can't produce. That's why whey protein shakes are so important for muscle gain and why they are so popular in fitness circles.
So you know your casein from your whey protein, but do you know about whey isolate? Generally, whey protein isolate contains lower levels of fat and carbohydrates, minimising gut distress and helping with weight loss. Since whey isolate is filtered, separating the protein from fat, cholesterol, and lactose, it is a purer product. However, it's not free of lactose. It does contain a lower lactose content making it more suitable for those who struggle with products containing large amounts of lactose.
Unlike whey, casein is a slow releasing protein, which can take up to six hours to completely digest and be utilised. Casein will help drip-feed your muscles over several hours, ensuring your body is constantly topped up with protein.
It's not ideal during the day after a gym session, this scenario whey might be better. However, taking Casein last thing at night, may benefit muscle recovery and keep your muscles firing on all cylinders.
If you want to fully maximise your fitness goals, then you will need to consume a combination of both casein and whey protein (although not in the same shake). A study conducted by Baylor University, Texas, observed 36 males undergoing heavy strength training and discovered that the group consuming a whey and casein combination far out-performed those who were on a combination of whey, BCAAs, and glutamine supplement. Over the 10-week period, results showed that those who took a combination of both protein supplements built significantly more lean muscle.
11 Protein Shake Mistakes You Keep Making
So far, we've covered understanding what protein is, how protein shakes should never replace real food and how much protein you need to build muscle, plus the best sources. Read on for the mistakes you keep making.
Protein Shake Mistake #1: You’re Overcomplicating Things
Got milk? Plus dried fruit and a few big scoops of almond butter? If fat loss is your goal, you could be overdoing it. 'Load up your DIY shake with too many ingredients and you’re going to whack up the calorie count for no extra benefit.' says nutritionist Scott Baptie.
It’s simple: opt for some low-sugar ingredients that will help you bulk up your muscle, not your belly. But where can you find recipes to shake up your protein plan? Good question: we’ve got some quick-to-make DIY shakes devised by Baptie to help you build muscle all day long.
Protein Shake Mistake #2: You’re Selling Yourself Short
When it comes to protein powder, there’s no such thing as cheap and cheerful. According to Baptie, if your shake contains a concentrated powder with a suspiciously low price and a long shelf life then you’re forking out for something packed with fat and carbs. These are the best whey protein products you can buy.
Whey Isolate protein. It’s a touch more expensive, but when it comes to powder you get what you pay for. “Due to its long refinement processing, isolate will give you a higher quality protein without the unnecessary additives,” says Baptie.
Not sure your current shake packs the right punch? Check one scoop of your powder contains at least 20-25 grams of protein. Drop below that and you’ll soon notice your wallet shrinking and belly fat bulging.
Protein Shake Mistake #3: You’ve Gone Two Scoops Too Far
You really can have too much of a good thing. If you’re filling your shopping basket to the brim with chicken and powder tubs then we’ve got some bad news: you could just be increasing your waistline. In fact, trying to copy the diet of professional athletes with super high energy expenditures will only set you up for a career in one sport: sumo wrestling.
Calculators at the ready: you need (as we have mentioned) 1.5 to 2 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight per day if you want to gain muscle mass. This means if you’re the UK average of 83kg, you need at least 133 grams of protein each day. Don’t be put off if this sounds like a lot, as one chicken breast contains around 30g of protein. 'This means you can easily consume enough without resorting to supps.' says PT Peter Parasiliti. If you’ve already chowed down a protein-packed chicken salad for lunch and a bulk-up burger for dinner, chances are you've already met your protein requirements. Anything beyond this, you could be going way over your calorie targets.
Protein Shake Mistake #4:You’re Making a Meal of It
There are too many guys who think all protein is created equal and are swapping for shakes. Don’t be one of them. 'It might be quick to take, but a high-calorie smoothie is unlikely to fill you up and won’t give you as many nutrients as a proper meal,' says Baptie. 'Plus, a full course means your body has to work harder to break down the food so you use up more calories in the digestion process.'
If your busy work day makes it too tempting to trade in a meal for a whey shake, prep your lunchtime the night before. 'Focus on things like fish, chicken, turkey, beef for the best protein. They’ve got far more nutrients to keep you full.' says Baptie. That’s right, investing in some foil, Tupperware and a Mexican tuna salad could be a key step to a chiselled core.
Protein Shake Mistake #5: You’re Neglecting the Little Guys
Cheap protein shake powder not only comes with an extra dose of carbs and fats, but also strips away the amino acids vital for muscle growth. Not only will you struggle to add size, you’ll recover more slowly too. That means sore muscles putting the brakes on your performance.
Keep your eyes peeled for two things: BCAAs and leucine. A quality powder will be jammed with BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids) crucial for growth. And leucine? “It’s is the key acid that stimulates muscle protein synthesis and growth,” says Baptie. “You need 3 grams of leucine to start this process." Always read the label.
Protein Shake Mistake #6: You’ve Got a One-shake Mind
Once you’ve invested in a massive tub of protein powder, it’s only good for shakes, right? Wrong. Constricting yourself to mixing it with milk or water alone means you’re missing out on more muscle-building – and tasty – alternatives.
Add it to your meals to get the protein you need, as well as the nutrients. And the earlier, the better. Research from the University of Missouri-Columbia found adding a scoop to your breakfast porridge or cinnamon pancakes will make you less likely to overeat during the day.
Protein Shake Mistake #7: Your Timing Is Off
Before? During? A lot of men are wrongly led to believe by the Bro Science community that, you must fit your protein into an 'anabolic window' However, when it comes to supps, it isn't so complicated.
When is the best time for a shake? According to the research, pre- versus post-exercise protein intake has similar effects on muscular adaptations, 'The implications of these findings are that the trainee is free to choose, based on individual factors (i.e., preference, tolerance, convenience, and availability), whether to consume protein immediately pre- or post-exercise.' So you do you, if that's having a high protein breakfast before your workout or having a post workout shake, either could be beneficial.
Protein Shake Mistake #8: Trying to Fit Your Protein Intake into a 'Window'
You don't need to inhale a four-egg omelette with a side of whey protein as soon as you've completed your cooldown. According to a review published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, your muscle groups are primed for protein for a larger 'window' than previously thought. So you don't need to rush things as soon as you're out of the showers.
While everybody is different, it's thought that timing your pre and post-exercise meals could be your greatest muscle-building ally if adding size is your primary goal. For example, if you start your day with a pre-gym snack at 7 AM, you don't actually need another protein hit until your breakfast at 11 AM. Your gains won't shrivel away and, if you're chasing strength and size, work to 0.7g to 1g of protein per pound of your body weight — a figure that's achievable if you split your macros across three to five meals in the day. Whether that's a protein shake or an egg white omelette, we'll leave that decision to you.
Protein Shake Mistake #9: Beware of Intolerance
A lot of protein powders will contain dairy, soy, corn starch, and additives your body may be unfamiliar with or allergic to. Whey is by far the most popular powdered protein and, if you have an issue with dairy, whey will have all the same problems being as it is, a milk derivative.
Reading the long and complex ingredients list can be tough going but may just save your workout when it can avoid unpleasant symptoms.
While you're trying new shakes, keep a record of what you're taking and how you feel, so you can identify the culprit in the event of any unwanted side effects. Try to keep a food diary so you can monitor everything you're consuming. Listen to your body. Allergies make themselves known quickly so be aware of any changes in digestion and complexion.
As Baptie says, 'There is still no substitute for hard work, a solid training plan and a proper nutrition routine. Supplements may make a little difference but unless you’ve nailed the first three, it's likely to be an exercise in futility.'
Protein Shake Mistake #10: It's Not Just About The Shake
It's easy to poke fun at Jim Bro and his cronies chugging their third protein shake of the day, but know that they're doing it for the sake of their strength. That doesn't mean three shakes a day will work for you — you can source the same amount of protein (and, arguably, yield more enjoyment) from a protein bar. Try to stick to one shake a day and vary your protein sources, even if you're double-dipping in whey or vegan protein. Just make sure you look at the ingredients list.
'When you’re looking for protein bars it’s important to consider the amount of saturated fats in each bar. Bars which contain more than 5g per 100g are considered high in saturated fats,' explains Jenna Hope, (ANutr), MSc, BSc (Hons). 'Additionally, whilst these bars are a convenient source of protein, many of them (but not all) are made using artificial and highly processed ingredients.'
Protein bars 'should be viewed as a convenient protein source or an alternative to a chocolate bar rather than a healthy snack,' explains Hope. 'The artificial sweeteners can also contribute to cravings for sweet foods. Where possible opt for protein bars which contain fibre and natural ingredients.'
Protein Shake Mistake #11: Using Expired Protein Powder
Keep it, or bin it? Chug it, or leave it? We've all been there — staring into the abyss of a past-its-sell-by-date tub of protein. How bad can it be? It's made from milk after all and, due to the manufacturing process, whey protein doesn't spoil like meat or dairy.
However, that doesn't mean your protein shake is good to drink. Its muscle-building potential does diminish after the sell-by date. That's because the protein reacts with leftover sugar, resulting in a slow decrease of the amino acid lysine. Crucially, this means the protein power will not be as effective as it was when you bought it.
Use it before the date runs out.
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