The Best Way to Choose a Protein Shake or other Protein Supplement
Choosing a protein shake can be a bit of a minefield.
You’ve got whey protein, casein, soy, pea, vegan etc.
You’ve got isolate, concentrate, “extreme” etc.
Then there’s mass gainers, diet shakes, meal replacements etc.
Then you’ve got all of those other, non shake, forms of protein supplements. The bars, cookies, bread, cereal etc.
Before diving into any of this, you need to know if you even need to supplement with protein.
There is nothing different about the protein in protein shakes to the protein in your other food.
It’s all protein. There are just different ways to buy it and eat it.
Supplement companies do a good job of drawing you in with messages on the packaging like “slow and fast acting proteins to provide your muscles with a steady stream of nutrients.” Just remember they are trying to sell their products.
Alright, the protein in a whey protein shake may be faster absorbing, but it’s not magic protein that gets you twice the results of chicken or tuna. It’s just protein.
After your workout, a whey protein shake might be a better option because the protein gets to your muscles faster. However, there isn’t a miniscule post-workout window during which you need to get in protein. People seem to think they’ve got to get the protein in immediately, otherwise the workout is wasted. It’s actually more like within 4-5 hours, and even then, the workout wasn’t wasted if you miss it.
I used to down protein shakes like there was no tomorrow…
In my first year of training, my approach to protein was quite different to what it is now.
I thought protein shakes were essential if you wanted to build muscle.
I believed protein had to be ingested immediately following a workout. In the changing rooms if possible. I would go straight to my locker as soon as the last weight was racked, and start mixing up my shake before even taking off my clothes to go to the shower.
In my (uninformed) opinion, protein shakes were a better source of protein than anything else. I thought my gains would somehow be better by using protein shakes. I had at least three of them per day.
It’s fair to say I went through big bags of protein pretty rapidly! Whey protein can be quite a cheap source of protein, but not if you consume it unnecessarily. I was spending at least £60 per month on protein, and more on additional supplements I didn’t need.
I even brought a bag of protein powder on holiday with me in my suitcase and continued to take three shakes per day whilst on holiday.
Do you even need extra protein?
How much protein do you get already in a day of eating?
For most people, 1 gram of protein per pound of their bodyweight is enough to retain muscle while dieting, or allow for muscle growth when training properly and in a calorie surplus.
If you don’t know how much protein you’re getting, or you don’t know how many calories you’re eating or what a calorie deficit or surplus is, then you should probably go and read some more. Start here and follow the links at the bottom.
If you are tracking your protein intake, it’s quite possible you can get enough protein in the day without needing any supplements.
I did this for years. After realising I didn’t need protein shakes, I stopped having them altogether. I tracked my food intake instead, and realised I was wasting my money by buying additional protein.
I only recently started supplementing with protein again when I realised more than 50% of my protein intake was coming in the evening, but I was training in the morning. The majority of the other 50% was coming at lunchtime, about 4-5 hours after training.
I started using whey protein shakes so I could get some protein in closer to my workout and also to spread my protein intake across the day a bit more.
This is not essential by any means, but what I was doing before was probably not optimal, and I’m now at the stage where I’m looking to make small tweaks to what I’m doing because I’ve got all the fundamentals in place.
Why mass gainers are stupid
You may have seen some protein shakes called “Mass Gainers” when you’ve been browsing your favourite online protein store.
These, in my opinion, are utterly stupid.
The way they are marketed, and the reasons they sell, is because people are generally uninformed about muscle gain. If you understand how to build muscle, you’ll realise these are completely unnecessary and there are so many better alternatives.
I’ve written extensively about the various factors that play into building muscle. Mass gainer shakes don’t change any of that.
You can read a full description here: How to gain muscle.
The points you need to be hitting are the following:
- Progressive overload in your training.
- Adequate protein intake (sure the mass gainer can help here, but protein is protein, chicken breast or mass gainer)
- Recovery and sleep
- A calorie surplus
Miss any of those points and you’re probably not going to build any muscle.
A mass gainer isn’t magic and won’t cause muscle to appear out of thin air if you’re not doing the above. It’s just protein and calories – the same way a chicken pasta bake is just protein and calories too.
You know what works just as well as a mass gainer?
A quick google has found me a mass gainer that has 1,009 calories and 69 grams of protein per serving. The biggest bag they do contains 32 servings for £55 (after applying a 50% off coupon).
Using the power of maths I can work out that for every £1 you spend, you’re getting 40 grams of protein and 587 calories.
Alternatively, you can buy another protein powder from the same website that’s not a “mass gainer” (this one’s called “diet whey isolate” for reference). You can get a bag with 160 servings for £58.39 (with coupon).
Each serving contains 23 grams of protein and 91 calories. For every £1 you spend you are therefore getting 63 grams of protein, but only 249 calories.
You’re getting MORE protein for your money. This is a good thing. In my opinion it’s also a good thing that the calories are lower.
You can measure out your own serving of the diet whey that has an equal amount of protein to a serving of the mass gainer, but it will have just over a quarter of the calories!
If you still need more calories, I’m sure you can find a much more interesting way to eat 727 calories to bring you up to the same amount of calories as one serving of the mass gainer.
You need to be in a calorie surplus to build muscle. Why do you need a shake to help you do that? There’s a whole world of delicious food out there (and also cheaper alternatives to mass gainer shakes) that can allow you to do the same thing.
Why would you rather drink a sickly tasting drink for calories? If I had 727 calories to play with after hitting my protein and fibre goals for the day, I’d be looking at the ice cream (hello Phish Food).
If you’re getting equal amounts of protein and calories from a mass gainer shake or from a protein shake + a big serving of ice cream, your body doesn’t know the difference.
Just don’t get into a calorie surplus that’s far bigger than you need! (whether you’re using a mass gainer to do so or not).
How to Choose a Protein Shake
I’m looking for several things when choosing a protein shake. If you’ve followed along my steps above when comparing mass gainers to alternative ways of getting in protein and calories, you will already understand my main points:
- High proportion of calories come from protein. I always have a daily calorie goal that I’m trying to stay within, whether it’s a high number for gaining or a low number for cutting. If I need to get extra protein to hit my protein goal as well, I don’t want it to come with a load of tag-along calories from fat and carbs. Look for a protein shake with the lowest grams of fat and carbs that has a decent amount of protein. Why would you want to waste extra calories on a drink that isn’t even that nice?
- Price per gram of protein: Check how many grams of protein are in a serving, and what the serving size is (25g, 30g etc.) Now figure out how much you’re paying for each gram of protein. Compare this number for the different shakes you’re thinking of buying. You want to get as much protein for your money as possible (whilst ticking the other boxes on this list too).
- Flavour: It has to come in a flavour that you like! My go to flavour is chocolate! A protein shake that you don’t like the taste of is one of the most disgusting things you can drink. Make sure you’re going to be able to stomach it!
- Mixture: This one is a bit of a guess if you haven’t bought it before. It needs to mix well, as in, you don’t end up with a load of grainy lumps in your drink. Check the reviews.
Key Takeaway: Buy the protein shake that you like which is the cheapest per gram of protein.
There’s a certain amount of protein and calories you need for your goal. You shouldn’t need to buy a shake for extra calories if you’re bulking.
There’s cheaper and more interesting ways of getting calories. Just buy one that gets you as much protein as possible for your money and you think tastes good. If you want to leave calories spare for actual food, get one which is low in carbs and fats.