What Protein Shakes Really Are and Do You Need to Buy Them?

Magical Protein PowderImage provided by juanstermonster

What are protein shakes?  There seems to be a lot of confusion among people on what exactly protein shakes are and what they do. Some people think that if you touch the stuff your muscles will grow twice their size, while others think that they are a complete waste of money.  What’s the truth? That’s what we are going to find out.

First, let’s get into what types of protein shakes I’m talking about. For the most part, I will be referring to either whey (isolate, concentrate, or hydrolysate) or casein protein.  All other types of protein (soy, pea, egg, etc.) are very unlikely to beat either whey or casein due to the amount of essential amino acids being less. Furthermore, I will be referring only to plain protein shakes, not mass builders or “gainer” shakes.

What are Protein Shakes?

Protein shakes are exactly what they sound like: protein.  Milk’s protein is roughly 80% casein and 20% whey, and this is where the powdered protein comes from. Since the protein in the shakes comes from milk, wouldn’t just drinking milk be just as good?

Yes, yes it would.

Most protein powders come with an isolated form of protein: either whey or casein.  Whey is known as the faster absorbed protein, while casein is known as the slower absorbed protein.  Many people are duped into thinking that having both together is not optimal. You need to have either one or the other. Normally whey around your training and casein before you go to bed, according to bro-knowledge.

But, what if having both together is optimal?

In the study Compared with casein or total milk protein, digestion of milk soluble proteins is too rapid to sustain the anabolic postprandial amino acid requirement by Lacroix et al, they found that using the total milk protein, the way the protein in milk originally is, was more anabolic than either whey or casein in their isolated forms.

Whey has a very high amount of essential amino acids, especially leucine which is the main amino acid responsible for increased protein synthesis without exercise.  However, it might actually be too fast for our bodies to properly absorb it.  On the other hand, casein has significantly less leucine (~22% less), but because it is so slow, our bodies can absorb it easier.  While there is a bunch of conflicting research on whether casein or whey is “better”, there have been studies, like the one above, that ask the question: Why choose one or the other? Have both!

It may just be that our bodies respond best to a mix of both casein and whey. Who would have thought that the way mother nature intended it to be was optimal?

But what about whey hydrolysate?

Ahh… yes. The magical whey hydrolysate.

From wikipedia: “Hydrolysates are predigested, partially hydrolyzed whey proteins that, as a consequence, are more easily absorbed.”

That’s all good and dandy.. but is it proven?  Actually, no. Many of the studies actually find that whey isolate beats hydrolysate in absorption and increase in protein synthesis, but don’t tell the supplement companies that.

In the study Plasma amino acid response after ingestion of different whey protein fractions by Farnfield et al, their conclusion was:

 whole proteins resulted in a more rapid absorption of leucine and branched-chain amino acid into the blood compared with the hydrolysed molecular form of whey protein.

Furthermore, even if hydrolysate was a tiny bit better (which, remember, the literature does not support), it most likely wouldn’t make much of a difference in the long-term as long as your total protein intake was high enough (roughly 1g-1.5g per pound of bodyweight).

So, should I buy the shakes?

That really comes down to personal preference. I buy protein shakes for the most part because of convenience. Also, some protein powders are very inexpensive. I buy from the brand Dymatize (don’t worry, I have to ties to the company at all) because their protein tastes good, and I can’t find anything cheaper. Getting 100g from milk is more expensive than getting itfrom the powder. If it wasn’t, I might just get it all from milk (I LOVE milk).

The most important thing for you to walk away with is that protein shakes are nothing magical, and they don’t really vary much from brand to brand. Whey is always going to be whey and casein is always going to be casein. Whey isolate has a little bit better absorption than whey concentrate, but again, it won’t matter much in the long term as long as you get enough protein every day.

A nice little quote that I think I heard from Tom Venuto is: “Quantity of protein can always make up for quality of protein”.  While I guess that isn’t 100% true, it is for the most part. Unless all of your protein came from some terrible source, it doesn’t matter much if you have enough protein.

If you end up deciding not to buy protein powders, I would recommend that you have milk or some other kind of dairy before and after you lift. It will have the same effect as a protein powder, and it may even beat protein powders. Just don’t get all caught up with having to buy the super expensive protein that will make your muscles double in size in two weeks…

For a final comment, I get asked a lot how many protein shakes should someone have per day. I hope that after reading this post you know the answer to that question: It depends on how much other protein you have had that day. If you didn’t eat much that day, then make it up with shakes. If you got all your protein from food, great! No shakes today.