Protein powder is one of the most popular nutritional supplements on the market due to its many proven benefits. But did you know that the optimal time to take your protein shake can vary, depending on your goals?
It’s true. While most people know that slamming a protein shake after a hard workout can be great for recovery, there are actually several more ways that you can time up your protein intake to achieve your desired result.
So no matter if you’re looking to add some muscle, trim down, or simply get more protein in your diet, it’s important to know the best time to drink a protein shake.
We’re Swimming in Protein.
The protein powder aisle is getting more and more confusing, isn’t it?
Especially in the day and age of online shopping, when a search for ‘protein powder’ yields thousands of different options…
If you feel like you’re swimming (or drowning) in a sea of endless protein powder options, well, you kind of are.
It used to be that there was just one option – whey protein – and that it was just for avid gym-goers and bodybuilders.
But now that we have modern research showing that protein powder of all different types can be beneficial in so many different ways,
What Are the Different Types of Protein?
A stroll down the protein aisle at your local nutrition store can leave you feeling overwhelmed with the seemingly endless options.
There are SO many different types of protein on the market these days, all catering to different individuals.
But before we jump into our optimal time to drink protein conversation, let’s brush up on the most popular forms of protein:
Whey protein is one of the most common types of protein powder.
This type of protein is produced as a by-product of the cheese-making process, and is made in either concentrate or isolate form.
It’s inexpensive, comes in a variety of flavors, and is rapidly digested by the body.
As a result, whey protein is popular among athletes looking to deliver protein quickly to their muscles after a tough workout.
Whey is derived from cow’s milk, which means that people with dairy allergies or lactose intolerance may not be able to ingest it safely.
Whey protein is a complete protein, meaning it contains all of the essential amino acids that your body must obtain through your diet.
Another complete dairy-based protein is casein.
Casein is a slow-digesting form of protein that is digested by the body over an extended period of time.
It is less commonly used in protein powders because most people want to deliver protein to their muscles quickly after a workout.
That being said, research has shown that protein powder containing both whey and casein may actually recover more efficiently than with whey alone.1
Casein is also an excellent standalone option for those looking to build muscle in their sleep.
Drinking a casein protein shake right before bed gives your body plenty of time to process and use the protein.
People looking for a plant-based protein powder have plenty of options, including soy protein.
Soy protein is one of the few complete plant-based proteins, which means your body gets all of the amino acids it needs.
Soy protein powder is budget-friendly, comes in a wide range of flavors, and is easy to find.
However, some research indicates that consuming soy in excess can affect your hormonal balance, so some people prefer to avoid it.
Egg protein comes from egg whites that are separated from the yolk and dehydrated.
This high-quality protein contains all of the essential amino acids and is packed with vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.
However, it’s typically more expensive than other forms of protein and can cause an allergic reaction in people with an egg allergy.
Rice protein is a plant-based protein derived from brown rice.
While most people equate rice with carbohydrates, brown rice also contains about 8 grams of protein per serving.
Although rice protein is not a complete protein, it’s an excellent option for protein powder if you also consume other sources of protein.
Rice typically does not trigger food allergies, so it is a good option for those with allergies or intolerances.
Hemp protein is a complete plant-based protein that contains all of the essential amino acids.
Although it is derived from the cannabis plant, it doesn’t contain any of the psychoactive compounds that create a high.
This type of protein is a great option for people with food allergies and intolerances.
However, it is low on leucine, an amino acid that your body relies on for muscle growth, so you’ll need to add that elsewhere.
The most common plant-based protein option is pea protein, especially when it comes to vegan protein powders.
Although it’s not a complete protein source, pea protein is an excellent option for those who also receive protein from other sources but want to add a little more to their diet.
Pea protein is often combined with other vegan protein sources to form a complete protein.
This method is called protein complementation, and is often used in vegan protein products to offer the full range of amino acids.
When Is the Best Time To Drink a Protein Shake?
In order to know when the best time to drink a protein shake is, you first have to decide on your overall health/fitness goal for taking in that additional protein.
Are you trying to:
- lose weight?
- Gain weight?
We really want to understand this, because the perfect timing of protein shake might vary depending on what you are trying to do.
Below we are going to outline some of the most common goals, and how to time your protein shake for optimal results.
Let’s start with one of the most common goals (especially during this time of year!) – losing weight.
When is the Best Time to Drink Protein Shakes for Weight Loss?
So…you decided you want to try and lose some weight…
But doesn’t protein powder cause weight gain?
Let’s face it – protein powder has always been associated with building muscle and getting ‘jacked’.
But as I mentioned before, we are really starting to understand that protein powder can actually help you lose weight.
There are really three key times when protein powder can be used optimally to maximize weight gain.
Those three times are:
- First Thing in the Morning: When you first get out of bed, your body produces cortisol to help you wake up for the day. Cortisol ramps up your metabolism, making it a great time to consume meal containing high-quality lean protein. Eating protein in the morning will satisfy your ‘hunger hormones’ for the first part of the day, and prevent over-eating.
- Immediately Post-Workout: A big part of how protein powder helps you lose weight is that it helps build muscle, which in turn burns more calories, and fat. By taking protein powder after exercising, you are giving your body the nutrients that it needs, in the right moment when it is primed to re-build lean muscle.
- Between Meals, as a Snack: Utilizing protein between meals is the best time to take protein powder for a weight loss goal. That’s because the right proteins suppress hunger, and prevent you from reaching for less-healthy food choices like sugar-laden snacks and processed foods.
Now, to take things a step further, here’s how you optimize your protein usage for weight loss.
How to Optimize Your Protein Consumption on a Diet
To begin, you should first find out your optimal amount of protein per day.
Once you do that, you need to consider the right protein sources for losing weight.
Of course we talk at length about protein powder, but getting protein from real, whole foods is even more important, so that we have a balanced range of nutrients in our diet.
Great sources of lean, slow-digesting proteins are:
- Low-Fat Cottage Cheese
- Low-Fat Milk
- Egg Whites
- Low Calorie Protein Powders
- Lean Poultry, Beef, and Fish
These slow digesting proteins have several differences from faster sources, with big implications for weight loss.
For weight loss, you want to utilize lean, slow-digesting proteins, which help keep you fuller, for longer, while still providing all the benefits of lean protein.
Choosing the right amount of calories, and then eating enough protein, from the right sources are crucial first steps in using protein powder for weight loss.
That being said,
Protein supplementation helps you lose weight via a number of different mechanisms.
Supplementing with extra protein can help you lose weight by:
- Supporting your metabolism
- Helping to regulate your appetite and keep you ‘full’
- Building muscle (which burns additional calories!)
- Hormonal balance
Protein supports your metabolism by providing the amino acids your body needs in order to build more lean muscle.
Building Lean Muscle
Because lean muscle mass burns more calories than fat when at rest, your resting metabolism can increase over time.
Put another way- building new muscle mass via protein powder can help you burn more calories throughout the day, which is also going to help you consume fewer calories.
And when you burn more calories throughout the day, you’re more likely to achieve the calorie deficit needed for weight loss.
There are also a handful of natural weight-loss ingredients that can help you elevate your metabolic rate and ultimately help you lose weight.
Protein may also help regulate your appetite by lowering the levels of ghrelin, a hormone in the body that is associated with hunger.
At the same time, it supports the levels of hormones that help reduce your appetite, such as glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1), peptide YY (PYY), and cholecystokinin (CCK).
In order to maximize protein’s ability to help you lose weight, make sure you eat plenty of protein-rich foods at each meal.
You might also want to consider reaching for a protein shake instead of your usual afternoon snack from the vending machine.
Typical snacks include tons of refined sugars and ingredients that will give you short term energy, but won’t keep you full for long.
Alternatively, a protein shake will help you feel full and reduce feelings of hunger until your next meal, which means you’re likely to consume fewer calories overall.
Athletic Performance and Post-Workout Recovery
If boosting your athletic performance and speeding up your recovery post-workout are among your protein-related goals, listen up.
Studies show that both endurance athletes and athletes who focus on resistance training can benefit from protein supplementation.
But as with the rest of our advice for getting the best results, the timing of protein consumption matters.
Athletes participating in endurance sports, such as:
can benefit from consuming a beverage containing both protein and carbohydrates during a workout.
Studies show that combining protein and carbohydrates as fuel during an endurance workout can help you get a leg up on the competition.2
Consuming protein during those tougher endurance workouts can lead to quicker recovery and decreased muscle soreness.
While endurance athletes benefit from consuming protein during their workouts, resistance athletes will benefit most from a different strategy.
Studies show that people who are participating in resistance training workouts like weightlifting benefit most from consuming protein either just before or just after a workout (a window of about 30 minutes).3
While endurance athletes need to consume protein with carbs in order to get the performance-boosting effects of protein, resistance athletes do not.
Instead, resistance training athletes should focus more on total protein intake.
Build Muscle Mass and Strength
It’s no surprise that those looking to add lean muscle mass and build strength can benefit greatly from protein shakes.
Now. You’ve probably heard that adding protein to your diet is important for gaining muscle.
But keep this in mind:
In order to build strength, your body needs to take in more protein than it breaks down.
A great way to ensure that you are doing that is by supplementing your diet with a protein shake (or two!).
But when is the best time to take a protein shake if you’re looking to build muscle?
When to Drink Protein Shakes for Weight Gain
You’ve probably heard that the ‘sooner you can drink your shake after your workout, the better’.
This was usually coinciding with the theory of an ‘anabolic window’ that lasted 30 minutes after your workout.
Most people thought that it was essential to take your protein shake within this short window in order to add muscle mass and strength.
However, the International Society of Sports Nutrition has recently helped us better understand the concept of this ‘window.’
They found that the ideal timing for protein consumption, known as the anabolic window, actually lasts for about two hours post-workout!4
This means that no matter if you are drinking your protein shake 10 minutes, or two hours after your training, you are still going to build muscle effectively.
It should be noted that timing protein intake is more important for seasoned athletes than the average person.
If timing your protein intake seems too complicated and stressful, you can take comfort in knowing that simply focusing on your protein intake throughout the day is enough for most people to build muscle.
Preventing Muscle Loss
Have you ever noticed that there are a number of protein-based drinks marketed to older adults?
That’s because protein is critical in helping to prevent muscle loss, which is a common problem as we age.
Studies show that adults lose anywhere from 3-8% of their muscle mass every decade beginning around age 30.5
This can put you at increased risk for bone fractures and other health problems due to reduced bone density.
In order to combat muscle loss, getting enough protein in your diet is critical.
However, as with the other goals, the timing also matters here.
Research indicates that spreading protein intake evenly throughout the day is the most effective way to combat muscle loss.6
Instead of loading your later meals with protein, (as most Americans do), try spreading your protein intake evenly throughout the day.
Aim for 25-30g of protein per meal to ensure that your metabolism always has a stream of available amino acids.
If you have trouble finding good sources of protein for breakfast, you can try:
- Greek yogurt
- Turkey sausage
- Protein waffles
Each of these options will help keep you full until the next meal while also helping to combat muscle loss.
The Bottom Line
The best time to drink a protein shake depends on your goals.
If your goal is to lose weight, you may consider adding a protein shake between meals to help keep you full, and/or replacing snack foods with a high-protein shake.
People looking to build muscle should take in protein within two hours of a workout, while those looking to boost athletic performance should also consume a protein shake immediately following a workout or shortly after, depending on the type of workout.
When using protein to prevent muscle loss, spreading your protein intake throughout the day is a good way to keep your metabolism from turning towards existing muscle for fuel.