When you're trying to bulk up or trim down, supplementing your diet with protein is a crucial step. And, no doubt, one of the most convenient ways to get a protein fix is to pop in a store or order pre-made, ready-to-drink protein shakes and drinks online. But these beverages don't necessarily deserve a health halo; and they're definitely not without their pitfalls.
First, some of them have more protein—plus more calories—than you need at one time, says personal trainer, certified nutritionist, and registered dietitian Mary Jane Detroyer. "The largest effective amount of protein you can absorb in one dose—to support muscle repair, maintenance, and growth—is about 20-35 grams," Detroyer says.
Research backs up her stance; scientists have found a ceiling effect for your ability to use protein; and for bigger guys, the numbers rise proportionately, so a 250-pound guy can handle about 42g of protein in one sitting. However, that's not to say research hasn't contradicted itself again... and again. Read our story on how much protein you should get and the best time to get it. Also check out some newer research from the University of Stirling that challenges these conventions (i.e. bigger athletes need more protein and you don’t need more than ~25g of protein post-workout); it brings some new takeaways to the table, like how you need to take into account the type of workout you're doing when considering the correct amount of protein to consume.
The bottom line: To optimize your protein intake, most experts agree, spread out how much you eat throughout the day; try to get 20-30g in every meal and snack, Detroyer says. "It's the best way to prevent muscle breakdown and support muscle growth," she concludes.
So, a ready-to-drink protein shake could be a handy way to get one of those snacks in on your walk or drive home from the gym.
WHEN IT COMES TO SUGAR… Zero sugar would be the best. Any added sugar isn’t desirable—except if it comes from fruit or dairy, says Jim White, owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach. "However, if a shake has 0g sugar, you’re usually getting artificial sweeteners," he notes. This all boils down to your preference: Some people would rather have real sugar than artificial sweeteners, while others want the artificial stuff since it has far fewer calories.
WHEN YOU FACTOR IN PROTEIN… Some drinks and shakes have 50g of protein. That's a lot—especially after everything we covered above. "Too much protein can cause urinary loss of calcium, dehydration, and a lot of people don’t realize it can increase calories and body fat just as much as the other macros," White says. "I like a shake that has 25-40g of protein."
WHEN YOU LOOK AT FAT… Don't freak over fat. "If the shake has some type of oils, omega-2s, or MCTs, I’m not against it," White says. "I’m not too focused on fat, but if you have too much in your diet, then you’re going to tip over calorie-wise."
FACTOR IN YOUR GOALS AND INDIVIDUAL NEEDS - If you're trying to increase muscle mass, then a 300-calorie shake with water is a relatively low-calorie meal and a decent snack, White says. If you’re trying to lose weight, that shake can be a meal replacement. Meanwhile, a 170-calorie shake is a bit on the light side, so you’re going to use it as a snack, or pair it with other foods for a meal to get more of what you need, whether that's carbs or fat. - If you’re a casual runner, you’re not going to need as much protein as a guy who’s lifting a ton. - If you’re a beginner, lifting a couple times a week, you also don’t need as much protein as an intense lifter who trains heavy 6 days a week.
With all this in mind, White has listed the pros and cons of the following 10 ready-to-drink beverages. We've also noted what goals are best suited to each and how best to incorporate them during the day. Bottoms up.
Pros: "I rank this as #1 on the list," White says; Isopure is one of the top brands on the market." Not only is this one of the best-tasting options—especially unrefrigerated since it’s not a milky drink—it's made from whey isolate, which is a very unique protein. "Whey protein, in general, increases muscle synthesis, and Isopure has no lactose, so it won't cause any stomach upset," White explains. It has no fat, carbs, or sugar, which is good; and 40g of protein, which isn’t too high.
Cons: It does have artificial sweeteners (sucralose), and it doesn’t have any carbs, which is important post-workout.
When to use: Have before your workout as a snack. "A study shows getting 20g of protein before your workout can increase muscle synthesis and prevent muscle breakdown," White says. A drink like this, since it doesn't have fiber, won't upset your stomach but can help curb hunger. "If you do want to drink post-workout, just be sure to eat a piece of fruit with it to get those fast-acting carbs in," he recommends.
Main Ingredients: Filtered Water, Ion-Exchange Whey (milk) Protein Isolate, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Coconut Water Concentrate, Phosphoric Acid, Sucralose
Pros: There’s a pretty good ratio of macros and combination of protein. "It has milk and whey protein, and casein peptides; whey protein helps increase muscle synthesis and peptides help prevent muscle breakdown," White says. Plus, branch chain amino acids are another great source of protein. "I also love that there’s no sugar."
Cons: It's a little bit higher in fat. "But I’m not that focused on fat over sugar," White says. That said, there are artificial flavors and sweeteners (sucralose).
When to use: "This is good post-workout, but since it’s lacking in sugar, have some oatmeal on the side to increase glycogen stores after exercise."
Main Ingredients: Filtered Water, Lean Pro® (Special Blend Of Spray Dried Untrafiltered Milk Protein Isolate, Yielding Fast Acting Whey Protein Peptides, Branched Chain Amino Acids, L-Glutamine Peptides, and Slow Acting Casein Peptides, Whey Protein Concentrate, Calcium Caseinate), Natural and Artificial Flavors
Pros: It’s right in the middle of this roundup. "The 170 calories is really light, good for people looking to watch calories, and it's low sugar, low fat, and has a decent protein ratio," White explains.
Cons: "Dymatize ISO100 Clear has Red 40 and the sugar sweeteners Acesulfame Potassium and sucralose, so it’s more on the artificial side," he says.
When to use: Have half pre-workout or the full serving post-workout.
Main Ingredients: Water, Whey Protein Isolate, Natural Flavors, Salt, Sucralose, Phosphoric Acid, Acesulfame Potassium, FD&C Red 40
Macros in 1 Bottle Fruit Punch: 170 calories, 40g protein, 2g carbs, 0g fat, 0g sugar
Pros: There's a good amount of protein, which comes from milk protein concentrate, and a decent amount of fat, White says.
Cons: It's a little higher in calories and carbs than the others.
When to use: "This is good for hardgainers, or someone trying to gain a lot of muscle mass," White says. "Because it has about 20g of carbs, it's great taken post-workout to help replenish glycogen and can serve as a meal replacement," he adds. If you’re trying to lose weight, opt for one of the other options.
Main Ingredients: Water, Milk Protein Concentrate, Pea Protein Concentrate, Corn Maltodextrin, Less than 2% of: High Oleic Sunflower Oil, Vitamin & Mineral Blend (Potassium Phosphate, Sodium Ascorbate, Potassium Citrate, Salt, Magnesium Carbonate, Zinc Gluconate, etc.)
Macros in 1 Bottle Rich Dark Chocolate: 300 calories, 42g protein, 19g carbs, 7g fat, 1g sugar
Pros: "It's organic, which is a plus, made from grass-fed milk," White says.
Cons: Unfortunately, it’s pretty low in protein, and high in sugar and fat, he adds.
When to use: If you’re sensitive to lactose, don’t take pre-workout. You can use this post-workout. "This can be an additive to breakfast," White recommends. "Maybe you have peanut butter to get some fat or oatmeal for some fiber with the shake," he adds.
Main Ingredients: Filtered Water, Orgain Organic Protein Blend (Organic Grass Fed Milk Protein Concentrate, Organ Whey Protein Concentrate), Orgain Organic Carbohydrate Blend (Organic Brown Rice Syrup, Organic Cane Sugar, Organic Rice Dextrins)
Pros: "It’s organic and I like the protein ratio," White says.
Cons: "The sugar is just too high," White says. "Even though it’s an unrefined cane sugar, that’s too much added sugar for your diet." There’s not much of a difference between drinking this and regular milk, he adds.
When to use: If you’re looking for a snack, Organic Fuel Protein Shake can be used in place of milk if you want a little more bang for your buck.