You know how important it is to get enough protein and how convenient a protein shake can be in helping you reach that goal. But there's a fine line between protein shakes that keep you full and shakes that are nothing more than a sugar rush in a glass (or bottle).
In order to get the most out of your protein shakes, avoid these common mistakes.
1. You Don't Make Your Protein Shake Filling Enough
"While a protein shake typically shouldn't serve as a meal replacement, it should be filling enough to hold you over until your next meal," says registered dietitian Sammi Haber Brondo, RD. "You don't want to feel hungry still after having one."
Hearing your stomach rumble soon after drinking a protein shake can make you more likely to take in extra calories — especially sugars and fat — at another snack or by overeating during your next meal, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Add a balance of fat, carbs and protein to a shake to stay full. "I recommend adding fruit and plenty of veggies for fiber, like spinach, kale or even cauliflower," Brondo says. "Greek yogurt and protein powder are great ways to add protein, and fat can come from things like nut butter, chia seeds or flax seeds."
Are You Getting Enough Protein?
2. You Use Powder as the Only Source of Protein
Protein powder may come to mind first when thinking about shake ingredients, but it isn't the only way to add in the crucial macro. There's no hard rule that protein powder is required in these types of shakes, says LeeAnn Weintraub, MPH, RD.
Whole foods like nuts, oats, tofu and more add protein to a shake without sacrificing taste, and they're often a smarter financial choice than protein powder too, Weintraub says. (They're also great options if you don't like the graininess of protein powder.) Plus, you'll get more vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in whole, natural foods than powders, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Focus on mixing up shakes with whole-food sources of protein, including "Greek yogurt, non-dairy yogurt, silken tofu, peanut butter and seeds, for example," Weintraub says.
3. You Substitute a Protein Shake for a Meal
Many experts don't recommend replacing full meals with protein shakes. Doing so is another way to miss out on the nutritional value of whole foods, according to the Mayo Clinic.
"A basic protein shake with a protein supplement and liquid likely falls short of providing the balance and nutrition to be considered a meal," Weintraub says. Plus, if it's not filled with a balance of protein, fat and carbs, you probably won't be satisfied for long.
Enjoy a protein shake between meals, not instead of one. If you're building a balanced and filling shake, it should help control your hunger until you eat something larger.
4. You Aren't Choosy About Your Protein Powder
If you do decide to use protein powder in a shake, consider your nutrition goals, personal preferences and other health concerns, first. "Keep in mind that foods and supplements are not one-size-fits-all," Weintraub says. "There are products to meet different dietary needs like vegan, gluten-free and high-calorie, for example."
For example, if you're allergic to eggs, you'll need to avoid protein powder made from egg whites. If you're sensitive to dairy, powders made from whey could cause stomach pain or digestion problems, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Always read the nutrition information on protein powder and packaged shakes. Choose ones that pack in what you want — without a bunch of additives or unnecessary ingredients.
5. You Use Artificial Sweeteners
Adding artificial sweeteners to a protein shake may seem like a calorie-saving hack, but the effects can hurt more than they help. You might actually end up eating more of a food sweetened with these ingredients because it's perceived as a healthier option, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Plus, artificial sweeteners have actually been linked with weight gain rather than weight loss, despite their reputation as a way to take in less sugar. According to a July 2017 review in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, consuming sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose is associated with higher weights and waist circumferences and higher odds of obesity, heart problems and type 2 diabetes.
Even if your goal isn't to lose weight by drinking protein shakes, there are healthier ways to sweeten a shake with none of the chemicals.
Stick to fruits and other natural sources of sugar — like a little bit of honey or maple syrup — to sweeten a protein shake.
Weintraub has a few simple recipes she leans on to get vitamins, minerals, protein and a nice treat: "I really love frozen pineapple, fresh spinach, plain Greek yogurt and unsweetened shredded coconut," she says, "but I also enjoy one that's a bit chocolatey with pea protein powder, banana, cacao powder, avocado and unsweetened oat milk."
6. You Buy Pre-Made Protein Shakes That Seem Perfect
Ready-to-drink protein shakes are handy when you're short on time, but watch out for ones that over-promise. "Be careful of any catchy slogans or buzzwords promising something too good to be true," says registered dietitian Dara Godfrey, RD.
Many simply don't have any proof to back up their lofty claims. "Most protein shake products are filled with lots of fillers to help with mouthfeel or flavor but are generally not an added health benefit," Godfrey says.
Yet another reason why it's so important to read nutrition labels. If you're not making your own protein shake at home, scan a product's nutrition info carefully. Look for short ingredients lists, and avoid artificial sweeteners, the food additive carrageenan and lactose, if you're sensitive to dairy, Godfrey says.
7. You Underestimate Calories
Even if you're creating a protein shake with fruits, vegetables, nuts and the best protein powder, calories can still add up fast.
If you're eyeballing your shake, you may be tempted to add more than you really need of any of your ingredients, especially because drinking your calories is often less satisfying than eating whole foods, Godfrey says.
Instead of improvising when filling up the blender, research recipes and make sure to add in the proper ingredient amounts.
Need some inspiration? Try these healthy protein shake recipes:
- Mayo Clinic: "I'm trying to lose weight. Could protein shakes help?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The hidden dangers of protein powders"
- Mayo Clinic: "Artificial Sweeteners"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Revamp your snacking habits."
- Cleveland Clinic: "How to Choose the Best Protein Powder for You."
- FDA: "Additional Information about High-Intensity Sweeteners Permitted for Use in Food in the United States."
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "A randomized controlled trial contrasting the effects of 4 low-calorie sweeteners and sucrose on body weight in adults with overweight or obesity."
- Mayo Clinic: "Artificial sweeteners: Any effect on blood sugar?"
- Canadian Medical Association Journal: "Nonnutritive sweeteners and cardiometabolic health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies"