Protein shakes, which are typically made by blending protein powder with water or some type of milk, are a convenient way to make sure you're getting enough protein and calories. But, many people wonder when the best time is to have one.
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There's some debate on the topic, so we asked a sports nutritionist and a few registered dietitians to find out. (Spoiler alert: You don't have to slam a protein shake immediately after a workout.)
Why You Need Protein
Proteins are present in every human cell, so it's pretty important. This is why they're referred to as the "building blocks" of life. Made up of amino acids, protein helps your body repair cells and make new ones, according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM).
People assigned female at birth (AFAB) should aim for 46 grams of protein per day, and people assigned male at birth (AMAB) should aim for 56 grams of protein per day, according to the USDA 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
One of the many benefits of protein shakes is that they make it easier to meet this nutritional requirement. And depending on your health goals and your choice of protein powder, protein shakes can be a helpful and nutritious addition to your diet.
"Protein shakes may play a role in both weight loss and weight gain," says sports nutritionist Marie Spano, RD, CSD. "If you are trying to lose weight, protein is important for satiety and helping ensure you are minimizing muscle loss. If you want to gain weight, ensuring you are getting enough protein will tip the scales a bit so you are more likely to gain muscle."
Protein and Muscle Mass
So, as for when is the best time to take protein, the short answer is it depends. Taking in protein immediately or shortly after a workout is a popular strategy known as protein timing, which is said to help with building and repairing muscle.
You do burn calories and work up an appetite during a workout, so you'll need to replenish afterward. A protein shake is a quick and effective way to accomplish this.
"For people who want to gain muscle mass, the recommended window for a protein shake is between 30 and 60 minutes after a workout," says registered dietitian Juliana Tamayo, RDN. "This is based on the idea of the anabolic window, or period after exercise when your body is said to use protein immediately to build muscle."
But there's little evidence to back this up. Studies have shown that the effects of taking in protein immediately after a workout are inconsistent, per a January 2013 review in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
"Nutrient timing (aka the anabolic window) is a myth," says Maddie Pasquariello, RD. "When you drink your shake doesn't make a huge difference when it comes to weight loss or muscle gain."
Surely, taking protein around exercise showed to have no significant effect on increasing muscle strength, according to another December 2013 meta-analysis in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Rather, the researchers found that the amount of protein people ate was a more important factor.
So if you prefer a fasted workout, drink your protein shake after. If you need something to sustain you through a workout, drink it before. And of course, if you're using protein shakes just to get more of the nutrient in your diet, have it any time of day that works best.
"You won't lose your training gains if you wait an hour or possibly even two hours after a workout before you eat a protein-rich meal or shake," Spano says. She recommends aiming to get some protein within two hours after a workout.
Protein and Weight Loss
When it comes to losing weight, Tamayo recommends a different strategy. "For those looking to lose fat, drinking a protein shake in between meals can be a good way to stop hunger," she says. This can help you maintain a caloric deficit, which is needed for weight loss.
Protein is a satiating nutrient, so having a protein shake can be a good way to curb cravings and hunger while helping meet your protein needs.
"Protein shakes are often filling, but they are also absorbed more slowly, giving your body the signal to release leptin," Tamayo says. "Leptin is the hormone that signals to your body that you're full."
There's a lot of controversy about the best time to drink a protein shake. The anabolic window of 30 to 60 minutes after exercise, which was once considered the ideal time to take protein, may not be as important as we thought.
While you don't have to chug your protein shake within minutes of your workout, you probably shouldn't wait hours either if you want to build muscle. Your body will need more of the nutrient after exercise.
But if your goals aren't gains, the best time to drink a protein shake is really up to you. "Protein should be spaced pretty evenly throughout the day for everyone, whether you are trying to lose weight, gain weight or just maintain your health," Spano says.
So even though protein is pretty important, don't stress about missing the most opportune window if you're blending up a shake. For most of us, how much protein we have in our daily diets matters more than when we have it.
- National Library of Medicine: "Protein in diet"
- USDA: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?"