Whether you're trying to pack on muscle or recovering from an illness, shakes are a convenient way to get extra calories and protein. Using protein shakes to gain weight fast is healthy if you choose shakes containing high-quality ingredients from whole foods.
Adding Calories for Weight Gain
Gaining weight can be just as challenging as losing weight. People who have naturally thin frames or fast metabolisms may find it particularly difficult. The basic strategy for gaining weight is to increase your calorie intake above your calorie expenditure. A caloric surplus means your body has extra energy and raw materials that it can use to build muscle and support other physiological functions.
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However, a caloric surplus can also lead to fat gain if you're not careful. To prevent this, you have to increase your caloric intake gradually, choose the right foods and engage in the right type of exercise program. Typically, an increase of 250 to 500 calories per day is a good place to start. After a few weeks, assess your results and see if you need to further increase your calorie intake.
If you are recovering from illness, you should talk to your doctor about the best way to gain weight and how many calories you need each day.
More Protein to Gain Weight
Out of the three macronutrients — protein, carbohydrate and fat — protein is most important for gaining weight in the form of lean muscle mass. Your body uses the amino acids in protein to maintain and build new muscle tissue. Protein also supports the immune system and healing after illness or injury.
So, how much protein powder do you need? That depends on several factors, including your weight, gender and activity level. The dietary reference intake (DRI) determined to be appropriate for the general population by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academies of Medicine is 46 grams of protein daily for women and 56 grams each day for men.
The DRI is based on an average amount of .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For example, a 150-person would need 54 grams of protein each day. However, someone who weighs more than that will require more protein than the DRI. A 195-pound person would need around 70 grams of protein each day, for example.
DRIs are presented not only as a static number but as a percentage of calories. This is called the acceptable macronutrient distribution range (AMDR) and takes into account the fact that men and women of different weights, ages and activity levels have different calorie needs and thus varying protein requirements. The AMDR for protein is 10 to 30 percent of daily calories. If your calorie needs are 2,800 per day, then you need to get 70 to 210 grams of protein, since 1 gram of protein has 4 calories, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The percentage of your diet that protein should comprise depends mainly on your activity level. If you're not exercising, you don't need as much protein as someone who is active. The more intense your activity, the more stress you place on your muscles. Your protein needs increase as your body's recovery demands increase.
According to an article published in June 2017 in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition by the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), healthy individuals who engage in regular strength-training activity should aim for 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day. That means a 150-pound person would need between 95 and 136 grams of protein, and a 195-pound person would need 124 to 177 grams.
Protein Shake Options
Grabbing a protein shake off the shelf at your local supermarket may not be the best choice. Most commercial protein shakes to gain weight fast aren't that healthy for you. They may contain a lot of protein and calories, but they are often highly processed. The protein may not be of the best quality, and many of the calories likely come from sugar.
For example, one commercial bottled protein shake provides 20 grams of sugar per serving from white sugar, dextrose and maltodextrin. That's almost as much sugar as a candy bar, per USDA data. Maltodextrin is a highly processed, quickly digested carbohydrate that can spike blood sugar, insulin and blood lipid levels, according to a research review published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition in September 2016.
Protein powder for weight gain, used in both store-bought and homemade shakes, also poses a potential health risk. Many protein powders are also highly processed and contain sugar, artificial colors and flavors, and substances such as maltodextrin that can have deleterious effects on health. These shakes and protein powders may make grand claims about benefits for health and muscle gain, but, according to Harvard Medical School, these claims are often misleading and false.
In addition, when consumed frequently, some shakes could even be toxic. In 2018, the Clean Label Project tested 134 commercial protein supplements and found that many of the products contained contaminants, including lead, arsenic, cadmium and BPA, that can have toxic effects on the body's organs.
Better Protein Shake Choices
That's not to say that all commercial protein powders and drinks are bad, however, the healthy ones are certainly in the minority. If you're going to choose pre-made powders and drinks, look for varieties that are very low in, or free of, added sugar.
Also, look on the ingredients label for whole food ingredients. For example, one healthy commercial option provides 20 grams of protein from organic peas, quinoa, beans and seeds. It also contains raw and organic fruits and vegetables and other nutritious ingredients like raw cacao, spirulina, wheatgrass and probiotics.
Each serving of this protein powder provides 120 calories. You can easily increase the calorie and protein count by mixing the powder with nutritious whole food ingredients such as milk, yogurt, nuts and nut butters, avocado, canned coconut milk and bananas. For example, a shake containing one scoop of organic protein powder, 8 ounces of whole milk, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter and one medium banana provides 675 calories and 38 grams of protein.
You can also skip the expensive commercial powders. Combine 6 ounces of plain, whole-milk Greek yogurt, 6 ounces of whole milk, one-half avocado, 2 tablespoons peanut butter and one medium banana for a delicious shake providing 758 calories and 32 grams of high-quality whole-food protein.
- MedlinePlus: "Immune Response"
- University of Michigan Medicine: "High-Protein Foods for Wound Healing"
- FDA: "Protein"
- National Academies of Medicine: "Summary Tables, Dietary Reference Intakes"
- USDA: "How Many Calories Are in One Gram of Fat, Carbohydrate, or Protein?"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Protein and Exercise"
- USDA: " Basic Report: 19065, Candies, Almond Joy Candy Bar"
- Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: "Nutrition, Health, and Regulatory Aspects of Digestible Maltodextrins"
- Harvard Medical School: "The Hidden Dangers of Protein Powders"
- USDA: "Full Report (All Nutrients): 45350876, Whole Milk, Upc: 763528000081"
- USDA: "Full Report (All Nutrients): 45038484, Shoprite, Organic Chunky Peanut Butter, Peanut, Butter, Upc: 041190043538"
- USDA: "Basic Report: 09040, Bananas, Raw"
- USDA: "Basic Report: 01293, Yogurt, Greek, Plain, Whole Milk"
- USDA: "Basic Report: 09038, Avocados, Raw, California"
- Clean Label Project: "2018 Protein Powder Study"