QUESTION: When is the best time to drink a protein shake? I’ve heard that before and after a workout is the most important, but what about other times like breakfast and before bed? Should I be drinking a shake at those times as well? What do you recommend?
ANSWER: Good question, but before I answer it, I need to make sure we all understand what the true purpose and benefit of protein shakes actually is…
What Do Protein Shakes Do?
You should never take a supplement without fully understanding what it does.
So, what do protein shakes do?
Nothing. They do nothing.
That was easy!
Then why drink them, you ask? Because they’re a convenient source of high quality protein, and protein itself does something.
Actually, it does lots of stuff.
From playing a crucial role in building muscle and preventing muscle loss, to controlling hunger and increasing the thermic effect of food (TEF), to repairing all of the cells and tissues in your body… protein is the most important macronutrient for many reasons.
And for all of these reasons and more, eating a sufficient amount of protein a day is a hugely important part of every person’s diet, regardless of what their specific goal may be.
Speaking of which, for those of us looking to build muscle, lose fat or do both, something in the range of 0.8g – 1.3g of protein per pound of your current body weight will be the ideal range to shoot for (use your goal body weight if you are very overweight). Full details here.
Protein Shakes vs Food
Now, you may be wondering, with all else being equal (e.g. same total protein intake, same total calorie intake, same meal timing/frequency, etc.), what are the many benefits of drinking a protein shake compared to eating a high protein food like chicken breast?
Good question. Here is a complete list of the benefits…
Aaaand that’s it.
High quality protein is high quality protein. Whether it’s coming in the form of chicken or turkey breast, lean cuts of meat, fish, eggs/egg whites, low fat/fat free dairy… or whether it’s coming via protein shakes… it doesn’t really matter.
There isn’t going to be any meaningful difference in the end.
Which is why the sole benefit of a protein shake is that it’s convenient. There’s no food to cook, prepare or eat. You just throw a scoop in a cup or bottle, add in some water (or whatever), mix it for a few seconds, and drink.
Quick and easy!
Of course, most people should try to get the majority of their daily protein from high quality food sources like the ones I just mentioned, because eating your calories and nutrients is generally more filling and satisfying than drinking them.
And if you’re able to consistently meet your total daily protein needs this way (and you don’t have any problems doing so), then guess what? There’s no need for you to ever drink a protein shake.
In this context, it’s a redundant waste of money.
- If you’re not able to reach that ideal total from food alone…
- Or it would simply be easier and more convenient for you to get some of your daily protein from a shake…
Then that’s exactly when protein shakes should be used. This scenario is the sole reason why I drink them and recommend them. This is their true purpose.
So in this context, you can feel free to use protein supplements (powder, bars, whatever) as needed to fill in the gaps and allow you to hit your goal total for the day. (Additional details here: How Many Protein Shakes Should You Drink A Day?)
Now with that point clear, let’s get back to the original question…
When Is The Best Time To Drink Protein Shakes?
That depends on who you ask.
What Supplement Companies And Misinformed People Say…
For example, if you ask the super trustworthy supplement companies that make these products, the super trustworthy people that sell them, or the super knowledgeable people in the diet and fitness world who love giving advice about this sort of stuff, they might tell you that it’s highly important (bordering on required) to drink a protein shake for breakfast (“to rev up your metabolism!“), another one before AND immediately after your workout (plus maybe also sip on one during your workout, too), another before bed (to prevent muscle loss during your overnight fast, obviously), another during lunch (for convenience, of course), and another 1-3 shakes over the course of the day between meals (“as a great tasting, low calorie, protein-packed snack!”).
So… basically… drink like 50 protein shakes a day.
Also don’t forget to put some protein powder on your oatmeal, in your yogurt, and use it to bake delicious high protein muffins and cookies!
HELL YEAH!! Because nothing says “delicious” quite like a cookie with protein powder in it.
Now, sure, this may be a wee bit of an exaggeration. Although, to be honest, this is pretty close to what I remember reading on the back of my first bottle of whey protein powder years ago, and what the guy at GNC recommended, and what various gym bros were/still are doing.
And it all mostly comes down to the fact that supplement companies want you to think there’s something magical about protein supplements… that they do something that whole food sources don’t do/can’t do, or that protein shakes somehow “work” better than whole food sources do.
All of which is largely bullshit, of course. But plenty of people believe it anyway.
The truth is, there are no special times of the day that warrant drinking a protein shake. That’s not really a thing.
What there may be, however, are certain times of the day that are ideal for consuming protein, period.
And in the vast majority of these cases (and with all else being equal), it will make no difference whatsoever whether your source of protein at these times happens to be a shake or a high quality food source.
But wait, what’s that you say?
“But I heard…”
You heard that there are certain times of the day when a protein shake is WAY better than a high quality food source of protein?
Ah yes, you must be talking about the infamous post workout anabolic window, aka a very brief span of time (30 minutes or less) immediately after your workout when you MUST consume a fast digesting protein shake… or else.
Or else what, exactly? Terrible things. You won’t recover. You’ll lose muscle. You’ll gain fat. Your entire workout will have been a waste. Your spouse will leave you. You’ll lose your job. Every cookie you eat from this point on will have protein powder in it.
Turns out that under most circumstances (more about what I mean by “most” a little later), that supposedly “brief” window of time is more like 1 – 2 hours rather than 0 – 30 minutes. Not to mention, the importance of the post workout meal itself has been greatly exaggerated.
Don’t get me wrong, it still matters. Hell, there’s a super thorough chapter in both Superior Muscle Growth and Superior Fat Loss that covers everything, including my specific recommendations. Why? Because it still matters.
But the degree that it matters is waaaaay less than people make it out to be. It’s not something that will make or break your success. Nor is it anything even remotely close to that. That’s all a myth.
What matters most, by far, is your total protein intake for the day. THAT’S something that can make or break your success. But as long as that’s what it needs to be, the specific timing of it, the specific sources of it, and whether you ate the “best” post workout meal at the “best” time are all minor secondary details in comparison.
Full details here: What To Eat Before And After Your Workout
With all of that in mind, there’s a different question we need to be asking and answering here…
When Are The Best Times To Eat Protein?
It’s not about protein shakes. It’s about protein. Protein shakes are just one of MANY good sources of protein. You wouldn’t ask “when are the best times to eat egg whites,” would you?
This is pretty much the same damn thing.
So the question is, are there certain times of the day that are more ideal for consuming protein?
The answer is yes. Here are those times, in order of importance…
- Whenever the hell you need to in order to reach your ideal total for the day.
I made this point already, but I’m going to be make it again because it’s that important. Above all else, the most important aspect of your protein intake is consuming the right total amount per day. This is, BY FAR, the thing that matters most. It matters more than the specific timing of when you eat it, how often you eat it, what food sources are providing it, what amounts you consume it in, whether it’s a whole food source or a protein shake, what other foods you consume along with it, or anything else you can think of. When it comes to protein, your total for the day is always #1, and everything else is a distant #2 at best. So when is the best time to eat protein? Whenever the hell you need to for ensuring your ideal total is met at the end of the day.
- During every meal.
Once you’re consuming a sufficient total amount of protein per day, you may be wondering if there’s a certain manner of eating it throughout the day that’s best. Maybe more of it should be eaten in morning for breakfast? Or perhaps at night before bed? Or maybe you should try to consume all of it in your pre and post workout meals? Or during lunch? Or dinner? The answer is none of the above. Or really, it’s all of the above. Meaning, to maximize the benefits of protein, the ideal manner of eating it is by consuming a decent amount in every meal (source). So regardless of whether you happen to eat 3 meals or 6 meals (or anything in between), and regardless of whether you eat breakfast or skip breakfast, and regardless of whether you eat before bed or don’t eat before bed – all of which are factors that should be determined based on your own personal needs and preferences – just try to spread your protein intake out so you’re consuming a decent amount in every meal. Simple as that. And again, whether your source of protein during any of these meals is a whole food source or protein shake doesn’t matter at all. Do whatever suits you best.
- During your pre and post workout meals.
Yes, I know I just said that you should ideally consume protein during every meal, and “every meal” technically includes every meal… which includes your pre and post workout meals. But, out of “every meal,” your pre and post workout meals are likely to be the most beneficial to consume protein during. No, like I mentioned earlier, this isn’t something that’s SUPER important. Your pre and post workout nutrition will not make or break your success, nor will they play HUGE roles in the degree of success you achieve. They are, however, a secondary factor of your diet that is worth putting a sane amount of effort into getting right because doing so will be beneficial to your progress in some small way. How do you do that, you ask? It’s easy. Consume some protein 1 – 2 hours before and 1 – 2 hours after your workouts from whatever high quality sources you like best. Additional details here.
Are There ANY Scenarios When A Protein Shake Is The Best Choice?
Do you remember earlier when I was explaining that convenience was the only real difference between drinking a protein shake and eating a high quality food source of protein? And how there was no benefit to consuming a “fast digesting shake” immediately after your workout?
Do you also remember when I used the phrase “under most circumstances” when saying those things, and said I’d explain what I meant a little later?
Well, it’s later.
As I was saying earlier, under most circumstances, it won’t make any difference whatsoever whether your source of protein in a meal is a shake or a high quality food source.
But, are there ANY scenarios when maybe, just maybe, a protein shake would have some advantage over food?
The answer is yes, and these are those scenarios…
- If you train in a fasted state.
Intermittent fasting (IF) is all the rage these days, despite not actually providing any meaningful body composition benefits beyond just being an approach to meal timing/frequency that happens to suit some people’s needs, schedules and preferences better than other approaches. But if you’re doing some form of IF for that very reason, it’s perfectly fine by me. (If you’re doing it because you think it’s somehow better for fat loss or muscle growth with all else being equal… you’re wasting your time. Sources here, here, here, and here.) And in that case, you most likely train while in a fasted state. In this scenario – one in which there was no pre workout meal eaten – having a “fast digesting protein shake” soon after your workout would be the best choice. It’s still not something that will make or break your success, nor is it something that’s more important than your total protein intake for the day. It’s just a superior option under these circumstances.
- If your pre workout meal was 4+ hours before your workout.
The same things I just said (minus all of the shitting on IF) apply here as well.
- If your pre workout meal is within 30 minutes of your workout.
Most people have their pre workout meal somewhere within 1 – 2 hours before their workout, which is fine. But some people aren’t able to do that for whatever reason and will instead end up having to consume their pre workout meal within 30 minutes of their workout. In this scenario, consuming a whole food source of protein so close to the time you’ll be working out may cause digestive issues. In that case, a protein shake would be a better choice as it’s a little easier to digest and therefore less likely to cause any problems.
- If your workout is significantly longer than is typical.
In most cases, the typical weight training workout will last… what? 1-2 hours? Sounds good to me. (Details here: How Long Should My Workout Be?) But if your workouts are lasting 3 hours… 4 hours… or even longer? That’s when having a “fast digesting post workout shake” would be a superior choice. Also, what in the holy hell are you doing during your weight training workouts that makes them take this long? Unless these are endurance oriented workouts, you’re probably doing something very wrong.
- Whenever you need to, or want to.
Specifically, whenever you need to consume additional protein in order to reach your ideal total for the day, and you either A) don’t have time to cook, prepare and/or eat a whole food source, B) you don’t feel like cooking, preparing and/or eating a whole food source, C) you don’t have any other options available at the time, or D) you’d simply prefer to have a protein shake for some other non-myth-based reason. These are all scenarios when a protein shake would likely be the best choice.
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