Should you Drink Protein Shakes?

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Before I understood the benefits of protein shakes I used to think that they were just used to help “bulk up” and that if I drank a protein shake I would transform my puny arms into enormous oversized guns Pop-eye style. Thankfully this is not the case, in fact protein shakes can actually contribute to a healthier lifestyle, quicker recovery and weight loss.

They are a great source of energy, a good afternoon snack when you feel the slump and as post training recovery drink. A common mistake people often make is not eating after exercise either because they think that the fat burning will continue at a higher rate or because their appetite is depressed. It is however much more beneficial to eat and drink immediately after exercise, especially after prolonged or high-intensity workouts and protein is one of the best substances to consume.

WHAT IS PROTEIN AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?

Protein is a macronutrient (meaning that its needed in the body in large quantities along with carbohydrates and fat). It is composed of amino acids which are little protein dudes that help the body function in lots of ways;

  • Assists blood sugar balance which helps cravings

  • Aid recovery after exercising

  • Increases muscle maintenance

  • Hormonal balance

  • Promote healthy skin, hair and nails

  • Improves digestion

  • Increases bone density, strength and decreases the risk of osteoporosis

  • Improves brain function, sleep and prevent diseases and;

  • Assists fat loss

As you can see from this comprehensive list the benefits of protein are undeniable. As women it is important that we consume enough protein as our bones are susceptible to osteoporosis as we age. All cells in the body are made out of protein so essentially we are made up of protein! So it is understandable now why protein is so important in the body.

OTHER SOURCES OF PROTEIN

Protein can be found in foods like fish, poultry, cheese in particular cottage cheese, Parmesan & low fat mozzarella, meats, tofu, yogurt, milk, beans, eggs and nuts and seeds. So while protein can be found in all of these products the amounts will vary as well as the amino acids. There are 20 amino acids 8 of which are essential to the body meaning that the body cannot make them itself so we need to get them from food. Most sources of protein will have a range of amino acids therefore it is important that we consume a wide range of protein sources to ensure our amino acid profile is sufficient for the above functions.

HOW MUCH PROTEIN SHOULD I HAVE?

The general guidelines for protein are 1.5g per kg of body weight. If for example you are a woman weighing 60kg your protein intake would be 90g of protein per day. Now that doesn’t mean 90g of chicken. It means 90g of protein in the chicken (chicken still contains fats and carbohydrate). Generally speaking 1 medium chicken breast contains 31g of protein which means you need to consume about 3 chicken breasts in order to fulfil your protein requirements (now that’s a lot of chicken).

When was the last time you had 3 chicken fillets in a day? My guess is not very often. In my clinical experience most people are not consuming enough protein on a daily basis which means that the array of awesome functions in the body may not be working efficiently. This is where added protein like protein shakes come in handy and yes, women can (and should) drink them too.

Other things will dictate your protein requirements such as gender, size, age and level of activity which means that you may require more than the general 1.5g per kg of body weight.

The minimum amount of protein you should take for weight training is 1.2g – 1.4g per kg of body weight for endurance exercise and 1.7g – 1.8g per kg of body weight for strength training. Any additional protein that exceeds the daily minimum just helps speed up the healing process. Even though there has been some debate about the amount of protein you should consume it is reported that the only known danger from high-protein diets is for individuals with kidney disease.

WHAT IS WHEY PROTEIN?

You have probably eaten curds and whey without knowing it. Curds and whey are the lumps and liquid found in cottage cheese. If you are not aware, cottage cheese is made from skim milk. There are dozens of proteins floating around in the milk that can be separated into two basic groups when a chemical called Rennin is added. Rennin is an enzyme from a calf’s stomach that makes some of the proteins in milk clump together. The clumps are called “curd proteins” and the milk that refuses to clump are called “whey proteins”. The whey protein is transformed into a powder by drying similar to the powdered milk you would feed a baby.

WHY TAKE WHEY PROTEIN SHAKES?

Many people, especially women consider whey protein to be bad for them or that they will bulk up by taking extra protein which is not true. You may hear lads in the gym mention taking protein to recover. There are two basic types of recovery. The first is the restoration of fuel supplies i.e. the carbohydrates and fats that supply energy to the working muscle and the second is the process of rebuilding the muscle to be stronger and more efficient.

Very small tears in the muscle are caused by intense contraction during a workout. This can take place in any type of weight bearing exercises and not just for the heavy squatter. You may even feel these muscle tears after a day’s digging in the garden when you sit down to a relaxing cup of tea and feel that ouch… I worked those legs today. Those little muscle tears need to recover in order repair the muscle. It is quite normal for this to occur during exercise in order to build, strengthen and tone muscle. So, it is the exercise that builds the muscle and not the protein shake, as some people assume. And before you start quivering at the thought of building muscle realise that it is much more beneficial to have more muscle than it is excess fat. The more muscle we have the higher our metabolism therefore the more calories we burn! Training without increasing protein will cause poor recovery, slower results and lack of energy. Also, bear in mind protein is supplementary to your diet and you shouldn’t be relying on protein alone.

WHEN SHOULD I TAKE PROTEIN

The best time to have a protein shake is directly after training or within 30 minutes after training. You can take it with water, milk, almond milk, coconut milk or juice. It is also a great addition to smoothies and there are plenty of recipes for protein shakes, muffins, cakes and bars (just don’t go overboard on the sugars).

It is advisable to take a protein shake or a slow releasing protein before bed as the little protein amino acids dudes get to work repairing your muscles while you sleep. After sleep your body is depleted and awaiting nourishment, so it is good to have protein with breakfast (a shake or eggs are great) to ensure your body is properly nourished and your blood sugar is balanced. I recommend some form of protein with every meal.

WHAT TYPE OF PROTEIN IS BEST

Protein is sold in most gyms and supplement shops and now-a-days you can get different types of protein if you are vegan or intolerant to dairy. You can get rice protein, hemp protein, egg protein and even pea protein. Some have more protein in them than others so you will need review the nutritional information to determine which is best for you. Whey tends to have more protein but if you are intolerant/allergic then there are other options. I tend to steer clear of soy as it can impact hormones. A good protein might set you back €50 -€60 but will last you over a month or two and if it is contributing to a better you then it’s an investment in yourself and your health.

**Note: All protein is low carb** I get asked this a lot. Don’t get confused between protein and Mass Gainer as these are usually higher in carbohydrates and used more so for people who want to gain weight or increase performance.

If Little Miss Muffet has thought us anything she has reminded us that regardless of our goals, protein should be a prominent nutrient to all diets athletes, weight loss and the average gym go-er. Whether you feel the need to take a protein supplement is completely up to you but remember it should be part of a balanced diet and should not replace any of your main meals. You need to ensure you are getting a good range of nutrients, vitamins and minerals.

References: 1, 2, 3


If you’re curious to learn more about exercise for weight loss, our podcast "Exercise Over 40 With Toni Walsh” and “Postpartum Fitness” are both available on SoundCloud, iTunes & Spotify.


Want to learn more about what to eat before, during and after exercise? Get our “Nutrition for Exercise” course absolutely FREE with “Fit Over 40“ course available now!


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Toni Walsh is a Personal Trainer and Soft Tissue Massage Therapist who specialises in working with women as they age.

She is based in Sandyford, Co. Dublin where she holds fitness classes in a friendly and supportive environment.

Toni also leads the Fit Over 40 course available exclusively for The Female Wellness Hub.