Protein shakes are a firmly enshrined aspect of bro-culture. Living in a college town, I see them practically everywhere I go.
There are strong market incentives to convince consumers that purchasing X,Y, or Z product will provide unique benefits found nowhere else. Skepticism is vital, and doubly so in the fitness industry. When reading articles on the internet, always be asking yourself why or how something works. Do not trust sales pitches at face value; do your own research. Most websites on the internet are trying to make money from you in some way.
Now that we have our tinfoil hats on, let’s go over some of the myths peddled by the protein-shake hucksters, why protein shakes are a poor choice, and what to do about it.
Myth #1: You must ingest protein within a 45 minute post-workout anabolic window
Do you really believe that immediately following your workout, your body beings a 45 minute doomsday countdown to total muscular emaciation?
I’ll write more on this subject soon. But this claim needs to be briefly addressed for all the bench-bros out there who frantically mix a protein shake in the locker room post-workout.
Origin of Claim:
Studies on protein shake consumption show wildly differing results depending on the methodology used. Here are three studies that at first glance report completely different results; but remember to look into how a study is designed before leaping to conclusions.(source, source, source)
Protein powder manufacturers simply cherry-pick the study most favorable to their products, shout the results from the mountaintops, and ignore the rest. The average individual can’t be bothered to read into the methods used in a given study, so they often simply accept what the salesmen say and later repeat it to their friends and internet forums. Thus a widely-held myth is born.
One of the most common shortfalls of protein study methodology is that protein intake is not controlled for. Take anyone on a low-protein diet, ram some additional liquid protein down their gullet twice a day, and you will observe greater muscle hypertrophy. That result does not, however, lead to the drawn conclusion that a protein shake 20 minutes post-workout is more effective than a chicken breast one hour post-workout.
Last year, a meta-analysis of available studies showed that the oft-repeated anabolic window claims are generally false.(source)
“In conclusion, current evidence does not appear to support the claim that immediate (≤ 1 hour) consumption of protein pre- and/or post-workout significantly enhances strength- or hypertrophic-related adaptations to resistance exercise. The results of this meta-analysis indicate that if a peri-workout anabolic window of opportunity does in fact exist, the window for protein consumption would appear to be greater than one-hour before and after a resistance training session.”
To sum it up: eat a high protein post-workout meal (ideally with some carbohydrates) and you’ll be fine. No need to rush.
Myth #2: The human body can only absorb 30g of protein per sitting
Few people have the time to prepare 4-5 small meals throughout the to meet their daily protein goal, so those who believe this myth often turn to protein shakes between meals.
Let’s put the claim to the common sense test: do you think that your ancestors complacently ate tiny meals throughout the day to properly absorb their protein, or sat down to a huge meal of nuts, meat, and vegetables after a few hours of hunting and gathering? Do you think the human species would have survived if we could only absorb nutrients from less than a handful of meat at a time? This claim simply makes no logical sense.
You have better things to do than worry about your protein intake every few hours.
Origin of Claim:
This myth started making the rounds following a 1997 study on protein absorption rates.(source) The study found that 30g of whey protein was fully absorbed after 3-4 hours. From this study, a few readers drew the conclusion that you must consume around 30 grams of protein every few hours to supply a steady stream of amino acids to your muscles.
However, this conclusion makes no sense. In the exact same study, casein protein was still being absorbed at the conclusion of the experiment 7 hours later. As such, A steak eaten with some broccoli would likely still be releasing protein 10+ hours after consumption.
Your body can regulate the speed at which protein moves through your digestive tract in order to properly absorb the protein needed.(source) To help calm your nerves even more, studies have shown that subjects consuming their daily protein intake within a 4 hour window, followed by 20 hours of fasting, had no reduction in strength or muscle hypertrophy.(source)
This is due to whey’s insulin-stimulating effects in conjunction with the base estrogen content of the product. Soy milk/protein contains phytoestrogens that cause acne through similar mechanisms.
Protein shakes have low levels of satiety. In other words, 300 calories of chicken breast or steak is a hell of a lot more filling than 300 calories of a protein shake. You should be eating your calories, not drinking them. Consuming foods with low satiety rates will result in one of the following:
- You will naturally consume more calories than your body needs, leading to unnecessary fat gain.
- Even if you meticulously count your calories, you will still remain hungry after hitting your calorie target for the day. This sucks, leads to dietary cheating, which eventually results in slower progress.
Simple. Eat beef, fish, or chicken as part of your post-workout meal.
There’s no need to worry about protein absorption if you don’t have the time to prepare 6 small healthy meals. I only eat one meal a day when I’m cutting, and have observed no negative impact on my progress. Not having enough time to cook does not mean you should to start drinking protein shakes; simply eat a single large meal at the end of the day.
If you’re interested in reading more about why I eat only one meal per day while cutting weight, I’ve written about intermittent fasting here, in addition to an in-depth intermittent fasting/muscle-building guide. Free content, like always.