The post-workout protein powder shake is a staple of gym bro culture. In fact, almost the moment a man gets into weightlifting, he also starts scouring Bodybuilding.com and Reddit forums for advice on the right protein supplements to take, and in which amounts. He stalks the aisles of his nearest health and nutrition store like a stingy dad hunting for grocery store discounts. Their ubiquity is a testament to the idea that a protein shake is a vital ingredient to looking swole.
Thing is, most of what amateur weightlifters know about protein supplements (or what they think they know, to be exact) is false.
The latest protein-shake myth to be debunked is the idea protein should be taken between meals. According to a new study by researchers at Purdue University, it’s the opposite — the best time to take a protein supplement is during a meal. Otherwise, you’ll have a tendency to put on excess pounds.
But like I said, that’s just one of many misconceptions we have about such chalky, post-workout recovery beverages. Some of the others…
You (Probably) Don’t Even Need More Protein in Your Diet
The biggest lie about protein supplements is that you need to take them at all. For one, the average American diet already includes far too much protein. The idea a person would need to supplement it with 20 more grams of protein a day is bonkers. The notable exceptions are athletes and other people who train at a world-class level. “The past few years there have been some studies that for optimal sports performance, the recommended protein intake isn’t enough,” says David Wiss, an L.A.-based nutritionist and founder of Nutrition in Recovery.
Those are world-class athletes training at an elite level, though; not your Average Joe who does 45 minutes of bicep curls after work a few times a week. He decidedly doesn’t need a protein shake a day, says Wiss.
And If You Do Need More Protein, You Don’t Need it in Shake Form
For the sake of argument, let’s consider someone who trains strenuously, and who therefore could justify upping their protein intake. Even then, a protein shake isn’t ideal. Because when it comes to nutrition, there’s never any better substitute than actual, whole food. “Supplements can’t compete with real food,” Wiss says. “And now that more people are becoming aware of that fact, we’ve seen supplement companies change their marketing strategies. They’re touting their products as made from real food, such as protein powders made from bone broth.”
If you do crush it at the gym on the reg, you should aim to consume 0.75 grams of protein per kilogram of “lean body mass,” according to Ryan Greene, an L.A.-based osteopathic physician and co-founder of Monarch Athletic Club. That, too, though, should be found in “a pretty well-balanced, Mediterranean style diet. With a lean meat at lunch and dinner, you’re probably getting enough protein per day,” Greene says.
Your Flavored Protein Shake Probably Has Too Much Sugar
I speak from experience when I say protein powders are clumpy and barely edible. Many products try to make their products more palatable with artificial flavoring. Sometimes this means added sugars, which should always be avoided.
But even artificial, non-sugar sweeteners can play a harmful trick on your body and convince it to retain more fat, according to Greene. Basically, consuming sweeteners causes your insulin to spike, which in turn causes the body the store more fat. “If there’s any sweetener — sugar or otherwise — your insulin is going to go up. Then, your body is going to cling to whatever energy stores it has, which usually means fat. And that can lead to fat deposition, and thus, weight gain,” Greene says.
So that strawberry-flavored whey protein (gag) isn’t doing you any favors when it comes to adding lean mass.
You Don’t Need to Ingest Protein Right After You’re Done Working Out
“It’s a highly overstated gym-culture myth: You have a 30-minute anabolic window to ingest your protein,” says Wiss. “What really matters is the total number of grams of protein you get throughout the day, and that it’s evenly distributed throughout the day. Timing is low on the list of dietary priorities.”
So rather than choke down a protein shake the minute you get into the locker room, Greene suggests spacing out your protein consumption into five small meals eaten throughout the day.
It Should Serve as a Portion of Your Meal, Not the Whole Thing
The most immediate takeaway from the Purdue study is that protein powder shouldn’t be consumed in between meals, but during them. When a person takes a protein shake between meals, they end up taking them in addition to their normal daily food intake. And that means an excess number of calories, and a tougher time managing their weight. “But if someone has a protein shake with their meal, they’ll end up eating less food,” Greene says. “And it’ll prevent them from overeating — both in that meal and over the course of the entire day.”