Best time to drink a protein shake for maximum benefits

As a sports nutritionist for professional soccer players, I used to shake up at least 30 protein shakes a day for my athletes to drink after practice. But protein shakes aren’t just for the pros. They are a convenient way for anyone to consume more protein.

If you rely on protein shakes for muscle building, weight management, or exercise recovery, you may be wondering: when is the best time to get them? Below, we discuss what factors affect protein absorption, share tips on how to get the most protein bang for your buck, and identify the best time to get one based on your unique goals.

Factors affecting protein absorption

The type of protein

The type of protein you choose will dictate how quickly or slowly it is absorbed by your body. Whey protein reigns supreme as the king of fast-acting proteins. But there are different types of whey protein available. Hydrolyzed whey protein is already partially broken down for your body and can be absorbed quickly. Whey protein isolate and whey protein concentrate follow closely behind in terms of digestion speed.

Next, soy and pea proteins are also absorbed quickly, but not as quickly as whey. However, if you don’t consume dairy, the plus here is that both of these are plant-based proteins.

Last, we have casein, the champion of slow-acting proteins. Research suggests that casein can stay in your system for up to 6 hours after ingestion, providing a slow and steady release of protein.

Type of Liquid

The type of liquid used to mix your protein powder can also affect how your body absorbs it. Mixing protein powder with plain water speeds up the digestion of shakes, since there is no extra fat or protein to slow it down. Juice is another quick mixer for protein powder since juices are a source of carbohydrates that are also digested quickly. Another benefit to a juicer? It can supply your body with carbohydrates, which is especially important if you’re drinking a post-workout shake.

Both dairy milk (such as low-fat or whole milk) and non-dairy milk (almond, oat, or coconut) can be used. However, fats in milk, whether dairy or vegetable, will slow protein absorption.

Additional ingredients

Along with protein powder, you can mix other ingredients into your shake, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. These additions can increase the flavor and nutrients and turn the shake into a more balanced drink. (Like a protein smoothie of sorts!) However, both high-fat and high-fiber foods are digested slowly and will slow down the rate at which protein is absorbed. This can be ideal if you use your shake as a meal replacement. But for a post-workout shake where faster protein absorption is preferred, sticking to just water might be your best bet.

Individual Factors

Factors such as age and medical conditions also play a role in protein absorption. Older adults, for example, have a reduced ability to absorb and use protein. Therefore, they have higher protein needs. In addition, a person with digestive disorders, such as Crohn’s disease, may have decreased protein absorption, slowing the rate of absorption.

How to maximize protein absorption

All in all, here’s how I advise people to prepare their protein:

  • Choose a fast protein: If you can tolerate milk, choose hydrolyzed whey protein or whey protein isolate for faster-absorbing protein. If you need dairy-free milk, choose soy or pea protein for a quick alternative.
  • Use water: Water is the fastest way to distribute protein in your body.
  • Limit other ingredients: Keep it simple and skip the fancy additions to your shake. Mixing in fruits, vegetables, and nut butters can add nutrients, but the added fiber and fat will also slow protein absorption.
  • Stay hydrated: Being properly hydrated is key to optimal protein delivery and absorption. Be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day to keep protein moving smoothly and support all other bodily functions.

Protein Shake consumption time

Your goal: Muscle gain and recovery

Have you heard of the recovery window? This window refers to the specific time after exercise when it is ideal to supply the muscles with nutrients. After a workout, your body’s tanks are empty and need to be replenished with plenty of carbohydrates and protein. Carbohydrates help replenish energy stores (aka glycogen) and protein repairs small tears in muscle fibers. Rapid refueling with a shake can start this recovery process by starting muscle protein synthesis, which builds muscle tissue. If your goal is to gain muscle and support post-workout recovery, the best time to drink protein shakes is 30 to 60 minutes immediately after you finish your workout.

However, if you’re exercising on an empty stomach, have just woken up, or haven’t eaten in a few hours, a pre-workout protein shake can be helpful. It provides your empty tanks with easy-to-digest protein, some fuel, and can prevent excessive muscle breakdown during exercise.

During times of intense training, athletes may also be advised to drink a protein shake before bed to promote overnight muscle recovery. Research says that 30 minutes before bed is the ideal time to drink your shake for these benefits.

Your Goal: General Health

Unlike carbohydrates and fats, your body does not store protein for later use. It is important to consume a consistent amount of protein throughout the day. If you struggle to get enough protein at mealtime, a protein shake can be a great way to supplement your diet and provide your body with essential macronutrients. The exact time will be different for everyone. Think about the time of day when you have trouble getting enough protein (like in the morning or maybe a busy schedule that makes lunch difficult) – that’s the best time for you to have a protein shake.

Your Goal: Gain or Lose Weight

If your goal is to gain weight, incorporating protein shakes throughout the day and/or as a snack before bed can help you reach your total calorie and protein goals.

On the other hand, if your goal is weight loss, a protein shake can be a convenient way to fill the protein gaps in your diet. Research shows that following a high-protein diet is important when trying to lose weight, as it helps preserve lean muscle as your body composition changes.

Health and safety considerations when consuming protein shakes

Protein powders are considered a dietary supplement, which means they are not reviewed by the FDA before being sold. Therefore, you should buy one carefully and you can do this by looking for brands that have third-party certification, which ensures their quality and safety. Supplements that have third-party testing are verified to contain the ingredients on the label and are free of contaminants. These certificates often appear on the product label, so look for them before adding one to your shopping cart.

After all

If you’re looking to get the most out of your protein shake and maximize protein absorption, choose a fast-digesting protein (like whey) and mix it with water. The best time to take the shake will depend on your goals. Whether your goal is to gain muscle post-workout or promote muscle recovery, having it right after your workout is essential. If you are using a protein shake to supplement your diet and address protein gaps, drink it whenever protein intake is short during the day.

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