Are Protein Shakes Necessary When Exercising?

Forget the protein shake -- chocolate milk may be the perfect post-workout snack.

Forget the protein shake -- chocolate milk may be the perfect post-workout snack.

When everyone from fitness models to hard-bodied yogis is seen downing protein shakes, it's no wonder many women assume these drinks are as essential to exercise as a good pair of sneakers. But in most cases, protein supplements are a lot of hype without a lot of payoff. Save cash and skip the chalky aftertaste -- without missing any of the body benefits -- by relying on real foods for your post-workout fuel.

The Role of Protein After Exercise

Protein plays a key role in repairing and rebuilding the muscle tissue that’s broken down during exercise; without adequate protein, your body can’t build muscle. Beyond that, protein improves your body’s ability to absorb water from the intestines and improves muscle hydration, according to information from San Juan Unified School District. Just as important as protein during that post-workout window are carbohydrates, which your body uses to fuel a tough workout. To help your body recover and prepare for your next workout, combine both nutrients in a 4-1 ratio of carbs to protein within two hours of exercise; this increases your body's production of insulin, which helps your muscles store more glycogen for fuel.

Your Protein Requirements

Your protein needs are entirely dependent on your fitness goals, so don’t be too quick to down those protein shakes just because your triathlete husband swears by them. The average exerciser needs between 0.5 and 0.75 grams of protein per pound of body weight; if you don't strength train, your needs will be at the lower end of the scale, since your muscles don't sustain the damage seen among weight trainers. But if you make a beeline for the weight room every time you hit the gym, you'll need as much as 0.7 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound in order to see muscle gains, reports the University of Georgia.

Protein Shakes vs. Real Food

When it comes to building muscle and replenishing lost stores, protein shakes are in no way superior to whole foods; in fact, protein supplements lack the many nutrients found in regular food. Plus, it's far easier -- and tastier -- to combine your carb and protein needs in that 4-1 ratio by choosing your own snacks and drinks. According to Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, most protein shakes contain far more protein than carbohydrates, making it tough to get that recommended ratio. Instead, Bonci suggests getting the right mix of carbs and protein from a glass of chocolate milk, or from 2 tablespoons of peanut butter eaten with a banana, crackers or whole-grain bread.

Choosing a Protein Supplement

While protein shakes can’t compete with real foods nutrient for nutrient, they do have their value. Shakes and other supplements offer a quick and convenient way for you to get the carbs and protein your body needs when other sources of fuel aren’t handy. Think of protein shakes as a backup plan for those days when you just can’t get your hands on your usual post-workout snacks, whether that’s because you’re away from home or you just haven’t made it to the supermarket in a week. Read labels carefully to find a shake that gets you as close to that 4-1 ratio of carbs to protein as possible, and make sure the calorie content is appropriate for your fitness and weight goals.

Video of the Day

Brought to you by LIVESTRONG.COM
Brought to you by LIVESTRONG.COM

About the Author

Kristen Fisher is a freelance writer and editor with professional experience in both print and online media. She has published articles on a wide variety of topics including health, fitness, nutrition, home and food, and her work has appeared in "Connections Magazine" and on She graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in psychology.

Photo Credits

  • Dynamic Graphics Group/Dynamic Graphics Group/Getty Images