Quick, convenient and delicious, protein shakes offer the perfect solution for a post-workout replenishing snack or when your schedule doesn't leave time for a sit-down meal. All you need is a blender, some protein and a few common ingredients taken right out of your refrigerator and cupboards. With a bit of planning and smart shopping, you can also make your protein shakes uber-healthy.
The protein supplement you choose as the foundation of your protein shake should contain all nine essential amino acids, advises Dr. Virginia Uhley, nutritionist with the Department of Integrative Medicine at the University of Michigan. Egg, soy, whey and casein proteins present good options that offer high-quality protein with a neutral flavor. Use one or a combination of these as a base to build your own signature recipe that combines your favorite fruits, spices and other flavorings in just the right amounts. Whey protein, found in the liquid left over from cheese-making, absorbs more quickly than other forms of protein, making it good to use right after a workout to promote muscle repair. Casein, another milk protein, digests more slowly. Use casein protein in the evening to feed your muscles while you sleep. Soy is a great vegetarian option that also provides hormone-balancing phytoestrogens. Look for products that supply about 20 to 24 grams of protein per scoop.
Fruit provides the yum factor in your protein shakes. Soft fruits like bananas are always a good choice because they blend up easily and add a lot of flavor. To reign in the calorie and sugar content, choose fruits on the lower end of the glycemic scale -- an index that measures how quickly a carbohydrate food digests and turns into sugar. Cherries, peaches and plums all provide flavor and texture with less sugar. The sweet smoothness of bananas pairs well with a fruit that might lend a slightly tart flavor, such as strawberries. Crisp fruits, such as apples and pears, can be baked or poached to soften them before blending, or experiment with different textures by adding them raw.
A dash of cinnamon, ginger or clove adds sweetness and intensifies the flavor of your protein shakes without adding calories. Cinnamon is high in manganese, and helps lower blood sugar levels, according to Michigan State University Extension Service, which recommends consuming about a teaspoon of cinnamon a day. Ginger keeps inflammation in check, provides antioxidant benefits and may help ward off infections. Clove contains a compound that reduces inflammation and helps detoxify your body.
Check off a serving or two of your daily vegetable quota by adding a handful of greens to contribute vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that take your protein shake to the next level of nutritional goodness. Delicate-leafed greens, such as spinach, blend easily, and, except for turning your smoothie a lovely shade of green, you might not notice they're there. Cilantro also blends easily, but adds a decidedly stronger flavor. If you have a high-powered blender, kale, collard greens and broccoli work well, too.
To give your protein shakes a rich, creamy texture, you'll want to include a selection of healthy fats. Drop in an avocado, which consists of 70 percent polyunsaturated oleic and linoleic acids that may guard against breast cancer. Other options include a handful of walnuts, known to lower cholesterol levels, or a tablespoon of ground flaxseeds, which protect against heart disease and arthritis. The flavor and health benefits of these foods far outweigh the calorie counts. If you are on a weight-loss diet, consult your doctor or nutritionist to help you determine the correct portion sizes.
- University of Michigan Medical School: Protein Supplements
- Nova Southeastern University: Cool off with a Green Smoothie
- Michigan State University Extension: Cinnamon for Health
- Pennington Biomedical Research Center: Ginger -- A Potent Root
- The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods; Michael T. Murray and Joseph Pizzorno
- UCLA Botany Department: The Guacamole Tree
- Michigan State University Extension: Walnuts: One of Mother Nature’s Healthy Snacks
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Flaxseed
- Bastyr University: The Amazing Avocado
Tracey Roizman, DC is a writer and speaker on natural and preventive health care and a practicing chiropractor. She also holds a B.S. in nutritional biochemistry.