Protein powder is a staple supplement for many individuals, not just bodybuilders and physique athletes of yesteryear. These days, functional foods that are “high” in protein are enormously popular, though you should know that a lot of foods claim to be “high” in protein, but that really doesn’t hold a lot of water. For instance, quinoa is labeled as a food that’s high in protein, but per ¼ (uncooked) serving it contains a paltry 6-7 grams of protein while delivering 170 calories.
Contrast that with the OG “high protein” functional food, protein powder (which contains 20-25 grams of protein per serving for only 110-160 calories), and you really start to understand what a “high protein” food should be.
Tangent aside, protein powder has broadened its reach finding a home in the pantries of everyday individuals that may or may not be serious about their workouts. High-level business executives, stay-at-home parents, college students, and more are recognizing the importance of protein, and protein powder offers a convenient, affordable, and delicious option for meeting your protein requirements each and every day.
But, when should you take protein powder? Is there an “ideal” time to drink a protein shake, or is it more a matter of getting enough protein each day.
Why is Protein Important?
Protein is an essential macronutrient, which means that you cannot survive long-term without protein. It contains various amino acids (including essential amino acids and BCAAs) which serve as the building blocks your body uses for hundreds of biological processes, including:
- Muscle repair
- Wound healing
- Hormone synthesis
- Neurotransmitter production
- Tissue repair (e.g. hair, skin & nails)
Without sufficient protein intake, the body’s ability to perform these life-sustaining functions is severely compromised.
If you’re a highly active individual then consuming adequate daily protein is even more important as not only do you need to consume enough protein for basic physiological functions -- you also need to supply additional amino acids to support the body’s muscle recovery and growth processes.
How Much Protein Should I Eat Per Day?
For serious gym and fitness enthusiasts, a protein intake of 1-1.2 grams per pound bodyweight per day is recommended by researchers.
For physique athletes preparing for the stage or individuals embarking on a transformation challenge, a protein intake of 1.2-1.4 grams per pound per day is recommended to protect against muscle loss amidst a severe calorie deficit.
When to Take Protein Powder
We’ll keep things simple, at first, and say that it’s far more important to consume enough total protein each day than it is to worry about when to take protein powder.
With that said, researchers have shown that being smart with your protein intake can go a long way to reducing soreness, improving recovery, and enhancing results.
Ideally, you would spread your protein intake evenly throughout the day across 3-5 meals/snacks. This helps to provide a series of robust protein “pulses” that keep the body’s protein-hungry processes (i.e. muscle repair and recovery) chugging along smoothly.
For protein powder, many individuals choose to consume it immediately after exercise as their post-workout shake. And, truth be told, this makes sense. Intense exercise creates microtears in muscle fibers, and, post-workout, the body is yearning for nutrition to repair the damage and kickstart the recovery and growth process.
In years past, this immediate period following a workout was termed the “anabolic window,” and it was believed that failing to consume protein shortly after training would all but “waste” your efforts in the gym and leave you as a catabolic weakling.
However, exercise scientists and protein researchers have found that the anabolic “window” the immediacy with which you need to consume your post-workout protein shake depends on several factors, including how hard your workout was, when you had your pre-workout meal, and how much protein have you already consumed during the day.
Now, having a post-workout protein shake won’t “hurt” your results (far from it). At the same time, if you had a high-protein meal an hour or two before your workout, you don’t need to race home to slam a protein shake for fear that you will “lose” your gains.
This harkens back to the point we made at the beginning of this section -- consuming enough total protein each day is considerably more important than when to take protein powder.
For individuals seeking to optimize results from training and support muscle growth and recovery, consuming a post-workout shake is a great option. For the casual fitness enthusiast as well as those more focused on hitting their macros and living a relatively healthy lifestyle, have your protein shake whenever is most convenient for your daily schedule (breakfast, dinner, pre-bed snack, etc.).
Types of Protein Powder
As you might expect, with the drastic surge in popularity (and demand) for protein powder have come a sharp increase in the types of protein powders available. While whey protein has (and continues) to be the top-selling protein powder, other types of protein powder have emerged, including:
- Milk protein powder
- Egg white protein powder
- Pea protein
- Brown rice protein
- Sunflower seed protein
- Casein protein
In addition to being sold individually, blends of different protein powders can also be found, including whey protein blends (concentrate + isolate), whey/casein blends, whey/egg/casein blends, plant protein/vegan blends (e.g. pea + soy, pea + sunflower seed, etc.).
As for the “best” protein powder, you should focus on high-quality protein sources that contain all nine essential amino acids (EAAs). These are also known as complete proteins.
Animal-based proteins, including whey, casein, and egg protein powder, are complete proteins as are certain plant-based proteins -- pea protein and certain blends, such as 1UP Vegan protein.
Protein is essential for healthy living and making the most from your efforts in the gym. Not only does it support muscle recovery and growth, it also lays the foundation for your hair, skin, and nails as well as your organs, digestion, immune system and hormone production.
While it is possible to get enough protein from “whole foods” such as chicken, lean beef, pork, eggs, etc., sometimes you’re short on time, don’t feel like cooking, and/or you just want something quick and easy…that’s also nutritious and budget-friendly.
Protein powder offers an ideal option to help meet your protein needs pre-workout, post-workout, for breakfast, or any other time during the day. And, if you need help figuring out how much protein you need each day, download the 1UP Fitness App, available on Apple and Android devices, where you’ll receive personalized nutrition and training for your preferences and lifestyle.
- Jäger R, Kerksick CM, Campbell BI, Cribb PJ, Wells SD, Skwiat TM, Purpura M, Ziegenfuss TN, Ferrando AA, Arent SM, Smith-Ryan AE, Stout JR, Arciero PJ, Ormsbee MJ, Taylor LW, Wilborn CD, Kalman DS, Kreider RB, Willoughby DS, Hoffman JR, Krzykowski JL, Antonio J. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Jun 20;14:20. doi: 10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8. PMID: 28642676; PMCID: PMC5477153.