Jan 29, 2015
Packing Protein

Regardless of which form it comes in, the various protein beverages on the market can have a positive effect on athlete performance. A sports dietitian explains all.

By Susan Kundrat

Susan Kundrat, MS, RD, CSSD, is the Program Director of the Nutritional Sciences bachelor’s program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the former Sports Dietitian for the University of Illinois. She is also the co-founder of RK Team Nutrition and owner of Nutrition on the Move. She can be reached through the RK Team Nutrition Web site at: www.rkteamnutrition.net.

Shakes, smoothies, powders, ready-to-drink. Protein beverages are everywhere, and most of them are marketed to athletes.

With extensive research on protein and its role in athletic performance being conducted over the past few years, it would make sense that athletes are more interested than ever in how supplementing their diet with protein beverages may help them gain an advantage over their opponents.

But how should an athlete decide which protein beverage is right for them? With so many brands, flavors, and types of proteins or protein combinations, the choices can be mind- boggling.


Studies on the role protein plays in athletic performance have found that protein can boost lean muscle mass gains, enhance exercise recovery, and may even help with weight loss and maintenance. Let’s take a closer look at the research.

Lean muscle gain: Strength athletes especially are often looking to gain lean muscle for stronger, more efficient bodies. Think about football linemen. These athletes want to be large, but it’s important that they are also strong. If offensive and defensive linemen who are the same size meet each other at the line of scrimmage, the one who has more lean muscle mass will beat the one who has more body fat.

Maximizing muscle gains requires a sound training program, ample calories (500 to 1,000 calories per day above maintenance needs), and optimal protein intake throughout the day. Protein requirements for strength athletes range from 1.4 to two grams per kilogram of body weight per day. It can sometimes be tough for an athlete to ingest that much protein through whole foods, so protein beverages can be good supplementation.

In addition to the total intake of protein, many researchers believe that the timing of it is a key component to building lean mass. Optimizing protein intake means ingesting 20 to 30 grams at a time, every three to four hours during the day. Many protein beverages provide this amount of protein per serving and are portable, so drinking one a few times a day is a good way to ensure proper intake.

Recovery enhancement: We have learned a lot about how important recovery is over the years, and nutrition plays a big role in that process. It’s important for athletes to get recovery foods on board during the 30-minute window after a workout. Protein beverages are a fast, easy way to get some of those necessary nutrients.

Several studies have found that ingesting protein and carbohydrates instead of carbohydrates alone following resistance training can help enhance recovery by better stimulating muscle protein synthesis. Anywhere between six and 30 grams of protein may provide this benefit, especially if the protein is high in quality, like whey protein.

“We utilize recovery shakes containing 20 to 27 grams of protein and a 3:1 or 2:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein per serving,” says Jen Ketterly, MS, RD, Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Georgia. “We make them available to athletes following strength workouts, at certain day-long competitions, or as post-game recovery fuel. Although we also utilize gels and chews, shakes are typically able to deliver more protein. And for a lot of athletes, shakes are easier to consume post-workout than a bar because they don’t have strong appetites but crave something cold.”

Weight loss and maintenance: Not all athletes are looking to lose weight, or even maintain, but for those who are, protein may help. Calorie for calorie, protein can help people feel full longer than carbohydrates and fats. A greater feeling of satiety means feeling less hungry and thereby causes a decrease in overall calorie intake and eventually body weight.

One recent study that compared a high-protein diet to high-carbohydrate and high-fat diets found that participants on the high-carb or high-fat diets both had 14-percent stronger appetites before meals than those on the high-protein plan. Research has also shown that the type of weight lost on high-protein diets versus high-carbohydrate or high-fat diets is different. Less lean mass and more body fat is lost on high-protein, calorie-restricted diets–exactly what athletes who are looking to lose or maintain weight want.


Protein beverages come in many varieties, and though the versatility can be a big plus when athletes are picky, the options can be overwhelming. It’s also sometimes hard to understand what the different ingredients do, and safety and NCAA compliance is a concern for college athletes.

The majority of protein beverages boast a milk-based protein (most often whey) as the primary protein source. Milk-based protein powders usually provide between 15 and 30 grams of protein per serving and can be mixed with milk, juice, or water, or blended into a smoothie or shake.

The lactose level varies depending on the type and amount of the protein source. For example, whey protein isolate is the most pure and concentrated form of whey protein, and contains very little lactose, so it is the milk protein of choice for athletes who are lactose intolerant.

Whey protein is often considered the “gold standard” of proteins because of its high biological value. Overall, whey protein contains a very high dose of essential amino acids. It also has high levels of branched chain amino acids (BCAA) leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Because BCAAs serve as direct precursors for muscle energy production, they are an important energy source for athletes.

Casein is another common protein of choice for athletes and makes up about 80 percent of milk proteins. While athletes may choose whey protein for recovery and quick response, casein can be mixed into a drink before bed to offer a more slowly digested amino acid release over time.

Athletes who need a vegetarian or vegan protein beverage usually turn to soy protein, which is found in ready-to-drink or powder form and can be added to smoothies, juice, or water. Soy protein is a complete protein like whey, containing all of the essential amino acids needed for protein building and repair. However, it is absorbed more slowly than whey. One serving typically provides 10 to 20 grams of protein.

Rice protein and hemp protein are two more good protein options for vegetarians and vegans. Each contains 10 to 15 grams of protein per serving, usually in a ready-to-mix powdered form. As a bonus, some of these types of proteins are also high in fiber and natural phytochemicals.

Along with protein, most beverages have other ingredients, too. When shopping around, athletes should check labels closely. Many protein powders also contain substances such as creatine, herbs, androgenic compounds, or additional amino acids that may or may not be permitted by the NCAA (or other governing bodies). When weighing options, I would suggest the following:

– Look for protein beverages that have been certified by governing bodies, such as NSF International.

– Research products using well-respected resources such as the National Center for Drug Free Sport, ConsumerLab.com, and the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database to help determine the safety and efficacy of the product.

– Research the company to make sure it has a solid record of clean products and that the ingredients listed on the label are indeed the ingredients found in the product.

– Check with the manufacturer for quality assurance and safety information about the product.

– Choose a protein beverage marketed as a food with a nutrition facts label. These standards are set by the Food and Drug Administration and can be trusted.

– Check the label to be sure the ingredients are not on the NCAA’s or your respective governing body’s banned list. For example, while protein may be added to a supplement, NCAA rules prohibit specific amino acids.

For professionals working with NCAA Division I and II athletes, it’s important that you understand the NCAA bylaw about supplements. For these schools, the bylaw says that athletic departments can provide athletes with supplements (bars, beverages, gels, etc.), but they must contain no more than 30 percent of their calories from protein or artificial, non-whole food sources. The bylaw also disallows amino acids or amino acid chelates.

All in all, if athletes decide to purchase ready-made beverages or a powder, they should look for high-quality proteins (such as whey, soy, and casein) with few additional ingredients. From a safety standpoint, the fewer ingredients, the better. If the athlete is trying to limit calories, unflavored or unsweetened versions are best. And in addition to finding a clean product, taste is imperative for athletes. They should like the overall taste and consistency so they can use the product consistently enough to make a difference in their performance.


Once an athlete has decided which protein beverage to try, how should they implement it into their diet? The answer depends on whether they are aiming to use the beverage for recovery, weight control, or lean muscle gain.

Most athletes who supplement with protein beverages drink them after workouts for recovery. An athlete’s overall recovery meal should aim for an average carbohydrate-to-protein ratio of 3:1. For example, a whey protein powder mixed with water, milk, juice, or a smoothie contains 100 calories, 20 grams of protein, and five grams of carbohydrate. Drinking it with 16 ounces of a sports drink that contains 28 grams of carbohydrate is a great start. Along with a large banana that contains 27 grams of carbohydrate, the athlete would be right on target: 20 grams of protein and 60 grams of carbohydrate.

It is important that athletes who are supplementing with protein beverages after workouts not lose sight of the importance of the entire recovery meal. Some may focus so much on protein that they miss the carbohydrates necessary to maximize glycogen recovery. For example, athletes who are concerned about calories can ingest a 100-calorie, 20-gram protein drink with a lower-carbohydrate fruit such as an orange. Then, within the next hour, eat a light meal such as a salad with grilled chicken, a whole grain roll, and a cup of strawberries. This way, they are still eating lean, but getting a great balance of macronutrients plus key vitamins and minerals on a lower-calorie plan.

If an athlete is looking to lose weight or maintain, protein beverages are a great option when the athlete is feeling hungry. We know that protein helps people feel satiated longer, which means they will take in fewer overall calories.

For those trying to gain lean weight, adding a whey protein that can be mixed into a homemade smoothie with milk or juice is a great option. Then, the next meal can be higher in carbohydrates and moderate in protein to boost overall calories. An ideal meal is pasta and meat sauce, steamed vegetables, whole grain bread, and two glasses of 100-percent fruit juice. This provides more than 1,000 calories and enough protein to help maximize lean mass.

Consuming protein beverages can be an excellent way to boost overall calories for lean muscle mass gains, enhance recovery, help athletes who want to lose or maintain weight, and even provide a quick snack during the day. As with any supplementation, the key is to continue eating a well balanced, nutrient-rich diet.

Sidebar: ON A BUDGET

Ready-to-drink single serving beverages can start to get expensive pretty quickly. Athletic departments have a budget that allows them to buy in bulk, which helps lower costs considerably, but for athletes buying on their own, the story is quite a bit different. Take a look:

– Milk: 2.5 cents per gram of protein – Chocolate milk: 3.5 cents per gram of protein – Protein powder (without a carbohydrate source to mix): 4.0 cents per gram of protein – Ready-to-drink single-serving protein beverage: 6.3 cents per gram of protein.

One solution for avoiding any issues with impermissible ingredients is for athletes to make their own protein beverages at home. The following recipes have an ideal carbohydrate-to-protein ratio, and include quality proteins and additional antioxidants for recovery purposes:

Blend three-quarters of a cup of vanilla Greek yogurt with half a cup of cherry juice, half a banana, half a cup of frozen dark cherries, and ice. Nutrition analysis: 275 calories, 55 grams carbohydrate, 15 grams protein, zero grams fat, 3.7:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio.

Blend one 20-gram scoop of vanilla flavored whey protein with one cup of orange juice, one cup of frozen unsweetened peaches, and ice. Nutrition analysis: 325 calories, 62 grams carbohydrate, 20 grams protein, zero grams fat, 3.1:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio.

Another idea is to consider chocolate milk at least some of the time. Chocolate milk is an ideal recovery beverage because it contains a mix of high-quality proteins (whey and casein), naturally boasts a beneficial carbohydrate-to-protein ratio because of the added sugar, and is considerably less expensive than pre-packaged protein beverages. One cup of chocolate milk provides eight to nine grams of protein and 120 (skim), 150 (one percent), or 180 (two percent) calories. For non-dairy drinkers, flavored soy milk is a great option.


A lot of protein beverages are marketed to athletes, and for good reason, but there is another population that can benefit greatly from what they have to offer: older adults. One-third of the U.S. population is now age 55 or older, and protein can be a key to optimal health for this group–especially if they are still active.

The average loss of muscle mass is approximately 0.5 percent to one percent per year, beginning at age 40. Research has pointed to a high-protein diet being a key factor in helping preserve lean mass during these years. Sufficient protein intake helps maintain rates of protein turnover, which aids in the building and repair of tissue, as well as maintenance of muscle protein.

Taking in 25 to 30 grams of high quality protein at each meal is an important strategy for aiding in the maintenance of lean mass. Other plusses are that protein beverages are easy to digest, require no chewing, and can pack a big nutritional punch in small volumes.

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