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Ep. 12 – The Truth About Protein Shakes: Are They Bad for You?

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Here’s the twelfth podcast of Vegetarian Health and Longevity from Hurry The Food Up and Sports Nutritionist James LeBaigue.

According to Forbes, the protein supplement industry is worth $28 billion dollars in 2024.

There are huge industries built around this and so many people use these protein supplements. But what I care about are the details.

Is it all marketing, or are there some actual benefits to including protein shakes in your diet? And why are they even important anyway and get so much attention?

What good could a protein shake do for you and why do people even consider them in the first place?

In today’s podcast episode I’m going to cover all of this and more, including my experience working as a sport nutritionist and on a 1:1 basis with clients to help them improve their diet.

By the end you’ll have learned what protein shakes are and why you should, or shouldn’t, include them in your diet.

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The global protein supplement industry is absolutely huge, so huge that it kind of blows my mind, and it’s only expected to grow further in the coming years.

But why is there so much fuss about them?

Before we jump in, I want to make a clear distinction on what I’m talking about today.

Protein supplements cover all forms of food where protein is an additional aim; so this could be protein bars, protein cookies, and protein shakes.

I’m going to specifically focus on protein shakes because they are the main protein supplement that I would love people to understand and get right.

And I know that this is a subject that lots of people struggle with, and I’ve seen it countless times with 1:1 clients that I’ve worked with and also with people who join our Hurry The Food Up meal plans.

There’s a lot of confusion around them and I’m going to demystify this by the end of the episode. We should start with talking about what protein shakes even are, because it sets the scene for the rest of the episode.

What is a Protein Shake?

Protein shakes are essentially beverages that provide a concentrated source of protein. They come in various forms, including powders you mix with water or milk, ready-to-drink shakes, and even clear, juice-like versions.

The primary goal of these shakes is to offer a convenient and efficient way to increase your protein intake, and as we’ll explore, there might be various reasons why that’s helpful.

You might see protein shakes marketed with various claims, promising everything from muscle growth to weight loss.

It’s important to understand that while they might be beneficial in certain scenarios, they are not a magic solution but, as the broad umbrella term suggests, a supplement to a balanced diet.

Why is Protein Important?

The reason why there’s such a focus on protein is because it has been proven through scientific research to have multiple benefits on health.

It plays a crucial role in our bodies, acting as the building blocks for our muscles, tissues, and organs.

Amino acids, the basic units of protein, are vital for many bodily functions, including hormone production, immune responses, and muscle maintenance.

While many people know about it and relate it to muscle, it’s so important in our basic physiological functions and we couldn’t live without it.

As we age, protein becomes even more crucial. Maintaining muscle mass becomes increasingly important for overall health and mobility.

Ensuring an adequate protein intake can help preserve muscle and support independence, maintain or improve your metabolism, and through these, promote longevity.

Muscle Loss and Aging

Muscle loss with aging, also known as sarcopenia, is a common issue that can lead to decreased strength, mobility issues, and a higher risk of falls and fractures.

By prioritizing protein in your diet and including resistance or strength training, you can help counteract these effects and maintain a higher quality of life.

We know that protein also helps with satiety with eating, which is great from a weight management point of view.

Higher protein diets tend to make people feel more full and satisfied with their meals, which decreases the risk of overeating and can help with weight loss plans.

So in a nutshell, this is why protein is important, but not specifically why protein shakes might be useful.

Before we dive into that, let’s first go through the different types of protein shakes, because there’s a variety of them available which all cater to different dietary preferences and needs.

Types of Protein Shakes

Probably the most common protein shake is a whey protein one. Derived from milk, whey is a complete protein containing all essential amino acids. It’s not suitable for those who are lactose intolerant or following a vegan diet.

There are various plant-based protein shakes, such as soy or pea protein. Soy protein is also a complete protein, and is a staple of a vegan diet.

Pea protein is often combined with other plant protein sources like rice or chickpea protein, to give a full complement of amino acids and also branched-chain amino acids like leucine, which is important for muscle maintenance.

Finally, there’s a fairly new variety of protein shakes which are becoming popular, especially in the summer months.

They’re called clear protein shakes, and they are designed to be lighter, more refreshing alternatives to the classic creamy protein shakes.

The easiest way to describe them is that they should resemble a juice or flavored water.

Potential Benefits of Protein Shakes

Ok, so now you know a little about the different types of protein shakes, let’s go through why someone might want to include them in their diet.

Before we do though, I should say that there are some downsides and caveats here, which we’ll go through afterwards.

If you think back to the basic function of a protein shake providing an easily digestible source of protein, then you’ll be able to start tying these in as we go.

The first focuses on the fact that protein shakes are quick and easy to prepare, making them a practical choice for busy lifestyles.

Whether you’re rushing out the door in the morning or need a quick post-workout recovery option, a protein shake can be an easy way of getting protein in and so convenience is a valid reason.

I know that I’ve had those weeks where making food can really seem like a chore.

Practical Benefits

Prepping meals in advance, cooking healthily, having something after a training session. It’s not easy, and those times having a protein shake is actually a big relief.

The cool thing is that then actually improves my diet overall, because I hit my protein goals but actually have a bit more brain power to focus on my main meals, meaning they’re full of lovely, fresh, healthful ingredients.

The second potential benefit is that they offer a substantial amount of protein in a single serving, which can be beneficial for those struggling to meet their protein needs through food alone or those who are, for example, in a calorie deficit to try to lose weight.

It means you can get a large amount of protein in one go without additional calories from fat and carbohydrates, which is helpful for hitting your calorie targets.

Restricted Diets

The third is especially important for those of you listening to this podcast, and it’s because it can help those who follow restricted diets, such as a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Protein shakes can help ensure adequate protein intake without needing to consume large quantities of food, and make it easier to hit your protein goals with the narrower range of plant-based food options available.

The fourth is something I am super passionate about because of how important it is to age in a healthy way, maintaining muscle to help you carry out daily functional movements like walking up hills, to playing with your kids or grandkids.

As we age, our protein requirements increase to help maintain muscle mass and overall health.

This means we have to consume more protein compared to when we were younger to trigger the same response, and protein shakes can be a simple way to boost intake.

Health and Aging

This is particularly crucial for women over 40, as maintaining muscle mass can help improve metabolic health, support bone density, help with weight management, and keep you more physically active.

Now clearly there are some really positive benefits there to protein shakes, and if you’re anything like me you probably listened to that thinking it makes total sense to include them in your diet.

However, it’s only fair that I cover some of the potential downsides to protein shakes so that you can make an informed decision about whether to use them.

High-quality protein shakes can be expensive, especially if used regularly, so it’s important to consider whether the cost fits into your budget, even more so if you plan to use them long-term.

Potential Drawbacks of Protein Shakes

Now of course you can get very cheap protein shakes from online suppliers, and these might be ok.

But personally, I’d always buy from a reputable supplier with an excellent track record, because I want to minimize the chance that I’m putting anything odd or unusual into my body.

This actually links with the second potential downside which is that there is a risk of contamination with other ingredients or harmful substances.

Protein shakes fall in a weird food category where they are often not particularly well regulated, which means they could be made in the same manufacturing line as, for argument’s sake, a supplement that contains anabolic steroids to help people grow huge amounts of muscle mass.

There’s a potential that these substances could be included in your protein shake, so you need to be aware of this, especially if you’re buying a cheap protein shake.

Safety Considerations

If you’re particularly keen or are involved in competitive sport, you can buy protein shakes that have been tested by third parties to reduce the risk of any substance contamination.

I’m not saying this to sound scary or put you off them, I just think it’s super important to really understand what you’re consuming.

The final potential drawback to using protein shakes is perhaps the most important in my opinion.

My stance on protein shakes and something I always talk about when I work 1:1 with clients is that I want them to understand more about their diet first.

What I don’t want is for people to use protein shakes because they have no idea about the protein content in other foods and not understand

how they could hit their protein requirements without using a shake. So for example, how much low-fat Greek yogurt or cottage cheese is the equivalent to a protein shake?

Understanding Your Diet

Could you eat that with some berries instead, which might be way more satisfying and appealing?

Or would it be better to just have a regular meal after your gym session with wholegrain carbohydrates and tofu, and get everything you need in one go?

It’s not to say it’s wrong to use a protein shake but I like to start with understanding how you could get protein through other sources and then use protein shakes if it fits your lifestyle better and you make an informed choice about it.

In essence, protein shakes are literally just powdered forms of protein, and for this reason, they’re not specifically good or bad, and I would see them more as just a food group to choose from.

Context is far more important here, in particular how a protein shake fits into your overall diet. As some personal experience here, I use protein shakes but not every day.

Sometimes I’ll use a protein shake because it fits around my schedule but other days I’d prefer to eat a normal meal, and that’s totally fine.


This ties in with learning what works for you, and if you understand where you can get your protein from then you can have this flexibility to your diet.

In summary, protein shakes can be a convenient and effective way to boost protein intake, particularly for vegetarians and those over 40.

They offer a practical solution to meet increased protein needs, support muscle maintenance, and could enhance overall health.

However, they should complement, not replace, a balanced diet rich in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and wholegrain carbohydrates.

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