Do I Need a Protein Shake?

014002-00030P SSSI Expertise-08_05_2016














By Lizzie Kuckuk
Registered Dietician, Sanford Sports Science Institute

Many athletes turn to a post-workout protein shake or supplement to try to get the most out of their workouts. Those bars and powders may pack a powerful protein punch and are convenient for busy athletes to grab on-the-go, but taking a closer look at sports nutrition recommendations for athletes and pre- and post-workout nutrition guidelines shows that those products may not be for everyone.

Taking a look at the whole diet is going to be more beneficial than just adding in a shake post-workout.

  • Drinking a post-workout protein shake isn’t going to make up for the rest of an athlete’s diet if they’re not paying attention to what goes on their plate the rest of the day. Improving overall diet is the first step an athlete should take before considering supplements.
  • Studies have shown that eating high-quality protein across the day and following difficult workouts can help promote muscle growth and recovery.
  • If that post-workout protein shake is the biggest source of protein in an athlete’s day, they should be working on eating protein at each meal and snack, starting with breakfast.
  • This doesn’t mean timing isn’t important – an athlete’s post workout snack of meal should contain 15-25 grams of protein to promote muscle growth, strength and improve recovery, but they shouldn’t neglect protein at the rest of the meals just because they had a post-workout snack or meal.

Many athletes focus on protein, but may not know how much they need each day or may need more carbohydrates than they’re eating in their post-workout snack. 

  • The recommended amount of protein for the average adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. Athletes need even more than this – the recommendation ranges from 1.2 to 2 grams per kilogram of body weight.
  • Every athlete is different, and working with a dietitian can help athletes determine how much protein they need in their diet and how to meet that goal. Factors such as types of workouts they’re doing, energy expenditure and calorie needs, and carbohydrate availability are important – there is no one-size-fits-all number for all athletes.
  • Some athletes may need more than just protein powder mixed with water in that post-workout shake – eating protein and carbohydrate together post-workout may be a better option for many athletes, especially if the workout is over an hour.

Post-workout snacks and meals don’t have to be supplement shakes and bars.

  • There’s nothing that says protein powders and bars do anything special, so protein-rich foods can do the same job as those products. An added bonus to eating protein-rich foods, such as eggs, nuts and seeds, meat, fish, beans, tofu/soy products, quinoa, nut butters and dairy as tolerated is that they not only contain protein, but also contain important vitamins and minerals athletes need to optimize physical performance.
  • Athletes should be relying on whole, nutrient-rich foods most of the time and save protein bars and shakes for last resort options or when they’re traveling. Athletes should plan ahead to make sure you have a post-workout snack or meal ready, because if they can make time to train, they can make time to prepare snacks.
  • Instead of that bar or powder, athletes can try one of these whole food post-workout snacks or meals that contain protein and carbohydrates.
    • Snacks are needed when an athlete won’t get a real meal for a couple hours: Greek yogurt with a handful of berries or granola, 2-3 hardboiled eggs and a banana, 1/2 a peanut butter and jelly, tuna with whole grain crackers, homemade smoothie made with milk, yogurt and berries, 1 cup of cottage cheese with fruit, 1-1 1/2 cups chocolate milk, 1 serving of whole grain cereal with a cup of milk,  apple with almonds, or pack up a smaller portion of leftovers from dinner as a snack.
    • If an athlete is going home right away after their workout (within an hour) or packs food with them, they have a lot more options. They should focus on getting in some quality carbohydrates (brown rice, whole grain bread, sweet potatoes, potatoes, quinoa, fruit, beans), 15-25 grams of protein (chicken, deli meat, tuna/sardines, other fish such as salmon, eggs, dairy products, tofu, etc.) and plenty of healthy vegetables on their plate.

Lastly, if an athlete decides a protein powder is right for them, they should recognize that the supplement industry isn’t tightly regulated. 

The supplement industry isn’t regulated by the FDA, so supplements aren’t guaranteed to be safe, or be guaranteed to contain the ingredients they list on the label. Athletes have even fallen victim to ingesting a banned substance without knowing that the product contained the substance. Athletes who add protein supplements to their diet should check to make sure they’re NSF Certified for Sport, or check with the dietitian to make sure their product has been tested to be safe/not contain any banned substances.

If you have questions about supplements, have a supplement you’re unsure about, or want to know more about healthy ways to add protein to your diet, call the Sanford Sports Science Institute dietitian at 605-312-7878 or e-mail her at!