Author: Maria Fischer • Fact checked by: Tara D. Thies • Aug. 25, 2020
People supplement their diets with protein shakes to help them achieve a number of different fitness goals. Because these goals are so different, how — and more specifically, when — people should drink their protein shakes can vary.
So when is the best time to drink a protein shake?
The best time to drink a protein shake depends on your end-goal. If you’re drinking a protein shake to lose weight, you might drink your shake at a different time than someone who is aiming to build muscle mass.
To determine the best time for you to drink your protein shake, you first need to consider your overall goals: Is your focus on muscle building? Are you looking to lose weight? Once you pinpoint what it is that you want to achieve, you can use the information below to figure out when you should drink your protein shake, whether it’s in the morning vs. at night, after a workout vs. before a workout, etc.
If you’re looking to lose weight, a great time for you to drink your protein shake could be in the morning. That’s because protein is one of the most crucial nutrients for fat loss. Starting your day with protein can give your metabolism a boost and keep it raised all day long. Protein can also reduce your appetite throughout the day by reducing levels of the hunger hormone, ghrelin, and increasing the levels of appetite-inhibiting hormones like peptide-1, peptide YY and cholecystokinin. So if you’re working toward weight loss, then drinking a protein in the morning may help you to consume fewer calories throughout the rest of the day.
That said, if your goal is to build muscle mass and strength, then the time of day you have your protein shake may be different. Protein is important for building muscle; however, your body naturally breaks down protein during resistance training or weight lifting. So to make up for the protein that your body breaks down, it’s advised to consume extra protein (aka your protein shake) within 2 hours of your workout. That means if you work out in the morning, then it’s suggested that you have your protein shake in the morning. But if you work out at night, then it’s typically better to have a protein shake at night around the time of your workout.
Age can also play a factor in determining whether you should drink a protein shake in the morning or at night. One study suggests people can benefit from taking a protein supplement at night because when protein is consumed right before bed, it’s able to be effectively digested and absorbed to help maintain healthy muscles. Muscle tissue changes in many ways with age, so maintaining healthy muscles is especially important as you grow older. That’s why older people might want to consider adding a before-bed protein shake to their routine (however, people of a wide range of ages can benefit from nighttime shake). Another study also found that consuming certain proteins at night before sleep also positively influence next morning resting metabolic rate.
Both casein and whey are by-products of cheese production, but one of the significant differences between them is how quickly your body absorbs them. Your body breaks down protein into amino acids, which circulate in your bloodstream until they’re absorbed. When you consume whey, amino acid levels stay elevated in your blood for only 90 minutes. But when you consume casein, the levels of amino acids stay elevated for 4-5 hours. Like it does in cheesemaking, casein forms curds once it’s exposed to the acids in your stomach, which lengthens your body’s digestion and absorption processes.
If your goal is to maximize muscle growth through the night, it’s advised that you opt for casein protein before bed, as it provides your body with a slow, steady release of amino acids. Compared to whey protein, casein protein’s slow release makes it ideal before fasting situations, such as during sleep. Your body digests and absorbs whey protein much quicker, so it serves a better purpose as a workout protein.
As long as you consume protein at some time around your workout, it doesn’t matter if you drink your shake before or after. In fact, for a 2017 study, researchers split 21 men into two groups, giving both groups a protein shake containing 25 grams of protein. For 10 weeks, both groups completed a whole-body workout three times per week, but one group received their protein shake immediately before their workout, while the other group received it post-workout. At the end of the study, researchers found no significant differences in muscle strength or size between the groups, suggesting that it doesn’t matter whether you drink a protein shake before or after training — just as long as you have it within a few hours of your workout.
But exactly how many minutes before or after your workout should you drink your protein shake? You may have heard of the long-standing rumor within the fitness world that a person needs to drink their protein within 60 minutes after exercising because that was the assumed length of a person’s anabolic window — the period of time post-workout when your body gets the most out of nutrients like protein. However, recent research has shown that this window is double the amount of time previously thought. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, consuming protein any time up to two hours after your workout is ideal for performance, muscle repair and muscle growth. Muscle protein synthesis, the process in which protein is produced to repair muscle damage caused by strenuous exercise, occurs after your workout. This means protein is immediately lost as a result of exercise, but increasing your protein intake with a shake right after your workout helps replace any protein lost. The protein from your shake will shuttle the amino acids from the supplement to your muscles, and therefore enhances your muscle protein synthesis.
If you find you need a boost before exercising and not just afterward, consider taking a pre-workout supplement to ensure you’re getting the most out of your workout from start to finish. You’ll also want to make sure your diet includes the nine essential amino acids — histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine — for proper protein synthesis, tissue repair and nutrient absorption. Amino acids are the building blocks proteins, so your body needs them to build and repair itself. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are leucine, isoleucine and valine, are noted for being particularly beneficial for increasing muscle growth. These can all be found in whey protein and casein protein.
If you’ve considered the information above and have decided that drinking a protein shake in the morning best aligns with your goals, you might wonder if you could just have that protein shake as your breakfast.
Experts recommend spreading protein intake evenly across the day, meaning the average person should eat roughly 25 grams of protein per meal. Most Americans eat around three times more protein at dinner than breakfast, so consuming a protein shake for breakfast can be a smart way to evenly distribute protein intake across your meals. It’s also important for people who work out in the morning or in a fasted state (as in, before their first meal) to get in some protein early, as they haven’t consumed protein in a while.
Choosing to have a protein shake for breakfast may also depend on your flavor preferences and what you crave in the morning. If you’re someone who likes sweets or coffee first thing in the morning, then maybe a protein shake with Gainful’s Caffe Mocha or Strawberry Milkshake Flavor Boosts makes sense to have as breakfast. You can even turn your Gainful protein into a morning iced coffee using milk, Gainful protein powder, and the Caffè Mocha or Madagascar Vanilla flavor stick.
(To get your Flavor Boosts, take Gainful’s quiz to create and personalize a protein blend for your dietary needs and goals, then choose the flavors you’d like to add to your shakes. Your order will include unflavored protein and single-serving Flavor Boost sticks that you can mix in your drink to create a protein shake that satisfies your morning cravings.)
The number of protein shakes you should consume a day depends on how much protein is in each shake and how much protein you’re consuming a day from other foods. The National Academy of Medicine recommends that adults get a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight per day, or just over 7 grams for every 20 pounds of body weight. But it’s important to remember that protein shakes are to serve as supplements, so one protein shake a day should be more than enough if you’re eating healthfully and getting a majority of your protein naturally.
A warning for those with weight loss goals: Too many calories from any source — including protein — will lead to weight gain. So there is an upper limit of how much protein intake is actually beneficial. When you have your post-workout protein shake, you’ll still want to include a mix of carbs and fats for a complete snack after your workout to optimize recovery and restore your energy levels. Aim for a 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein for your post-exercise snack or meal (especially if you’ve finished an endurance workout or strenuous training session). So if you consume 20 grams of protein in your protein shake, make sure you’re also having 80 grams of carbs with it. A winning combination of protein and carbs will ensure your body can maximize protein and glycogen synthesis.
If you’re worried about “messing up” when it comes to protein shakes, don’t worry. Gainful is here to help you find a custom-made protein powder so you can get exactly what your body needs. Head here to take our quiz. Together, we’ll figure out what type of protein best suits your body type and fitness goals, the amount of protein you need, and add customizations based on your preferences. We’ll take your lifestyle into account, whether you’re someone who’s plant-based and looking for a pea protein, someone who is dairy-free, or just someone who prefers certain types of protein over others. Then we’ll send you everything you need in the perfect amounts, making sure you’re getting enough protein to achieve your goals.
And if you’re still unsure about the best time to drink your protein shake, don’t forget you have a dedicated Registered Dietitian on-hand as part of your Gainful subscription. Your R.D. is here to answer any questions about your daily nutrition, protein consumption and overall fitness goals whenever it is most convenient for you. In this case, any time is a great time to contact our in-house nutritionist with any questions about your protein shakes.
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