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Now, let’s say you’re finding it hard to get enough protein from food. That’s where protein powder can really come in handy. “If you’re not getting enough protein already, a protein supplement can be beneficial,” Gonzalez says. “Protein powders can be a great way to add more protein into the diet if you can’t meet those needs through just food,” Ansari agrees.
People who are more likely to struggle with getting enough protein through food alone include competitive athletes, older adults, people recovering from surgery or illness, and people on vegan diets, Ansari says. “Most vegans can do fine with proper meal planning,” Kitchin adds. But if you are a vegan athlete and struggling with getting enough [protein], then something like a soy protein powder can help [you] meet that.”
As for the vast majority of us, who probably don’t need protein powder, strictly nutritionally speaking? Well, given we’re not robots, there’s a lot of other factors that go into our food choices besides our dietary needs. And when you take those into account, there’s a decent chance that protein powder is a pretty sensible choice for you.
Mainly, you can’t overstate the convenience factor of the chuggable, portable, lightweight, takes-two-seconds-to-make shake. “Protein powders are great for convenience,” says Ansari, which is why she has no objections to her busy student athletes who are running from training to class using protein powder. Basically, protein powder is the lowest-effort, highest-efficiency way to be sure you’re getting enough protein with a single scoop. (BTW, if you really want to be efficient AF here, consider opting for whey protein powder. According to the ISSN, research shows that whey has a slight edge on the other types when it comes to that MPS response, likely due to its “optimal amino acid profile,” Gonzalez explains—though it may not make a noticeable difference for most people, Kitchin says.)
When you consume your protein actually matters.
If you’re someone who drinks protein shakes in order to get enough protein to maximize your gym gains, you probably chug one right after your workouts. And while that’s not a bad idea, there’s an even more important rule when it comes to timing your protein intake: It’s crucial to space out your protein intake throughout the day.
“Protein is vital after a workout,” Ansari says. “But it is important for people to know that more [all at once] is not necessarily better.”
The amount of protein your muscles can absorb after working out varies, depending on factors like how much you exercised and your body composition, Ansari says. The Academy/DC/ACSM all recommend consuming 15 to 25 grams of protein (or 0.25 to 0.3 grams per kilogram of body weight) within two hours after your workout to maximize MPS, while the ISSN recommends getting 20 to 40 grams (or 0.25 grams per kilogram of body weight).
If you’re looking for an easy-to-remember rule, aim for something in the neighborhood of 20 to 30 grams of protein after a workout. (Or if you want to be more precise, about it, 11% to 14% of your body weight in pounds.) So in terms of food, that could be a 7-ounce container of 2% fat plain Greek yogurt (20 grams) of protein; a 4-ounce chicken breast (27 g); or a scoop of protein powder. (The amount varies depending on the product, but many contain 20 to 25 grams or so per serving, like this whey variety and this soy one.)
Now, if you’re trying to help your sore muscles soak up as much protein as they can, then experts also recommend getting about that same amount of protein every few hours on top of your postgym hit (every three to five hours, per the Academy/DC/ACSM; every three hours or so, per the ISSN). “Consuming adequate protein throughout the day, not just after a workout, is essential to optimizing [MPS],” Linsenmeyer explains. “In other words, muscle protein synthesis is greater when you consume adequate protein at breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” as opposed to, say, two low-protein meals and then a 50-gram protein shake after exercising.