You’ve likely been told at some point that protein powder is something you should include in your diet. But the truth is, most of us aren’t sure why, when, or how much to use. After all, with so many different varieties on the market, serving sizes and instructions can vary on a case-by-case basis.
According to registered dietitian Carissa Galloway, who is also a personal trainer and Premier Protein nutrition consultant, protein powder can indeed enhance a healthy lifestyle. The key is to be strategic about how you incorporate it into your routine—and to balance it out with your daily meals and snacks.
Why use protein powder?
While consuming whole protein—like chicken, eggs, or quinoa—is essential for a healthy lifestyle, it’s not always easy to work into a busy schedule. Especially since you have a fairly narrow window following workouts to refuel and start the muscle repair process.
“When you add protein powder to your post-workout routine, you are making sure your body has the building blocks it needs to give you maximum gains from your hard work,” Galloway says. “The amino acids that protein provides are what your body uses to rebuild and strengthen, which in time can be seen as gains in muscular strength or endurance.”
According to Galloway, protein powder can boost any diet but you’ll see the most benefits when you swap it in for a post-workout snack or meal that otherwise wasn’t protein-based, or was higher in saturated fat and carbs (like chips). “These small improvements in your diet can make a big impact in the long run,” she says.
But what if you can’t get to it immediately post-sweat—is protein powder as beneficial long after your workout? According to Galloway, you don’t want to wait too long. “Consume a high-quality protein powder within 90 minutes of your workout in order to see the most benefits towards your recovery, in particular muscle synthesis,” she says.
What makes a high-quality protein powder?
Since there are so many protein powders and pre-mixed drinks on the market, it can be tricky to know which are best for you. Galloway offers a few guidelines:
1. Check the ingredients
“If your goal is recovery and rebuilding after a workout, look for a protein that is whey-based,” she says. “Whey protein is one of the best post-workout options because it sends amino acids to your muscles quickly, helping to jumpstart muscle growth.” Ghost Whey Protein is a popular option and is sold in seven flavors. “There is also research that supports combining whey and casein powders post-workout to help speed up the uptake of amino acids and extend their absorption,” Galloway adds.
2. Pay attention to portions
Look for a protein powder with a serving size under 35 grams. “Your body can only effectively absorb 25 to 35 grams of protein in one sitting,” Galloway explains.
3. Choose something you actually enjoy
Let’s all admit that taste preference is a legitimate factor: The more delicious a particular powder is, the more likely you are to choose it over less healthy snacks. Galloway suggests finding protein powders in a variety of flavors. “This keeps my post-workout routine from getting boring and helps me stay on track with my goals,” she says.
If you want to avoid the chance of a chunky texture, there’s always the option to reach for a pre-blended protein drink, like the Premier Protein Shakes, which are sold in over a dozen flavors.
Protein powder in moderation
Even if you find a protein powder that checks all those boxes, Galloway says it’s best to keep it as a snack—not a meal replacement.
“When I speak to clients about incorporating protein into their diet, I position protein shakes as a tool that can help you stay on track with your goals,” she says. Rather than totally replacing your breakfast or lunch, it should be incorporated into a balanced meal or snack: When reaching for a protein shake, Galloway recommends also reaching for a piece of fruit, like a banana or apple. Doing so will help boost satiety while also offering you more balanced macro and micronutrients. (You can also add protein powder to recipes like baked goods that might otherwise offer little protein.)
Just remember: Protein powder shouldn’t take over your entire diet. “I recommend no more than two protein powder drinks per day,” she says. The recommended daily amount of protein is likely lower than you think—your body needs other nutrients, too.