Contrary to the marketing efforts of some protein supplement manufacturers, protein shakes don’t provide “instant energy” or superior muscle-building capabilities compared to that of whole food sources of protein. In fact, the primary role of protein in the human diet is not to provide energy. Rather, protein supports muscle health, immune system function and cell/tissue growth. Protein shakes may be beneficial in some instances, but check with your doctor before trying any type of protein supplement.
Your body’s primary source of energy, called glycogen, is obtained by eating carbohydrates, such as whole grains, vegetables and fruits. This energy is what your body uses to fuel movements during exercise and day-to-day activities. Protein can provide energy in one of two circumstances, according to Janice R. Hermann, Ph.D., RD/LD of the Oklahoma State University Extension. If you consume too much protein, the excess may be converted to energy. On the other hand, if you don’t consume enough calories on a daily basis, your body may prioritize protein first as a source of energy and second as a tissue/cell builder.
The main purpose of protein shakes, in terms of athletic usage, is to support muscle recovery and growth. Most protein shakes contain all of the essential amino acids, or EAAs, your body needs for muscle health and recovery, such as leucine, isoleucine and valine. These three amino acids make a class of EAAs known as branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs. BCAAs are particularly beneficial if you’re looking to build and maintain lean muscle mass. If the amino acids obtained from drinking protein shakes are utilized for energy purposes, this takes away from the muscle development benefits they offer.
Energy is especially important before a workout. Rather than drinking a protein shake prior to your workout, you’re better off consuming a light, carbohydrate-rich snack to ensure your body’s stores of glycogen are full. Examples of energy snacks include fruit, bread, pasta and baked potatoes. Allow ample time – one-to-three hours – for the food to digest before you begin your workout. Caffeine may also help give you a quick boost of energy for your workout when taken 30 to 45 minutes before. Check with your doctor before taking caffeine supplements.
After you exercise, your body needs protein to start the recovery process. However, you also need to consume more carbohydrates to restore depleted glycogen from your muscles. Without the right amount of protein and carbohydrates post-workout, your body will not recover as efficiently as it could. Debra Wein, a registered dietitian and personal trainer, notes that "current research also suggests that protein, when consumed along with post-carbohydrate fuel, can improve recovery."
This article reflects the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Jillian Michaels or JillianMichaels.com.