Here’s your go-to guide: how and why to use protein shakes, how to choose a protein shake mix, how to make a shake and how to personalize your protein shakes.

If protein shakes aren’t part of your regular diet, it may be because you think they’re only meant for heavy duty athletes or serious bodybuilders. While it’s true that many athletes use shakes to refuel after exercise, there are plenty of reasons why ‘regular folks’ might want to consider protein shakes, too. Plus, they’re quick, convenient, and fun to make.

When and Why to Use a Protein Shake

As a quick, balanced meal
Protein shakes that are designed to replace a meal are great for people who are meal-skippers. They’re quick and convenient and can provide balanced nutrition when time for meal preparation is limited.

As a meal replacement to help you lose weight
For those who are trying to lose weight, a meal replacement shake can be used to replace one or two meals per day. Aside from being convenient, protein shakes have a defined calorie content and are portion controlled, which makes it easier to accurately count calories and control total intake for the day.

As a supplement to help you gain weight
For those who are trying to gain weight, protein shakes can be used to provide supplementary calories. Drinking a protein shake between meals or at bedtime can help to boost calorie intake.

To supplement your protein intake
Another reason to consider using a protein shake is to boost your overall daily protein intake, if it’s difficult for you to meet needs from your meals alone. When you make your own protein shakes, you can adjust the amount of protein in your shake according to your individual needs.

As fuel before and after exercise
Many people use protein shakes after a workout, but they’re also useful as pre-exercise meals. Those who work out in the morning often like to ‘top off the tank’ with a light meal, and protein shakes can fill the bill.

As a means to improve your dietary balance
A simple protein shake is like a blank canvas. You can add all sorts of things to your shake that can help you meet your daily nutrition goals. It’s easy to add a serving of fruit or vegetables, but you can also boost your fiber or your intake of healthy fats with the proper add-ins.

Choosing the Right Mix for Your Protein Shake

Some protein shake mixes are “complete”—they’re designed to be prepared simply by mixing them with water. But, more typically, protein shake mixes are designed to be mixed with milk. The combination of shake mix and milk provides the right nutritional balance in a finished shake.

Protein powders derived from animal sources include whey and casein (both come from milk), as well as egg white protein. For those who prefer to get their protein from plant sources, there are powders derived from sources such as soy, rice, pea, quinoa or hemp.

Some protein powders contain a blend of proteins. One reason for this is that different proteins are digested at different rates. Whey protein is digested more quickly than casein, for example. So, some people feel that blends are better at satisfying hunger.

With the exception of soy, another reason is that vegetarian proteins are not considered nutritionally complete. Many vegetarian protein powders contain a blend of several plant proteins. This way, the final product provides the full complement of essential amino acids and it’s, therefore, a complete protein.

Many protein powders are flavored, although you can find plain, unflavored powders, too. Most people find that the tastiest shakes start with a flavored protein powder. Then they’ll customize the amount of protein in the shake by adding extra unflavored protein powder, if necessary for their needs.

Most protein shakes, when made according to the directions on the label, typically have about 15 to 20 grams of protein per serving.

Choosing a Liquid to Make Your Protein Shake

In order to get the proper nutritional balance in your shake, it’s important to make your shake according to the label directions.

If your protein shake mix calls for milk:

  • Many protein shake mixes are designed to be mixed with milk, so that the finished product will have the nutritional balance that the manufacturer intended. For this reason, only cow’s milk or soy milk should be used in products that are designed to be mixed with milk.
  • Both cow’s milk and soy milk contribute additional protein to your shake—another 9 grams or so. These milks also provide additional vitamins and minerals that complement the nutrients in the shake mix, making the finished shake more nutritionally complete.

If your protein shake mix calls for water:

  • Water should be used only in those protein shake mixes that call for it. These products are nutritionally balanced on their own and do not rely on additional nutrients from the mixer liquid. In place of plain water, you can also use black coffee or brewed tea if you like.
  • Rice, almond, hemp or oat milks provide very little protein, so these liquids are typically used in those protein shake mixes that are designed to be mixed with water. These milk alternatives will add a bit of flavor and a few extra calories to the shake, but with very little protein.
  • Fruit juice doesn’t contribute any protein to your shake. So, again, it should be used in products that are designed to be mixed with water. But fruit juices contain quite a few calories, so keep that in mind if you’re being calorie conscious. On the other hand, if you’re trying to boost your calorie intake, using fruit juice in your shake might work for you.
  • Of course, milk or soy milk can also be used with protein shake mixes that are designed to be mixed with water. The addition of milk or soy milk will just boost protein content, as well as calories.

Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Senior Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training