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If you live an active lifestyle, you’ve probably tried (or at least considered) a pre-made protein shake at some point. The convenience of these drinks is pretty hard to beat when you need to recover after a workout or stay satiated throughout the day, but don’t have time to whip up a full meal or snack. Finding the right option that has the ideal amount of protein for your needs (and isn’t overloaded with added sugar) can be tricky, though, so we tapped dietitians to share their top recommendations.
The 8 best protein shakes in 2021, according to registered dietitians:
- Best Taste: Premier Protein 30g Protein Shake
- Best Protein Powder: NOW Sports Nutrition Pea Protein
- Best Sugar-Free: Iconic Protein Drinks Chocolate Truffle
- Best for Muscle-Building: Soylent Complete Protein Shake
- Best Superfood Powder: Sakara Protein + Greens Super Powder
- Best for Food Sensitivities: Owyn Vegan Protein Shake
- Best Low-Calorie: Orgain Grass Fed Clean Protein Shake
- Best Meal Replacement: Kate Farms Organic Nutrition Shake
Why you might consider a protein shake
Let’s be clear: protein shakes are not typically a necessity. “In general, people who eat a wide variety of foods are meeting their protein needs,” Brooklyn-based registered dietitian nutritionist Maya Feller tells Health. “With protein, more does not always mean better.” Different people have different protein needs, and this is something that should be worked out with a doctor. According to Feller, individuals who are particularly active and looking to gain muscle may benefit from a protein shake with 20-25 grams of protein, while those looking to supplement their diet with additional protein can potentially benefit from a shake with 12-20 grams of protein.
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Kimberly Gomer, RD, LDN, director of Nutrition at Pritikin Longevity Center, stresses that protein shakes should not be consumed as meal replacements with the goal of weight loss. “The only time we say a good quality protein shake is a win is when our client needs immediate repair to their muscle—mostly [after] a heavier-weight workout—or if someone needs to gain weight,” she says.
But protein alone isn’t enough to refuel post workout. “Carbs and protein are equally important for muscle recovery,” adds Kim Rose, a Florida-based registered dietitian nutritionist. So if you don’t have time for a full meal, try pairing a protein shake with a healthy carbohydrate (like a piece of fruit) to balance it out, suggests registered dietitian Lauren Hubert.
What to look for in a protein shake
If there’s one thing the experts all agree on, it’s this: when it comes to protein shakes, you want to steer clear of added sugar. “Consuming a high amount of added sugar can be deleterious to anyone’s health,” Rose says. “It has been linked to unwanted weight gain, increased triglyceride levels, and type 2 diabetes.”
In addition, you’ll want to ensure you’re getting the best source of protein from your shake. “It’s important to seek out a protein base that contains the full spectrum of essential amino acids, which promote proper nourishment, satiety, and muscle recovery,” says celebrity chef and certified nutritionist Serena Poon. Rose recommends whey and casein, which are complete sources of protein that can increase muscle mass, as well as soy and pea proteins for plant-based individuals.
RELATED: The 15 Best Vegan Protein Powders
You can also opt for a protein shake with additional benefits, depending on your specific health needs. Registered dietitian and fellow at the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine Yulia Brockdorf tells Health that most whole food-based protein shakes contain some fat, and some keto shakes have added fats, which are ideal for people who want to feel a little more satiated. Ultimately, it’s all about balance. “Incorporating a protein shake as a part of a healthy eating plan into any meal could be a healthy option,” Brockdorf says. “It could also be unhealthy if used excessively and as a primary source of sustenance.”
Along with the contents of the shake, consider the type that’ll fit into your lifestyle, whether it’s a loose powder that you mix in with water or milk, or a pre-made bottled shake that’s easy to take on the go. Both forms can be blended with fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, too, though protein powders tend to mix better.