How to Make a Protein Shake – A Dietitian’s Step by Step Guide
The potential of any athlete or fitness enthusiast depends heavily on how an individual fuels their body, but even more so, how one can recover from training. We believe one of the most effective and efficient ways to achieve this is through a high-quality, anti-inflammatory protein shake.
We often have individuals come to us asking if they should be using protein shakes or stating they’re already using one in an effort to recover better from workouts, reduce soreness, and/or gain muscle.
The reality is….A well-crafted protein can and will do all of these things when consumed alongside a balanced, whole foods diet! But unfortunately, we see pitfalls in the amount/type of protein used, use of poor quality or inflammatory ingredients, and improper macronutrient breakdowns.
While these flaws seem minor, you could be getting more out of your protein shake by crafting it in a way that is supportive of your goals and supportive of overall gut health, immunity, and performance.
By the end of today’s article, you will have a comprehensive understanding of how to make a protein shake that is right for you. Whether you’re interested in how to make a protein shake to improve body composition, gain lean body weight, or generally optimize muscle recovery, you’ve come to the right place.
Let’s get to it!
What Does Protein Shakes Do For An Active Individual?
Following training or used throughout the day as part of a snack or meal replacement a protein shake can:
- Repair damaged tissue caused by working out.
- Improve lean body mass (muscle) and restore glycogen in the liver and muscle.
- Maximize recovery in order to sustain a high level of training volume and intensity.
Recovery shakes are the go-to immediately following a workout because they are:
- Well tolerated when appetite is suppressed following exercise.
- Rapidly digested and absorbed, making for more effective and efficient nutrient uptake and utilization.
- Actively increase recovery as certain systems and hormonal responses are working simultaneously together to synthesis muscle and store glycogen.
Protein shakes are very versatile. Three ways to use protein shakes include:
- Immediate recovery nutrition (within 30-60 minutes of exercise)
- Mid-day snack
- Meal replacement
What are the benefits of protein shakes?
Protein shakes can help achieve a wide variety of fitness goals. Some benefits include:
- Lean weight gain (build muscle while also burning fat/reducing undesirable weight)
- Weight loss (burn more fat as a byproduct of building muscle)
- Maximize recovery after tough training, resulting in enhanced performance
- Improved overall health in individuals dealing with chronic illness, hormonal imbalance, gut dysbiosis, and more.
Now that we know how and why protein shakes are a no-brainer for any person engaging in exercise, let’s talk about what to put in protein shakes to get the most benefit.
What to Put in Protein Shakes
You guessed right, protein is the star of the show here, but there are many other macro and micronutrient considerations needed for a well-balanced, fatigue-fighting, performance-enhancing protein shake.
Too often we see individuals failing at their goals by over-consuming protein or neglect to consider the anti-inflammatory benefits of herbs, healthy fats, and leafy greens! There is an existing belief that massive amounts of protein directly correlate to muscle gain, but eating more protein in and of itself will NOT inherently make muscles bigger or recover faster.
In order for muscles to grow, they must be subjected to physical activity, mainly resistance training, alongside a balanced intake of high-fiber complex carbohydrates and healthy fats (nuts, seeds, olives, avocado, etc.) in addition to high-quality protein supplements.
So, what are the components needed to make your own protein shake?
- Protein: Amino acid building blocks required for protein synthesis
- Carbohydrates: Sugars, starches, and fibers used to fuel muscles, replenish muscle glycogen, and enhance transportation of nutrients into the cells via insulin
- Healthy Fat: Fatty acids that aid in blunting unwanted and excessive inflammatory responses and increasing fullness. They also slow blood-sugar response without impairing muscle synthesis and repair.
- Fiber: Plant-derived, gut flora-feeding carbohydrate components aiding in satiety and neurological, hormonal, and intestinal homeostasis following induced stress to the body
- Anti-inflammatory Punch: Various foods including herbs and spices add both flavor and anti-inflammatory benefits to your protein shake
If you’re truly looking to optimize muscle repair and growth following a workout and throughout the day, protein is the macronutrient most responsible for fulfilling this role.
What’s the role of protein?
The real question is, what isn’t protein’s role in the body?!
Protein is comprised of amino acids, which are the building block for muscle, skin, hair, nails, and organs and responsible for many tasks including but not limited to:
- Building and repairing muscle
- Supporting healthy bones
- Maintaining a strong immune system
- Making and transporting hormones
- Facilitating enzymatic reactions necessary for biochemical processes
As we can see, protein is more than the flank steak on your plate at dinner!
We need protein to be consumed consistently throughout the day, but particularly following exercise in order to reap the muscle-building benefits of this macronutrient.
What is the correct dose of protein for me?
In terms of overall daily protein intake, it has been formerly understood that strength-based athletes thrive on a higher protein diet of about 1.7-2.2 g/kg body weight daily, whereas endurance athletes were thought to have significantly lower protein needs between 1.2-1.4 g/kg body weight daily.
Lower protein needs, especially for endurance athletes stems from the understanding that sustained aerobic exercise requires ample carbohydrate availability and, while this is true, the research is evolving in regards to the minimum protein needs for ALL athletes.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Paper recently reported that protein intake of less than 1.6/kg/day results in negative nitrogen balance, aka more injuries, and loss of muscle mass! Up to 2.4 g/kg/day may even be necessary during intense periods of training when calorie demands are higher.
This means that protein intake of around 0.4-0.55 g/kg body weight per meal (based on 4 meals/day) needs to be considered in order to achieve the recommended daily protein intake.
Want to learn exactly how to calculate your own needs? Check out this article.
How much protein should go in my protein shake?
Following a workout is one of the most important times for protein and treating it like a full meal can be helpful for achieving protein goals without having to slam 3 chicken breasts every few hours or even worse…right before bed.
You may be laughing, but we see this more frequently than you’d think.
- For a larger individual around 200-225 pounds, this amounts to ~ 40-50 grams/meal
- For a smaller individual around 125-150 pounds, this amounts to ~ 25-35 grams/meal
Can our body only absorb 20-25 grams/protein at one time?
Here’s another myth we love to debunk.
A common misconception exists that the body can only absorb a certain amount of protein per meal, but this is not necessarily true depending on what the protein is being used for.
NEWSFLASH…all of the protein you take gets used, just not all for muscle synthesis.
As stated by a recent review article from JISSN, consuming higher protein amounts (> 20 g) results in both optimal amino acid oxidation for muscle synthesis, but additional ingested amino acids are utilized for achieving energy balance and assisting other biological purposes. AKA the thousands of other responsibilities protein has in the body that are unrelated to building your biceps.
(Usual disclaimer: FWDfuel Sports Nutrition is a participant in the Emerson Wellevate Associates program as well as the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.)
What type of protein powder should I use?
Consuming either a plant-based or high-quality whey protein in your healthy smoothie recipe is ideal to ensure you’re hitting the necessary branched-chain amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine, which are the amino acid profiles needed by the body for optimal muscle growth and repair.
There are a few ways to use protein powder in your protein shake, and the form that is best for you can only be answered on an individual basis.
It is well established that for individuals not experiencing gut dysbiosis or showing signs of dairy intolerance, whey protein is the gold standard of protein powders for optimal muscle growth and recovery.
Pros of whey protein include:
- It’s a complete protein, meaning all essential amino acids that must be consumed in dietary form are included.
- Increased muscle protein synthesis due to high levels of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), specifically leucine.
- Rapid digestion and absorption in the gut, allowing for maximal protein synthesis and repair during the anabolic window following exercise.
- Natural detoxification support due to increased availability of glutathione, the master antioxidant in the body.
Cons of whey protein include:
- Highly processed: Any whey protein supplement found at your local health food store shelf doesn’t cut it in our eyes. Your birthday cake, cinnamon roll, or tropical fruit powder is likely filled with a laundry list of inflammatory oils, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, and fake fillers that may impact metabolic health and negatively change the gut microbiome.
One study published in the journal Nature showed that artificial sweeteners altered the gut microbiota and that this was causally linked to glucose tolerance in mice. Even for humans included in this study, reducing glucose tolerance in half of the participants was demonstrated after just one week of artificial sweetener consumption.
- Increased inflammation: Most individuals are intolerant of dairy products on some level by lacking the enzyme needed to break down the sugar lactose. Even worse, food sensitivity to the actual milk protein in whey results in low grade-chronic inflammation that may be driving a host of unwanted symptoms. While whey isolate should have very little lactose, there is often still some in the powder.
- Impaired Immunity: Nearly 80% of the human immune system is found in the gut, so encouraging an alteration to this ecosystem by consuming an inflammatory substance to the body may sabotage the muscle-building perks your seeking.
All this being said, we know that some individuals thrive off whey protein and there is loads of quality research to support it. So, for those individuals who tolerate it well, we support using a high-quality grass-fed whey protein powder, where the cows produce milk with higher concentrations of:
- β-Carotene (the precursor to Vitamin A)
- Unsaturated fatty acids
- Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which are healthy components of fat.
In fact, CLAs have been shown to have many positive effects including being anticarcinogenic and helpful in regulating the immune system.
Overall the nutrient profiles of protein powder coming from grass-fed cows vs using a whey protein isolate are more diverse and of high quality.
The phrase “you get what you pay for” could not ring more true when it comes to pretty much all nutrition supplements and whey protein powders especially.
The Whey Protein We Use
Naked Grass Fed Whey Protein Powder and SFH Recover Whey Protein Powder are our favorite whey protein powders. Naked is great because it is one of the only brands you will find that sell high-quality whey protein powder that is literally only one ingredient- grass-fed whey protein concentrate.
SFH Recover Whey Protein is the top pick in our Best Grass Whey Protein Powders article because it is simply LOADED with stuff to accelerate recovery that you won’t find anywhere (i.e. Co-Q-10, L-Leucine, D-Ribose, and more) and NSF Certified for Sport assuring its clean of all banned substances making it great for athletes who are drug tested. Its not quite a superfood shake, but one scoop packs more of a punch for improving recovery than almost any powder out there.
On paper, the SFH Recover Whey Protein is pretty incredible, and thankfully the taste measures up as well! This product is delicious and mixes easily with water or almond milk. We recommend only using Naked Grass Fed Whey Protein Powder if you’re using a blender as it will not mix easily in a shaker bottle without having some of the other ingredients other protein powders add to make mixing easier such as sunflower lecithin. We also recommend the Naked Grass Fed Whey Protein Powder for anyone battling gut issues or autoimmune disease who prefers to still use a whey protein since it is absolutely as clean as it gets.
Plant-based protein powders are a hot commodity these days, popping up on the internet and health food stores near and far.
Many of these products are typically a blend of sources like pea, soy, brown rice, or hemp and many brands are adding BCAAs to make up for the deficit that plant protein has compared to whey protein.
Pros of plant-based protein include:
- High in fiber: This helps in a variety of ways from helping remove toxins to stabilizing blood sugar.
- Nutrient-dense: many plants are filled with a variety of potent antioxidants, omega 3 fatty acids, and vitamins/minerals that can assist in helping us achieve full recovery. Its hard to get enough of these in our diet so having more in our protein powder is helpful.
- Dairy sensitivity/intolerance: Viable option for individuals unable to tolerate the dairy.
Cons of plant-based protein include:
- Incomplete proteins: They do not contain all essential amino acids; therefore they must be consumed in combination with other plant-based sources or with added amino acids to achieve full benefit.
However, many of the best plant-based protein powder brands ensure the amino acid profiles in their products still provide adequate BCAAs by adding additional to fill in shortages, thus making many quality brands a viable option for athletes that avoid dairy. Furthermore, many plant-based protein powders often have enzymes added to help increase the rate of absorption and digestion, since these nutrients are not as readily digested and absorbed by the GI tract.
- Macronutrient profiles: Carbohydrate content may be high or adequate, yet protein levels are insufficient for maximum muscle synthesis and repair.
- Texture: Most plant-proteins may have a gritty or chulky texture to them, which many find challenging to consume on a regular basis.
Still curious and want to read more about the debate between whey vs. plant-based protein powders? Read our comprehensive review of the protein and amino acid content of different plant-based protein forms as well as our list of the top plant protein powder brands here.
The Plant Protein We Use
As stated, to get the most out of a plant-based protein powder there should be some BCAAs added as well as probiotics. The products we use at home and recommend most often for those wanting a plant-based powder is Garden of Life SPORT Plant Based Protein Powder. In addition to added BCAAs, the Garden of Life Sport includes L-Glutamine, probiotics, and only uses organic ingredients.
How do I use protein powder?
We always want to pass along our friendly reminder that you cannot out-supplement a poor diet.
The majority of protein intake should be coming from whole foods sources such as high-quality animal protein (i.e. grass-fed, pasture-raised, and wild-caught sources), plants, legumes, nuts/seeds, and organic, non-GMO fermented dairy products in moderation if tolerated.
However, protein powder can be a simple and cost-effective way to optimize protein intake in the anabolic window following exercise. As you may have read above, protein intake of about 0.4-0.55 g/kg body weight immediately following exercise is optimal for muscle protein synthesis.
Why is protein powder important after a workout?
Think about it, after exercise certain pathways are amped up for muscle building, glycogen repletion, and muscle repair, but only for a short period of time.
We need nutrition in the form of protein and carbohydrates STAT and we just don’t have time to house a salmon fillet before this precious time window is up. A protein powder that’s partially broken down, easily digested, and more readily available is going to outperform a full meal in this unique scenario.
Several ways to use protein powder include:
- Adding a scoop to a bottle of water, milk, or coconut water
- Blending with fruit, seeds, greens, and other ingredients outlined above
- Using in a recipe to add protein to your baked goods (do this the least often as high heat breaks down proteins)
As you probably know, carbs are the main source of energy to fuel your workouts and should be consumed shortly after your workout for optimal recovery.
As we alluded to earlier, many individuals are obsessed with the protein part of their protein shake and neglect the carbohydrates.
Why are carbs important post-workout?
- Replenish glycogen that has been depleted – There is only so much glycogen (glycogen= stored carbohydrate) available in your liver, muscle, and bloodstream to sustain continued exercise. The sooner glucose is returned to the body and stored for later use, the sooner you can get back to training, the harder the body can train, and the better training adaptation you’ll have over time.
- Improved muscle synthesis – There is a synergistic effect of insulin and amino acid leucine in regards to activation of the mTOR pathway needed for protein synthesis. In other words, by consuming fast-acting carbohydrate sources with the amino acids, more insulin is available for nutrient uptake and utilization and muscle protein synthesis is more efficient than if the protein were consumed on its own.
- Prevent lean body mass loss – When muscle glycogen is depleted during exercise and not replaced with adequate nutrients afterward, the body will pull from our muscle in order to perform basic functions of living, not to mention fuel a workout.
So, now that we know how absolutely essential carbs are, let’s talk about how to get em’ in!
How to make a protein shake with different types of carbohydrates
If you’re consuming a protein shake immediately after a workout and you’re on the road, you can combine a form of fast-acting carbohydrate product with your protein shake for convenience or you can use real food sources right from your kitchen.
- Glucose – The body’s preferred source of fuel that is commonly bound to another simple sugar to form either polysaccharide starches or disaccharides, such as sucrose and lactose. Glucose is often added to processed foods in the form of dextrose or maltodextrin, which is extracted from cornstarch.
Like protein powders, you want to be wary of the many dextrose/maltodextrin products on the market. Many of these GMO-sourced, pesticide-ridden products are inflammatory to the gut and body.
If you tolerate corn, high-quality maltodextrin such as Generation UCAN can provide steady, sustained energy during longer duration workouts.
If needing something quicker such as for after a Crossfit WOD, a clean cyclic dextrin power or whole foods based starch like a sweet potato would work.
- Fructose – Simple sugar found naturally in fruit, honey, maple, agave, and most root vegetables
Top anti-inflammatory fructose sources include:
Disclaimer: Fructose is not absorbed as fast as glucose in the intestines and fructose intake has been linked to increased gastrointestinal distress in athletes. This is because gut bacteria ferment the fructose in the intestines causing bloating, gas, diarrhea, and that urgency to run to a bathroom during or after your workout!!
Using multiple transportable carbohydrates by combining sources of fructose and glucose together has been shown to be better tolerated in athletes.
Other Types of Carbs to add to Your Protein Shake
Whether you’re on the go or not, you can add:
- Cooked sweet potatoes
- Dry oats
- Pumpkin puree
- Coconut water
- Pure Maple
- Raw cacao powder
How much carbohydrate should I add to my protein shake?
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, the current recommendations states that within 30-60 minutes following exercise, a 1-4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein is beneficial to stimulate muscle glycogen resynthesis. This typically falls in the range of 0.4-1.2 g/kg body weight.
The more strenuous the aerobic exercise, the greater the ratio is…
Carbohydrate Needs Following Longer Endurance Workout
For example, our long-endurance athletes running 8-15 miles per day would need a ratio of approximately 3-4:1, carbohydrate to protein. For a 165 pound male, this would look like 90-120 g carbohydrate and 30 grams protein in their post-workout shake.
Carbohydrate Needs Following Interval Training or Strength-Based Workout
For a 135 pound female weightlifter, we would be looking at a ratio of 1-2:1 carbohydrate to protein. This would be about 25-50 grams of carbohydrate and 25 grams protein in their post-workout shake.
Many neglect healthy fat sources in their protein shake. In speaking with many athletes, often people skip out on the fat due to a preconceived notion that fat equates to body fat or rationalizing that fat slows gastric emptying, thus slowing the rate at which carbohydrates and protein are shuttled to the muscles for glycogen repletion.
One of our favorite myths to debunk is that high-quality fat does innately equal body fat! In fact, it can actually do the opposite.
Dietary fat will not directly stimulate insulin or contribute to glycogen repletion in the way protein and carbohydrates do for muscle synthesis and recovery, BUT research demonstrates that fat neither blunts insulin nor slows glycogen repletion. There is research to validate this point!
One of many studies demonstrated that seven healthy men performed a workout of cycling and high-intensity intervals. After exercise, subjects ingested a meal containing either low-fat (5% energy from fat) or high-fat (45% energy from fat) foods. Each diet contained the same amount of carbohydrate and protein and it was shown that both groups had similar muscle glycogen resynthesis and glucose tolerance the following day.
Consuming a healthy fat source in your daily smoothie also makes for…
- Improved satiety, keeping you fuller for longer
- Adequate intake of essential fatty acids such as omega 3s found in foods like avocado and nuts. Omega 3 fatty acids deter cellular damage and lower inflammation
- More optimal blood sugar stabilization
Our favorite options for healthy fat include:
- Nut/nut butter:
- Sunflower (seed)
- Watermelon (seed)
- Avocado (frozen chunks make for a creamy and thick consistency!)
- Avocado oil
- MCT or coconut oil
The moral of the story with fat is that…
Fat intake should not predominate your post-workout nutrition, particularly in your protein shake, but some dietary fat will not hinder the benefits of your protein shake and will provide additional benefits.
As long as protein and carbohydrates are consumed in the recommended amount for your particular body and nature of training, optimal protein synthesis and repair will occur!
A few benefits of adding fiber to your protein shake include:
- Increased shake density and volume, which increases satiety, thus keeping you fuller for longer. This is especially ideal for individuals aiming to improve their body composition and lose fat!
- Slowed rate at which blood sugar rises, making for improved hormonal control and longer sustained energy
- Supports healthy hormone production and balance: Hormone imbalance caused by avoiding dietary fat can make fat loss nearly impossible!
- Feeds gut bacteria, which makes for increased production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). SCFA are metabolites responsible for:
- Absorbing nutrients in the gut
- Producing neurotransmitters needed for proper mental, emotional, and physiological functioning
- Inducing mitochondrial function necessary for muscle adaptation
- Production of vitamins such as energy-producing B-vitamins and vitamin K, which is a key nutrient involved in bone metabolism.
How can I add Fiber to my Smoothie?
The key to learning how to make a protein shake filling and nutritious means adding all the fiber sources! Let’s be real, some days, eating a bed of salad greens is a daunting and unappealing task. We get it!
By adding 1-2 cups of your favorite cruciferous veggies and 1-2 tbsp of seeds, avocado, or nuts/nut butter to your protein shake, you can easily increase your daily fiber by two-fold.
Some options include:
- Cruciferous Veggies – kale, spinach, or riced (frozen) cauliflower are the best!
- Seeds – chia, hemp, pumpkin, or flax
- Avocado – frozen chunks make for a delicious and creamy consistency!
- Nuts/nut butter: peanut, almond, cashew, sunflower, pumpkin, watermelon
Not only is fiber amazing for the many reasons we listed, but these high fiber foods are also anti-inflammatory in nature!
Speaking of anti-inflammatory, adding natural spices and herbs to your protein shake helps you get a further edge on your competition by maximizing your recovery after a training session and putting you in the less than 1% of people who know this trick.
There are a variety of foods and nutrients that serve as natural anti-inflammatories, so it’s a no brainer to add these for some ergogenic benefits. Not to mention, they add amazing flavor, especially if you’re struggling with a more gritty plant-based product.
The best anti-inflammatory add-ins include:
- Raw 100% Cacao Powder
- Beetroot powder
- Tart cherry juice
- Anti Inflammatory Purple Potato Gnocchi
- The 10 Strongest Anti Inflammatory Foods on Earth
- The 6 Best Anti Inflammatory Breakfast Foods
- The 7 Best Anti-Inflammatory Supplements of 2020
How to Make Protein Shakes Taste Better
Maybe you’ve tried making protein shakes to drink immediately after your workout and really struggle to choke down the simple protein powder, carbohydrate powder, and water combo.
We get it, it can be a struggle, but protein shakes definitely can and should not be miserable to drink. After implementing these final tips, you’ll likely go a few days without your daily protein shake because of how delicious it tastes!
Here are a few top tips for improving the taste of your protein shake
- Blend fruit: Add some frozen berries or banana for natural flavor. Not only will the flavor profile be significantly enhanced, but the texture will be tolerated much better.
- Use milk instead of water: Swapping water for almond milk, cashew milk, or our personal favorite, oat milk makes for a more creamy texture and mellow flavor! If you’re an individual focused on gaining lean mass, chocolate almond, oat or coconut milk is great for added carbohydrates. For those in a weight loss phase or just training to stay lean, unsweetened almond or oat milk is still a great option to make your shake taste better.
- Include other natural flavorings to enhance your smoothie or shake
- Raw cacao powder
- Vanilla extract or vanilla bean
- Peanut butter powder (although, regular nut butters are even better as they include the healthy fat that is not included in the powders!)
- Coconut yogurt
Healthy Protein Shake Recipes
Tropical Protein Shake
If you’re looking for the perfect shake to resemble a pina colada, this is the perfect combo! Of course, adjust protein powder and carbohydrate measurements to meet your individual needs.
In a blender, combine:
- 20-30 grams vanilla protein powder
- 1 cup frozen pineapple
- ½ frozen banana
- 1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
- 1 tbsp MCT oil
Chocolate Peanut Butter Banana
The peanut butter banana duo is iconic, to say the least, and this creation is arguable as close to a chocolate shake as it gets!
- 20-30 grams chocolate protein powder
- 1 frozen banana
- 2 tbsp peanut butter
- 1 tbsp raw cacao powder
- ½ cup frozen cauliflower rice
- ¼ cup unsweetened almond milk
Cinnamon Blueberry Cashew
- 20-30 grams Stronger Faster Healthier Cinnamon Churro Protein Powder
- 1 cup frozen blueberries
- ½ frozen banana
- 1-2 tbsp raw cashew butter
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 cup unsweetened cashew milk
There we are, folks! The ultimate guide for how to make protein shakes. The best thing about protein shakes is that the options are endless. You get sick of one flavor? There are a million and one alternatives that will serve you taste buds and body just the same.
We hope you feel more confident and curious at the blender than ever before, and now that you understand how to make a protein shake, you can use this nutrition hack in the pursuit of all your health and fitness goals.
If you read this article and it sparked your interest in learning more about protein shakes check out our post on 5 Powerful and Pure Weight Gain Shakes and how to use protein shakes and a whole foods approach to gaining lean weight in our Ultimate Weight Gain Food List and Guide.