After a grueling workout, your body is primed to make the best use of calories coming from protein and carbohydrates. After your muscles have experienced micro trauma, due to an intense exercise session, you have about a 45-minute* window in which to refuel for optimal strength and endurance gains.
* Side note: Some experts do not agree with the 45-60 minutes "window of opportunity". They do agree that eating as soon as possible after workout may be a good thing, but there really is no time limit as long as you are not starving yourself (suggested time span is up to four hours after workout).
Protein, which is made up of amino acids, is the building block of your cells. Without an adequate daily intake of protein, your body simply cannot function and thrive. For a perfect post-workout recovery meal, the best protein shake is one that will be quickly absorbed and utilized by your body.
Protein Powder Essentials
Protein powder is designed in such a way as to boost energy levels, enhance athletic performance, and help heal muscles, promoting size and power increases. The best protein shake is one that can be mixed with milk or water. For a thicker, richer texture, try blending it into a smoothie. Add berries or cocoa for extra antioxidants, bananas or avocado for potassium, or nut butter for omega-3 fatty acids.
The best protein shake should be chock full of vitamins, minerals, branched chain amino acids and antioxidants to keep your immune system energized and running efficiently. Additionally, it should contain a substantial amount of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). A safflower oil derivative, CLA helps the body to burn its own fat stores as a primary fuel source. This also helps with blood sugar stabilization.
Types of Protein Powder
The best protein shake will be one that consists of high quality whey protein, possibly organic whey from grass fed cows. Whey comes from cow milk and is one of the most bioavailable forms of protein, due to its high concentration of branched-chain amino acids. Amino acids promote cellular growth and reproduction, which aids in muscle development. Whey has hardly any fat or cholesterol and little lactose, making it easy on your stomach.
Whey protein is extensively used in the health and fitness fields, as it is quite versatile (see also: Three Fascinating Things You Most Likely Didn’t Know About Whey Protein). Virtually everybody can benefit from it, not just those in bodybuilding and other sports.
While whey is a good protein, one of its strengths is also its weakness; it is fast digesting. This means that it gets absorbed quickly and perhaps leave your body in a starvation mode. When your body senses hunger, it can try to hang on to fat stores to protect you. Not good.
This is why the best protein shake should also contain a slow-digesting protein such as casein. Ideally again, this should be natural casein protein from grass-feed cows. This is not only essential for the release of amino acids into the body over time, but also for the feeling of fullness which can be great for fat loss.
Avoid soy protein isolate if possible. Soy contains high levels of xenoestrogens. Not only can soy alter your hormonal balance with an influx of estrogen, but it can also lead to fat storage. Testosterone is an essential hormone for muscle development and growth. Estrogen interferes with this process, causing the body to cling to and store fat rather than using it as fuel.
This explains the variations in men and women’s bodies. Men naturally produce higher levels of testosterone and therefore tend to have greater amounts of lean muscle mass. Women make more estrogen to support with childbearing responsibilities. Your workout can safely and effectively boost testosterone production, and avoiding soy protein isolate will help to keep your hormones in check. Additionally, most sources of soy have been genetically modified.
For optimal muscular growth and recovery, the best protein shake will contain short chain peptides that are able to be absorbed in 15 minutes (as far as whey goes). There are several different methods for manufacturing whey protein isolate.
Certain methods may compromise the integrity of the amino acids. Choose a protein powder based on your unique post-workout recovery and nutritional needs. Some methods include:
Ion Exchange Filtration
- Causes a small amount of damage to the amino acids
- Leaves little to no lactose or fat behind
- Preserves electrolyte content while prohibiting permeation fat and lactose
- Similar to ultra filtration
- Cross-flow Filtration
- Higher nutritional content: low levels of lactose and fat
No Artificial Flavors, Colors or Additives
While the term "all natural" may be a stretch (it is extremely difficult if at all possible to attain that in a supplement), you should always go for natural protein powders as much as possible. This is not an option for everybody, as these types of supplements cost typically more.
Some synthetic sweeteners such as aspartame, though low-calorie, come with certain (sometimes deadly) health risks. Artificial coloring adds no nutritional value to the product. Yes, the stuff might look tasty, but is this really necessary?
The best protein supplements contain natural protein powders, without artificial colors, sweeteners and other additives.
Ultimately, the best protein shake is one that you will consume and enjoy drinking every day after each workout, as meal replacement, or snack between meals. Therefore taste and flavor are important (while avoiding artificial sweeteners). You do not want a protein shake that you will find yourself making all manner of excuses not to take!