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May 2002

p. 108

Shake Down

by Cynthia BeMent

Protein Shakes sport a dizzying array of brands and formulas.


Here's how to choose the one that's right for you.


Protein is the building block of life. We’d be hard-pressed to call it anything less given its crucial role as muscle and tissue synthesizer, maintainer and repairman (or woman) in our bodies. Today there seems to be almost as many protein shaves out there as there are muscles in our bodies: health food and nutrition stores stack them to the ceiling and you can find them at most supermarkets. Even the popular names in diet sup­plementation are getting into the shake scene.

If you haven’t already joined the protein shake party, you may be confused about which route to take. First you need to decide which type of protein you want— whey, soy, egg or milk. Then there’s purpose — energy shakes, meal replacements or pure pro­tein powders. Which one is best for you? Here’s how to find out.

getting hip to shakes: a starting point

As with energy bars and sports drinks, the sheer variety of shakes available today can be confusing. There are three general shake categories — pure protein, meal replacement and energy. The first is intended for use as a supplement for regular meals to increase protein intake. Pure protein has very few, if any, carbohydrates, and almost no fat. In comparison, meal replacement shakes retain the high protein count, but add more carbohydrates. They are typically fortified with vitamins and minerals that allow them to perform their role as complete meal substitutes. Energy drinks contain even higher amounts of carbohydrates, but the protein levels vary. They are used for quick doses of energy and are often used by endurance athletes.



the role of shakes in your life

Protein shakes play a bigger role than simply adding protein to your diet. “When it comes to protein and meal replacement shakes, I think they do have a role [in good nutrition],” says Douglas Kalman, MS, RD and director of clinical nutrition research at Miami Research Associates, a Florida firm that conducts pharmaceutical studies. “Many people live life on the go and many of these shakes contain much more nutrition from a vitamin/mineral standpoint than you get in today’s world. We know that approximately 88 percent of the population don’t eat five to nine fruits and vegetables a day and, therefore, are not getting the vitamin and mineral spectrum required for good health.” Enriched shakes can help fill this nutrition gap.

“Role” is a key word in the shakes-and-your-diet equation, says Kalman. “Supplements should always be in addition to food. It should always be food first, fortified food second, supplements third.”

Ruth Carey, RD, LD and nutrition consultant in Portland, Oregon, agrees. “On a regular basis [protein shakes] offer less fiber,” says Carey, who counsels the Portland Fire WNBA team. “Whenever you take a meal in liquid form, it’s going to be in and out of the stomach much faster than if you eat food in a solid form.” Even if a shake is balanced in protein, carbs and fat, it won’t give as much satiety as a whole-food meal would. But Carey also sees the benefit of shakes. “There are absolutely some positives. It’s the easy way for some people to take a multivitamin.”

finding the perfect shake: read yourself, not the can

Which shake is best for your health and fitness goals? You have to look at what your requirements are; not at general recommendations,” says Eric Sternlicht, PhD, a nutritionist and author of Fuel Up: Using the Principles of Sports Nutrition to Perform Like a Pro. Regardless of the type or amount of protein in a shake, it needs to fit into your lifestyle. If your goal is to eat six small meals, but you can’t hang around the kitchen all day, a shake can provide a portable and compact solution to getting added meals without hauling around a cooler. Or maybe you haven’t eaten breakfast regularly since you were in high school. “[If you’re not used to eat­ing breakfast], starting out with meal replacement shakes for breakfast is a great start. It will get your body into the habit of hav­ing something in the morning,” says Carey. Factors like total calories you want or need to consume daily, and even the taste of the shake you’re considering, should influence your decision.

the ingredient factor

Protein, meal replacement and energy shakes come in all different flavors, sizes and, most importantly, content. The most common forms of protein are whey, soy, milk and egg. Some experts main­tain that whey protein, derived from milk protein, is of a higher quality than the others. Kalman gives the nod to whey as the pre­ferred protein. “Whey protein has anticarcinogenic effects,” says  Kalman. (Recent studies have reported that whey protein protects against some cancers.) Kalman adds that when milk proteins, known as caseinates, are added, the rate of digestion is slower. That means that you maintain a full feeling longer.

The quality of a particular protein source is based on the bioavailability of nutrients, or the amount of a nutrient that can be absorbed by the body from the food source. Sternlicht disagrees with the whey win out: “If you look at protein quality, most studies show that whether it be whey, soy or egg protein, in terms of bioavailability, digestion and ability to assimilate into proteins, there’s very little difference.”

Carey recommends choosing on taste, but encourages women to choose a soy-based shake. “Many soy protein supplements have isoflavones that act as phytoestrogens in the body. They can help put back some of the estrogen that women start to lose premenopausally.” Carey also points out that soy is not readily found in everyday foods and that it may be a key protector of women’s hearts.  “As women go through menopause, their risk of heart disease goes up significantly because of the loss of estrogen. If they add soy pro­tein to their diets, they’re getting a cholesterol-lowering effect of the soy protein.” To be official cholesterol fighters, soy products must contain 6.25 grams of soy per serving. Carey also recommends checking soy shake labels for the inclusion of isoflavones.

shopping smarts

CHOOSE THE RIGHT FATS: A shake’s fat makeup should be monounsaturated and contain minimal amounts of hydrogenated oils and saturated fats. Most brands are up to speed in this area, as a lower and better fat content are keys to cardiovascular health and main­taining good cholesterol levels.

GET ENOUGH CARBS: Kalman recommends that an endurance athlete or very active person should use a shake that provides between a two-to-one and a four-to-one ratio of carbohydrate grams to protein grams, while a bodybuilder can go for a one-to-one or two-to-one ratio. If you opt for a pure protein shake, convert it to a meal by adding a carbohydrate-rich source (see Shake it Up).

 CONSIDER CALORIES: Adding protein shakes to your diet comes with a caloric price tag. If you’re trying to maintain or lose weight, you must eliminate some other food to compensate for the shake’s calories. Shakes, even when mixed with water contain between 90 and 340 calories per serving. Add that to your regular diet and you’re destined for gradual weight gain.

 RELY ON TASTE: “The number one factor in using any of these prod­ucts is do you like the taste?” says Kalman. Sample different brands until you find a taste enticing enough for you to want to put the shake’s nutritional value to work.


get shaking

A protein or meal replacement shake may be a welcome addition to your healthy diet arsenal. Take the time to experiment to find the right fit for your life. Sharpen your mixing, stirring and blender­whirring skills, and before long you’ll have a whole lotta shakin’ going on.