By Vince Del Monte
Before we compare the pros and cons of consuming protein shakes or traditional meals, let me state the obvious: Whole food meals should constitute the majority of your long-term diet. Whether your goal is to build muscle or lose fat, the most important insight I can share with you is that if you want to look solid and feel solid, your diet should consist of solid foods.
Having said that, let’s take a look at the advantages of both.
The Protein Powder Advantage
The biggest advantage of protein powder is the convenience factor. We live in a world that is insanely busy, and it’s often a challenge to find the time to prepare protein-dense meals of fish, lean meats, and eggs — bodybuilders and elite athletes who follow meal plans that require them to consume five to seven meals a day will agree. Maintaining a regular meal cadence on the go is made easy by mixing a few scoops of protein powder in a shaker cup with some water.
Another advantage is that protein powders lead to diet compliance, or the “behavioral ease” of a diet. If protein intake is reduced in a weight-loss program, a loss in muscle mass can also be experienced. This can be detrimental to one’s program, as protein assists in managing appetite by controlling blood sugar levels and providing a feeling of fullness. Of course, eating steak and eggs will allow you to meet your daily protein requirement, but they also come with extra fat and calories which can stall your results.
Another acknowledged benefit of protein powder is its fast absorption rate. This is clearly important after a training session, when the rates of protein synthesis and glycogen re-synthesis are increased.
Lastly, protein shakes are often superior to whole foods when it comes to achieving a caloric surplus for the individual who wishes to build muscle. Drinking a surplus of calories is often easier for bodybuilders than chewing them; I myself have made amazing-tasting shakes with ingredients like oatmeal, graham crackers, and avocado! Another issue with solid-food meals is that many skinny guys don’t have an appetite in the first place, and after a huge meal they feel full, plain and simple. Alternating solid meals with liquid meals can help you hit your caloric surplus because liquids have a much faster gastric emptying rate.
The Whole Foods Advantage
Foods such as red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy are packed with amazing nutrients like amino acids, vitamins, essential fatty acids, and saturated fat. If you’re wondering how saturated fat made the “amazing nutrients” list, it is actually a very healthy nutrient and, contrary to popular belief, it is not a major cause of heart disease.
It’s not possible to pack all of these nutrients into protein powder, and even if they are added, it’s likely they were damaged during processing or were fortified into the powder from synthetic sources. In short, the odds of optimally digesting and assimilating them in this form are not fantastic. The human body evolved on diets that were high in animal proteins. Research from Dr. Weston A. Price shows that animal protein was a critical factor in optimal health in a variety of native cultures, though the amount of protein intake varied.
The biggest dietary strategies I teach are variety and food rotation. A variety of red meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and small amounts of dairy will ensure you’re not limited by the weakest amino acid in any one protein. Many bodybuilders and athletes develop relative allergic states by eating repeated protein sources. To optimize your health, mood, and ability to build muscle, it’s important to rotate your protein sources. Over the course of one day, I will rotate through turkey, bison, whole eggs, chicken, fish — and only one protein shake. Every few weeks, I introduce different protein sources to help avoid developing sensitivities. It’s important to note that not all food sources are created equal, especially when it comes to red meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, and fish. Unless you have access to these foods from a reliable source or responsible farmer, there’s a good chance they will contain toxins and will be less nutritionally dense. Seek out animal sources that were raised on their natural diet and free from exposure to chemicals, hormones, and polluted environments.
The Ultimate Self-Test
If you’re still skeptical, perform a self-experiment. For one month, don’t change anything about your training routine and consume five whole-food meals a day with one protein shake immediately after your workout. Then for the next month, don’t change anything about your training routine and consume three whole-food meals and three protein shakes per day. At the start of each month, measure your arms, chest, shoulders, waist, legs, and calves with a measuring tape and gauge your body fat with calipers. Take your measurements again after each month, and compare the results. The measuring tape and calipers will give you a solid indication of whether you should rely primarily on a whole-food diet or a protein-shake diet. On top of that, listen to how your body responds through your sleep quality, recovery speed, energy, and performance in the gym. Comparing your results will provide you priceless data from doing rather than reading and talking about it.
Vince Del Monte is a ﬁtness model, personal trainer, and creator of the best-selling No Nonsense Muscle Building System. www.vincedelmonteﬁtness.com