Muscle gain starter pack: Are protein shakes healthy?

Last week our first beginner tip for building body mass was put down the protein shake. So what are the most healthy high protein foods?

Even the beginner-iest beginner will know - you need to eat protein for muscle gain. Lots of newbies, unsure of how much protein they need and how much they already eat, turn to protein shakes as the easy out. But is it a good idea?

In last week's post, I told you there's no evidence a protein shake will help someone with a healthy diet build more muscle. The most well-known investigation into sports drinks, by the British Medical Journal and BBC's Panorama, found that they did nothing to boost performance or recovery from heavy exercise. In fact nutritionist Professor Mike Lean described them as "a rather expensive way of getting a bit of milk." Ouch.

Thing is, I know a lot of gym fiends who drink a lot of protein shakes, and swear by them. So I kind of doubt I'm going to change their mind on this one.

And you know what? That's mostly, sort of okay. In moderation I can't find any suggestion that protein shakes are seriously bad for you. Unless, and that's a big unless, you're using them to replace eating proper, fresh, handmade food. Because honestly, there is no replacement for the nutrition you can gain from fresh ingredients. But I'll go into that more later.

What is in a protein shake?

For the most part they're made of whey, soy and casein protein powders dissolved in milk or water. Whey is a kind of milk protein, so no good for vegans.


In terms of protein quantity a protein shake, unsurprisingly, contains a lot. Like, 80g per serving in some cases. That sounds great at first glance - surely that gives you an unlimited reserve to pile on the muscle! But that's just not how the body works. If you're small already, it's unlikely you'll need more than 150g protein in a day, which you can easily get from your food.

And the protein your body doesn't use? Well, that just gets burned as energy. Dealing with a lot of protein all the time gives your kidneys and liver a lot to do, which isn't ideal, but mostly it just costs you a lot of money for no real benefit.

What are healthy high protein foods?

That's the key question! When it comes down to it, it's all about balance. Don't focus on getting one kind of nutrition while neglecting everything else - or you'll feel too tired and icky to enjoy your newfound strength.

I've divided this section into three, so I can easily cover everyone's dietary preferences. To keep things simple I haven't added a ton of numbers, so have a dig around google if you want to know specifics.

Meat and fish

red meat is a major source of protein for muscle gain

Meat is what most people think of when we talk about high protein food. Beef steaks and chicken breast definitely pack a huge amount in - 1 chicken breast alone can give you a massive 30g of protein. The downside, though, to eating loads of meat to get your protein is that you won't get loads of other essential nutrition from vitamins and minerals.

By all means have a steak for dinner once a week to bring up the numbers, but if you're just eating steaks to get all your protein you might as well go back to the shakes!

Fish is a healthier source of protein. It's not just low in saturated fat - oily fish like salmon and mackerel contain omega-3 oils, thought to have a raft of health benefits. Shellfish, meanwhile, are full of the minerals of the sea, restocking your mineral reserves to keep you energised and healthy for your workout.

Eggs and dairy

In my opinion, eggs are an amazing all-rounder when it comes to eating nutritiously. A couple of eggs won't get you loads of protein, but will give you a good, solid, energizing start to the day while stocking you up on Vitamins A, B12 and D.

Dairy is great for gaining body mass because it's high in both protein and fat to help you build and maintain muscle. Cheese has a lot more protein than milk - but is so rich it can be a bit hard going to eat loads of it!

Yoghurt has a bit more protein than milk but less than cheese. Still, it's probably easier to eat lots of and is great for your digestion. It's the healthier option.

Legumes, nuts and other veggie sources

If you don't eat meat, fish or dairy, packing in protein for muscle gain becomes more work - but that still doesn't mean you have to reach for the shake. And the vegetable sources are really the healthy high protein foods we should be focussing on.

Almonds are among the most healthy high protein foods

Photo credit - Jonathan Pincas

Beans like chickpeas and kidney beans are very high in protein, so put them in your pasta sauce or salad. Nuts like almonds and pine nuts are high in protein and fantastic for your heart, and can be sprinkled on salads or just eaten by the handful between meals. Even green vegetables like spinach and broccoli contain some protein (not to mention they're swimming in vitamins and minerals) - so don't neglect your veggies!

Tl;dr - Protein shakes are an expensive way to get protein your body probably won't use. Instead, eat a bit of meat, a good dose of fish, some eggs, milk and cheese, a generous dollop of yoghurt, and loads of beans and nuts. And yes, even green vegetables contain protein.

So are you ready to throw away the protein shake and start eating some real food? If you are, stop by again next Tuesday, when I'll round out the eating advice with tips on the best fats and carbohydrates. And maybe, later in the week, I'll even treat you to a recipe...

Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below, or with a tweet @JustHospitality

<em><strong>Other stuff to read -</strong> 5 beginner tips to start gaining body mass the healthy way - An introduction to the topics I'll be covering in this series Why we just love Brazil's dietary guidelines - An outline of an amazing eating principle that should guide whatever body mass goals you have</em>