Are Protein Drinks a Safe Meal Replacement?

Kathryn Vera
Protein Shake

In today's busy world, finding time to cook a balanced meal can be quite difficult. It should come as no surprise, then, that people often turn to protein drinks in an attempt to supplement their exercise routine or improve healing and recovery. But are these products safe and effective? Research suggests that protein drinks can sometimes be a good choice for adults.

Protein Drink Basics

Fox News reports that, when used occasionally, protein drinks can be a safe meal replacement. It is important to remember, however, that they are not nutritionally equal to a balanced meal and should not be used as a primary source of nutrients, vitamins and minerals.

Most adults should replace no more than two meals a day - like breakfast and lunch - with a protein drink, and round-out their diet with a balanced dinner. Using protein drinks for every meal can lead to certain nutritional deficiencies and 'flavor burnout'.

When adding protein drinks to your diet, start slow and gradually increase your intake to prevent gastrointestinal discomfort. Try drinking a quarter serving of a protein shake one day, then half a serving the next day, and so on until you have reached your desired level of intake.

Daily Requirements

As with many nutrients, more isn't always better when it comes to protein. According to WebMD, most healthy adults need between 0.5 and 0.9 grams of protein per day per pound of body weight - or between 75 and 135 grams of protein for a 150-pound person.

Consuming more than 0.9 grams of protein per day is not only unnecessary, but can actually be detrimental. WebMD notes that individuals who consume protein in excess may actually be doing damage to their kidneys and liver.

Exercise Supplement

As suggested by the name, protein drinks contain high amounts of protein. Thus, they are often used by exercise enthusiasts looking to supplement their workouts with adequate protein sources to promote increases in muscle strength and mass. A 2004 article published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that healthy adults who consumed 20 grams of either casein or whey-based protein drinks one hour after exercise experienced an increase in protein synthesis - or muscle growth -- as compared to those who did not receive the same beverage. However, this is not their only use.

Protein Supplements for Elderly Individuals

Protein shakes may be especially valuable for older adults who experience an increase in nutritional demands, such as that which occurs after a broken or fractured bone. An article published in 2003 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition reports that older adults who experienced an orthopedic fracture and consumed protein drinks during their recovery experienced a faster healing time, a shorter and less complicated hospital stay, and a better long-term prognosis that those who did not get the same meal replacement.

Weight Management Considerations

In general, protein shakes are a high-calorie food, making them a poor choice for individuals who are interested in weight loss. Some protein drinks may contain over 500 calories in a single eight-ounce serving.

Adding mix-ins to protein drinks will cause the calorie count to climb even higher. Adding two tablespoons of chocolate syrup, for example, can increase the calorie content in a protein shake by 100 calories.

Types of Protein Drinks

When it comes to protein drinks, it is important to remember that not all products are created equal. In general, protein drinks can be classified by ingredients.

Type of Protein

Most protein shakes are made from either whey, egg, or vegetable protein.

  • Milk: Whey protein is derived from milk, and is the most popular type of protein used in replacement drinks due to its high quality, favorable taste, and low relative cost.
  • Egg: Protein shakes made from egg protein are often touted for those with dietary concerns, as they generally are low in fat and cholesterol.
  • Vegetable: While protein shakes made from vegetable protein may contain all eight essential amino acids, this is not always the case. In addition, the strong flavor associated with some vegetable proteins may make it unfavorable for individuals with a sensitive palate.

Type of Sweetener

Depending on the protein shake in question, it may have no sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, or natural sweeteners. Artificial flavors can be quite advantageous when used in protein shakes for those who can tolerate artificial ingredients, as they offer a variety of flavor options and are fairly inexpensive when compared to their natural counterparts.

Additional Ingredients

Protein drinks may also include a variety of additional ingredients, including:

  • Lecithin, a type of healthy fat that increases the mixability of protein shakes
  • Digestive enzymes, to help improve the absorption of protein
  • Amino acids, to improve the nutritional profile

Depending on the person and their intended use for the protein drink, these additional ingredients may - or may not - prove to be a useful component of the beverage.

Cost

Protein drinks that feature similar ingredients are usually fairly close in price. Differences may arise, however, when comparing a protein drink made with whey protein and artificial sweeteners, for example, with a protein drink made with vegetable protein and natural sweeteners. It is up to the consumer to weigh the pros and cons of a specific protein drink with its cost, to determine which product is most appropriate.

Depending on the specific brand of protein and whether it is in powder or ready-to-drink form, prices may also vary. Individuals who purchase protein powder, for example, may pay between $0.54 and $1.75 per serving. Similarly, ready-to-drink protein shakes vary substantially in price, and may cost from $3.00 to $5.42 per serving.

Reading Protein Drink Labels

For optimal results when it comes to choosing a protein drink, reading nutritional labels is a must. Be sure to consider not just the number of grams of protein in a specific product, but also the amount of fat, carbohydrates, calories, vitamins and minerals provided in a single serving.

Reviewing the nutritional label can also provide information when identifying the types of ingredients used to make the protein drink.

Make an Informed Decision

In general, protein drinks are a safe option when used as an occasional meal replacement. Depending on the person and their specific goals, the ideal type of protein drink may vary substantially.

Be sure to talk with a doctor or nutritionist before adding a protein drink to your diet. These professionals can provide more guidance when it comes to determining exactly which product is best for you.

Are Protein Drinks a Safe Meal Replacement?