Whether you’re an athlete looking to enhance performance or you just want to maintain a healthy weight and have more energy, protein-rich smoothies can assist you on your quest. Protein contributes to muscle growth and repair, hormone balance, tissue health, a healthy immune system and overall satiety. In addition, a protein-rich snack or drink can play an important part in post-exercise recovery, says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD and author of the SuperFoodsRX Diet (Rodale, 2008).
According to the American Dietetic Association, protein needs vary based on weight and level of training or activity. The rule of thumb is to consume 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. “In general, the recommendation is 15 to 20 percent of calories from protein,” Bazilian says. “Some research has shown that it can go higher—not that it should, but it can. However, at very high levels, it can put a strain on your kidneys.” Bazilian notes that anything added to the diet ups caloric intake, so if you’re adding a shake to your diet to boost health, you’ll want to cut calories elsewhere.
When it comes to supplementing with protein, you have a few choices, but three types really stand out: whey, casein and soy. Bazilian suggests choosing minimally processed, natural and organic protein powders whenever possible, and avoiding added ingredients such as sugars, flavors, preservatives, colors and artificial sweeteners.
Whey wins for exercise recovery
Both whey and casein are naturally occurring milk proteins. In powder form, whey protein is quicker and easier to digest than casein protein. “Whey is often considered superior because of the kinds and quantities of amino acids involved in building muscle tissue (synthesizing muscle protein). It is probably better for immediate post-exercise recovery, within 30 to 90 minutes post-exercise, when the cells are most responsive to uptake and recovery,” Bazilian says.
Some research suggests that a combination of whey and casein proteins may be helpful—one for immediately after exercise and the other throughout the day. Although they’re milk products, neither casein nor whey contains lactose, so even lactose-intolerant individuals should be able to consume them. If you’re allergic to dairy, you’ll want to avoid both.
Try it: Mix ½ cup plain yogurt, 2½ cups fruit (combine your favorites), 2 tablespoons plain whey protein powder, 1 tablespoon agave syrup and 1 cup crushed ice. Blend until smooth. Serves two. (Recipe adapted from the Green Smoothie Bible.)
The case for casein
Casein, also a milk protein, releases amino acids more slowly into the body than whey. Bazilian recommends casein during the day or in conjunction with whey for post-exercise recovery. When it comes to digestive ease, casein and whey are both well tolerated by most individuals.
Try it: Combine 1 banana, 1 date, 1 cup ice, 1 cup pomegranate seeds, 1 tablespoon flaxseed and 2 tablespoons casein powder. Blend until smooth, adding cold water (or milk or milk substitute) until it reaches the desired consistency. Serves two.
Plant-based protein solution
If you’re looking for a dairy-free option, soy offers many benefits. A plant food, soy is free of cholesterol and has more fiber than the dairy choices. However, soy can cause bloating and gas in some people. As with any of the protein powder options, you’ll want to try it for a few days before consuming it regularly. You'll also find many soy-free, plant-based options, made from brown rice or peas.
Try it: Combine 1 cup raw almond milk, 1 handful ice, 1 cup banana, ¾ cup orange juice, 3 tablespoons soy protein powder, 1 tablespoon flax meal, ½ teaspoon vanilla, and the zest of one orange. Blend until smooth. (Recipe adapted from Raw Awakening, chroniclebooks.com)
Bazilian suggests experimenting with different smoothie and shake recipes using different powders until you find what you like. Ideally, you’ll rotate shake ingredients, which will help optimize nutritional benefits.
Here are a few flavor combinations from Bazilian’s personal recipe collection:
- Cocoa powder, honey and peanut butter
- Pumpkin and orange juice, yogurt and cinnamon
- Avocado, orange juice, banana and vanilla yogurt
- Almond butter and berries