Protein shakes are touted as a "healthy" option, especially if you are on the go or are trying to lose weight.
As you probably guessed, I don't share this popular opinion. In fact, I'm not a huge fan of any shake in general, as most of the components are not real food based.
Most protein shakes contain some or all of the following:
1. Low-Quality Protein Powders
Even if the label claims to be the highest grade protein possible, if that protein is soy or whey based, there's a chance it's not as great as you think. If it's flavored or has a unique color, that chance increases even more. These heavily processed protein powders are often denatured, aka not in the real food based form that your body readily knows how to assimilate. Plus, with more people being sensitive to dairy in some way shape or form (even if you swear you aren't, you probably are sensitive at least conventional dairy), it's likely that whey-based protein powders won't work well with you either.
2. Artificial Sweeteners
If the artificial sweeteners aren't in the protein powder (try to find one that DOESN'T have artificial sweeteners added - I dare you), then they'll probably come in another ingredient (see below). As we've talked about previously, artificial sweeteners are often 400+ times sweeter than sugar, altering your taste buds and effecting your gut and brain. Just because artificial sweeteners contain no calories doesn't mean they still don't cause harm in our bodies. They don't contain calories because they aren't broken down in the body. They are recognized as toxic in the gut, so pass through undigested but not before they wreck havoc in any way they can.
3. Low-Quality Milk (cow, soy, almond, coconut, etc)
While conventional cow's milk dairy has it's own set of issues (pasteurization and homogenization, along with removing most of the fat from the milk), these new milk alternatives aren't always a great option either. Soy milk in general is best avoided at all costs. Other options like almond or coconut milk often have artificial sweeteners added and/or some sort of stabilizers, colors, or gums. Not great options for someone looking to build a healthy protein shake!
4. Sugar Laden Yogurt
This might be more the case in smoothies, but there are some protein shakes that might contain yogurt, in which case I'll direct you to my issues with dairy above: added sugar, pasteurization, homogenization, and the removal of the natural fats found in the yogurt itself.
5. Too Much Fruit (real or juice)
Yes, fruit can be healthy, but not when it is overdone or has added sweeteners as sometimes found in frozen fruit. Fruit juice, on the other hand, has it's own set of issues. It is not in the whole food form, so you lose all of the fiber and some of the nutrient values, leaving behind basically straight carbohydrates. This high hit of carbs spikes your blood sugar up, leaving it to consequently fall back down an hour or two later, leading to energy and mood slumps.
So what are you to do if you like protein shakes or use them as a quick option while on the go?
First, make sure to make it yourself. It is near impossible to find a quality protein shake or smoothie at any typical shop, even one that specializes in smoothies. They can make those shakes sound so healthy ("sweetened with stevia," "all natural," "organic"), but I would bet a lot of money to prove that they aren't as great as they are made out to be. Pre-bottled protein shakes and smoothies are usually even worse even if the label says otherwise (recognizing a pattern here??).
Second, when you make it yourself, use high quality ingredients, and make sure to have a balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates in the shake. If it is a post-workout shake, then feel free to keep the fat a tad lower. Here are my favorite brands for high quality ingredients:
Vital Protein Collagen (blue lid) or the Unflavored Whey Protein
Primal Kitchen Unflavored Collagen
Basically, you want to look for no additional ingredients, colors, dyes, or artificial sweeteners!
See this article for more info on protein powders.
New Barn Unflavored Almond Milk
Canned, full fat coconut milk (Trader Joe's has a clean brand, but there are other good options out there as well)
Plain, full fat yogurt from Fage, Maple Hill Creamery, Siggi's, or Stoneyfield Organic
Avoid juices (unless freshly squeezed yourself) and stick with limited amounts of whole fruit
When in doubt, I always turn to real, whole food first. Yes, liquid drinks have their time and place, but in the context of most peoples' goals, real food wins every time! Take a look at the shakes/smoothies you are making or buying - what's really in them?