Protein shakes are an excellent and convenient way to take in adequate dietary protein, especially if you find it difficult to consume frequent meals.

Q: A friend told me that there’s research showing that protein shakes aren’t what we all think. The protein in them when digested doesn’t convert into protein and is basically a con. Is this true? I find it hard to eat six meals a day and often supplement at least one of those meals with a shake.

You can relax. There’s no credence whatsoever to your friend’s claims. For all intents and purposes, protein is protein, whether it comes from whole food or a protein powder. The amino acids in protein are the building blocks of muscle. When ingested, they are used to repair and rebuild muscle (as well as other bodily tissues). Realize that protein shakes are used extensively in hospitals and chronic care facilities to nourish critical care patients who can’t consume or digest whole foods. Given that this is often their sole source of nutrition, it should be apparent that their bodies are assimilating the protein

Now, protein shakes can be derived from many different protein sources. There’s whey, casein, soy, egg and other protein derivatives that are used in supplemental powders. While there are some subtle differences between the various proteins and their effects on the body, any “complete” protein source (such as milk, egg and meat derivatives) will provide the body with all the amino acids necessary for biologic functions. Vegetable-based proteins (such as soy), on the other hand, aren’t complete protein sources and if they are the sole source of protein intake it may result in deficiencies. However, as long as you integrate complete proteins into your regular diet, consuming soy or other vegetable-based protein shakes can be fine, depending on your health and fitness goals.

Perhaps what your friend was referring to is that the consumption of protein shakes is of no benefit once a person’s individual protein requirements are met. Bodybuilders and fitness competitors often subscribe to the “more is better” philosophy and gorge themselves with protein-rich foods and supplements. Unfortunately, the body has the capacity to utilize only a limited amount of protein. Once the saturation point is reached, additional protein is of no use and is either used as energy or converted into triglycerides and stored as fat. For those who train hard, a positive nitrogen balance (the rate at which protein synthesis outpaces protein degradation) can be achieved by consuming one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight (i.e., a 125-pound woman should consume approximately 125 grams of protein per day).

It’s also important to realize that, by itself, protein has no effect on toning muscle. Contrary to claims made by various supplement manufacturers, protein powders aren’t magic formulas for building muscle. You can’t expect to simply consume a protein drink, sit back and watch your muscles grow. This might make good ad copy, but it doesn’t translate into reality. Only through intense resistance training can protein be utilized for muscular repair and promote the development of lean muscle tissue.

But overall, protein shakes are an excellent and convenient way to take in adequate dietary protein, especially if you find it difficult to consume frequent meals. All too often, women are deficient in their protein intake. By combining shakes with whole foods, you can ensure that you get enough protein to satisfy your body’s needs and promote optimal nutritional fitness.