There are few clearer signs that someone works out than seeing them chug a protein shake anytime, anyplace. Protein is an essential component when it comes to muscle growth and body composition so, in my opinion, a convenient and easy-to-digest protein shake can be hugely beneficial for most people when trying to improve your physique.
With that said, do you really know why you’re drinking a protein shake? Is it to help protein synthesis, hit your daily macros (especially when cutting), help muscle repair/growth, or do you just have a shake because everyone else does?
Protein shakes are pretty much a diet staple when bulking and trying to increase your calorie intake but can you drink protein shakes when cutting too?
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Can You Drink Protein Shakes When Cutting
You can drink protein shakes when cutting providing you don’t mix the protein powder with milk or other high-calorie liquids. A typical 30g scoop of whey protein only contains 116kcal per serving and the high protein content of 24g helps to preserve lean muscle mass during a fat loss phase.
A protein shake is essentially protein powder mixed with water. When you summarize it like this, it’s easier to see that it may not necessarily be a big deal in terms of cutting food/drink. A flavored protein shake is, of course, sweet and when mixed with milk (which we’ll cover later) it’s easy to assume it’s a high-calorie dessert – or at least a similar equivalent.
When you look more carefully into the calorie content of a protein shake though, you’ll quickly find that not only is it far from a “cheat” or “luxury” food choice but rather one that can be beneficial for those on a diet.
Calories In vs Calories Out
You’ve likely come across this before but when it comes to cutting, one of the key things to keep in mind is energy balance. Calorie intake is a crucial part of this equation which is why there’s a timeless debate of calories in vs calories out.
Calorie consumption is 50% of the energy balance equation, with energy expenditure making up the other 50%. Of that 50% for calorie consumption, the key when cutting is to maintain a calorie deficit. With all other things remaining equal, a calorie deficit should be enough to facilitate fat loss which is the main goal when cutting.
Whether a food, drink, or supplement is beneficial or allowed on a cut will always come down to whether or not the particular item will prevent you from hitting your calorie target (calorie deficit) or whether or not it will make it very difficult to do so (if the item is very high in calories as a good example).
Are Protein Shakes Good for Cutting or Weight Loss
This will depend on the brand, flavor, and type of protein powder you use for a protein shake but in general, protein shakes are very good for cutting/weight loss and they are a great addition to your daily diet plan in my opinion.
While I say that it’s my opinion, I do have some good points to back it up. Firstly, a high protein intake is shown to be beneficial when cutting. It helps to preserve lean muscle mass, facilitate muscle recovery, and is very satiating meaning it reduces hunger pangs which are common on a cut.
Next, a protein shake is not actually high in calories. I’ll give some examples shortly but when comparing a protein shake against chocolate or a similar snack equivalent, the protein shake is not only a lower calorie option but it’s also the more macro-friendly one. This again is crucial when cutting and trying to improve your overall body composition.
Protein Shake Nutritional Information
For a good comparison, we’ll use one of the most popular whey protein supplements on the market in Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Whey (available to purchase here). I’ll also use the higher calorie double chocolate flavor as most people will opt for a decent flavor with slightly more calories per scoop (though the difference is marginal between flavored and unflavored).
Nutritional Information – per 31g scoop
Source – (1)
If you were to just have one scoop of whey protein with water (which has 0 calories) your total intake would be 116kcal per shake with only 1.4g of fat and 1.3g of carbs. For most people, a common shake wouldn’t just include a scoop of whey protein and water, most will also include milk as the liquid of choice.
Milk is also something I’d looked into as an option when cutting and there are definitely better alternatives if you usually have regular cows milk on a cut!
For comparison, let’s look at how many calories you consume with a scoop of protein and 240ml (1 cup) of semi-skimmed milk.
As you can see, the addition of milk to a protein shake more than doubles the total calorie intake and makes a very favorable macronutrient ratio rather unfavorable – though still not as bad as some alternatives which I’ll cover shortly.
Why You Should Drink Protein Shakes When Cutting
Now that you know protein shakes are not too excessive when it comes to calorie content (in fact they are quite the opposite), it’s good to look at why else you should be drinking protein shakes when cutting.
Firstly, when cutting, a moderate-high protein intake is arguably one of the most important factors that you need to implement. As a general rule of thumb, you should consume around 1g – 1.2g protein per 1lb bodyweight for exercising individuals.
A person weighing 200lb should therefore consume around 200g protein daily. This is to help repair and grow muscle tissue but when cutting, this is also important to preserve muscle tissue. Studies show that a high whey protein intake on a calorie-restricted diet preserves muscle mass during intentional weight loss periods.
Source – (2)
As a post-workout shake or snack alternative when cutting, you’ll find this to be very favorable against other snacks like chocolate. In a recent article, I covered a similar topic to this one answering whether or not you can eat chocolate when cutting and this gives a great opportunity for comparison.
In that article, I looked at the nutritional value of a 44g plain milk chocolate bar and it comes in at 235 calories, 13g fat, and a sizable 26g of carbs. When comparing this to a whey protein shake (with water), the protein shake is not only half the calories at 116 calories but it is also significantly more macro-friendly for a cut.
The marginal fat and carb content alongside a sizable protein content means you won’t be restricting your other meals during the day which is often the issue when opting for other snacks on a cut.
Which Protein Powder is Best for Cutting
There are a lot of protein powders on the market now and some are better than others when comparing brands. This section isn’t to compare brands through… I don’t think anyone reading this would fall under the category of an “athlete” and for most people, there is little difference between brands except maybe from a quality perspective.
What we need to consider instead, is what the different types of protein powder are and which is best for cutting in particular.
Whey protein is the most basic protein source when it comes to protein powders on the market. While it’s basic, it’s still one of the most effective protein supplements you can take so don’t think basic is an insult!
Whey protein has a high percentage of protein per scoop, is relatively cheap per scoop, and isn’t so high in calories that it will put you into a calorie surplus by having it. If you’re at the beginner – intermediate training level (both in performance and experience) then a whey protein will more than cover your needs, even when cutting.
Hydrolyzed protein is a powder blend that contains pre-digested proteins making it easier to digest and absorb. This is one of the examples where you are looking for a difference from an athletic and optimal performance perspective because hydrolyzed protein is more expensive than a standard whey protein and the benefit is marginal, especially when cutting.
A hydrolyzed protein has the intention of speeding up post-workout recovery due to the fast absorption and benefit of quickly kickstarting the process of muscle protein synthesis (MPS). As hydrolyzed protein is a concentrated protein source, it’s, therefore, lower in carbs and fats which is great when cutting as it frees up valuable macro space for other food sources.
Casein protein is a slow-release protein that people tend to consume before bed or during periods of time where food consumption will be low (work, study, commuting, trips, etc..). Just like whey, casein protein is a dairy-based protein and byproduct of cheese production with the key difference being the rate of absorption.
As it’s a slow-release source of protein, casein can be a good protein for people cutting because you can consume this during periods of low-calorie consumption to still provide a constant trickle of protein for protein synthesis (muscle repair and growth).
From a performance perspective, whey is a slightly better option precisely for the reason that it’s fast-absorbing so you immediately start the process of protein synthesis after resistance training.
Whey Protein Alternatives
Whey protein is the cheapest powder protein on the market, it has a high protein content per gram of powder which is one of the reasons why it’s affordable (manufacturers don’t need to use more ingredients to increase the protein content), and it mixes well.
All these factors are the reason why whey protein is the most popular protein supplement on the market. With that said, it’s not the preference for everyone. If you have a dairy intolerance or other personal preference then you might want to look into some of the following whey protein alternatives:
- Pea protein
- Beef protein
- Hemp protein
- Vegan protein
- Collagen protein
- Egg protein
- Gluten-free protein
When looking at beneficial food groups or supplements to support fat loss and increased muscle mass, few supplements are more effective than protein powder (of any kind). Therefore, even when cutting it’s still a good idea to have protein shakes.
Research shows a high protein intake when cutting in a calorie deficit can help preserve lean muscle mass and lead to better overall body composition. The best summary you’ll find is that:
High protein + resistance training = increased muscle mass and reduced body fat
Low protein + a lack of physical activity = increased body fat and lower muscle mass
As a protein shake with water is low in overall calories, low in fat/carbs, and high in protein (making it incredibly macro-friendly) it would be helpful to consume a protein shake pre/post-workout when cutting for improved body composition.