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If you live an active lifestyle, you’ve probably tried (or at least considered) a pre-made protein shake at some point. The convenience of these drinks is pretty hard to beat when you need to recover after a workout or stay satiated throughout the day, but don’t have time to whip up a full meal or snack. Finding the right option that has the ideal amount of protein for your needs (and isn’t overloaded with added sugar) can be tricky, though, so we tapped dietitians to share their top recommendations.
The 8 best protein shakes in 2021, according to registered dietitians:
- Best Taste: Premier Protein 30g Protein Shake
- Best Protein Powder: NOW Sports Nutrition Pea Protein
- Best Sugar-Free: Iconic Protein Drinks Chocolate Truffle
- Best for Muscle-Building: Soylent Complete Protein Shake
- Best Superfood Powder: Sakara Protein + Greens Super Powder
- Best for Food Sensitivities: Owyn Vegan Protein Shake
- Best Low-Calorie: Orgain Grass Fed Clean Protein Shake
- Best Meal Replacement: Kate Farms Organic Nutrition Shake
Why you might consider a protein shake
Let’s be clear: protein shakes are not typically a necessity. “In general, people who eat a wide variety of foods are meeting their protein needs,” Brooklyn-based registered dietitian nutritionist Maya Feller tells Health. “With protein, more does not always mean better.” Different people have different protein needs, and this is something that should be worked out with a doctor. According to Feller, individuals who are particularly active and looking to gain muscle may benefit from a protein shake with 20-25 grams of protein, while those looking to supplement their diet with additional protein can potentially benefit from a shake with 12-20 grams of protein.
Is Protein Powder Good for You? Here’s What a Nutritionist Says
Kimberly Gomer, RD, LDN, director of Nutrition at Pritikin Longevity Center, stresses that protein shakes should not be consumed as meal replacements with the goal of weight loss. “The only time we say a good quality protein shake is a win is when our client needs immediate repair to their muscle—mostly [after] a heavier-weight workout—or if someone needs to gain weight,” she says.
But protein alone isn’t enough to refuel post workout. “Carbs and protein are equally important for muscle recovery,” adds Kim Rose, a Florida-based registered dietitian nutritionist. So if you don’t have time for a full meal, try pairing a protein shake with a healthy carbohydrate (like a piece of fruit) to balance it out, suggests registered dietitian Lauren Hubert.
What to look for in a protein shake
If there's one thing the experts all agree on, it's this: when it comes to protein shakes, you want to steer clear of added sugar. "Consuming a high amount of added sugar can be deleterious to anyone's health," Rose says. "It has been linked to unwanted weight gain, increased triglyceride levels, and type 2 diabetes."
In addition, you’ll want to ensure you’re getting the best source of protein from your shake. “It’s important to seek out a protein base that contains the full spectrum of essential amino acids, which promote proper nourishment, satiety, and muscle recovery,” says celebrity chef and certified nutritionist Serena Poon. Rose recommends whey and casein, which are complete sources of protein that can increase muscle mass, as well as soy and pea proteins for plant-based individuals.
The 14 Best Vegan Protein Powders
You can also opt for a protein shake with additional benefits, depending on your specific health needs. Registered dietitian and fellow at the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine Yulia Brockdorf tells Health that most whole food-based protein shakes contain some fat, and some keto shakes have added fats, which are ideal for people who want to feel a little more satiated. Ultimately, it’s all about balance. “Incorporating a protein shake as a part of a healthy eating plan into any meal could be a healthy option,” Brockdorf says. “It could also be unhealthy if used excessively and as a primary source of sustenance.”
Along with the contents of the shake, consider the type that'll fit into your lifestyle, whether it's a loose powder that you mix in with water or milk, or a pre-made bottled shake that's easy to take on the go. Both forms can be blended with fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, too, though protein powders tend to mix better.
With this information in mind, keep reading to learn more about the eight best protein shakes that dietitians actually recommend.
Best Taste: Premier Protein 30g Protein Shake
Buy It, $29 (was $48)
With nearly 5,900 five-star ratings, Premier Protein shakes are a favorite of Amazon shoppers and dietitians alike. Both Hubert and registered dietitian Mia Syn name this option as one of their go-to pre-made recommendations. “They are packed with 30 grams of protein, 160 calories and only 1 gram of sugar, plus antioxidants vitamins C and E, which support immune health,” Syn says. “Plus, they come in different flavors like chocolate peanut butter and caramel so you can add them to smoothies or protein pancakes, or enjoy on the go.” Reviewers are particularly impressed by the great taste of these shakes, which many call “delicious.”
Best Protein Powder: NOW Sports Nutrition Pea Protein
Buy It, $25
Feller recommends protein powders that can be mixed with water or another beverage because they typically offer more customization options for the consumer. She calls this one “extremely versatile in its flavor,” and it contains 22 grams of protein per serving, which is an ideal amount. It doesn’t have any added sugar, though it does have a slightly sweet taste from stevia leaf extract. Amazon reviewers say it keeps them satisfied and energized, and some say it’s even helped them build muscle. Another shopper adds that it mixes easily with liquids and has “no grit or chalky taste.”
Best Sugar-Free: Iconic Protein Drinks Chocolate Truffle
Buy It, $38
Ella Davar, RD, CDN, doesn’t often recommend protein shakes because many have excessive sugar, but these bottled drinks from Iconic get her approval. “I teach my clients to look for organic quality products with the highest-quality ingredients such as non-GMO, grass-fed cow milk or vegan protein.” This option is made with the former and contains 20 grams of protein and 4 grams of carbs, making it a great post-workout shake. Perhaps best of all is its delicious flavor that Amazon reviewers say “tastes just like chocolate milk” despite the fact that it has no added sugar.
Best for Muscle-Building: Soylent Complete Protein Shake
Buy It, $35
If you’re looking to gain muscle after an intense workout, Soylent’s Complete Protein shake is your best bet because it contains an impressive 30 grams of protein, along with 10 grams of carbs and 0 grams of sugar. Plus, the vegan and gluten-free drink is made with plant-based protein, and since a single serving has 250 calories, it could also be used to supplement a meal or keep you satiated in between meals. Rose calls this protein drink “one of a kind,” and an Amazon customer says it’s “very flavorful and satisfying.”
Best Superfood Powder: Sakara Protein + Greens Super Powder
Buy It, $90
If you’re mainly looking for a protein shake to enjoy as a snack or meal supplement (in other words, if you don’t need a lot of protein to recover after an intense workout), then Feller recommends this superfood powder from celebrity-loved brand Sakara. “It contains 12 grams of quality plant-based protein as well as wheatgrass, barley grass, spirulina, and chlorella, which are packed full of phytonutrients and are a great vegan source of omega-3 fatty acids,” she says. All you have to do is mix it with water, coconut water, or nut milk and enjoy. One shopper says it has an earthy taste and keeps them full throughout the day: “It’s expensive, but worth it!”
Best for Food Sensitivities: Owyn Vegan Protein Shake
Buy It, $36
If you have dietary restrictions, Owyn’s vegan protein shakes may be the best option for you: They’re free of dairy, soy, gluten, eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts, plus they contain 20 grams of protein. “The ingredients are pretty simple and straightforward, and the protein in it comes from pea protein, pumpkin seed protein, and flax,” says New York-based registered dietitian nutritionist Sammi Brondo. The shakes have earned over 3,900 five-star ratings on Amazon, with shoppers calling them “absolutely delicious.” This option does have more sugar than other protein shakes, with 5 grams per serving.
Best Low-Calorie: Orgain Grass Fed Clean Protein Shake
Buy It, $21
Hubert recommends these protein shakes as a quick snack in between meals. Each carton is just 130 calories and contains a substantial 20 grams of protein. They do have some added sugar, but just 3 grams, and it’s sourced from ingredients like organic agave, monk fruit, and stevia. “It’s a great-tasting protein shake that is filling and energizing and great for nutrition on the go,” wrote one five-star Amazon reviewer. “I put a couple in the fridge the night before and we each grab one in the morning.”
Best Meal Replacement: Kate Farms Organic Nutrition Shake
Buy It, $48
Davar likes this vegan protein shake that’s USDA-certified organic. It contains 16 grams of plant-based protein, 38 grams of carbs, and 330 calories per serving, so it’s a solid option as a meal replacement or when you want to refuel after a particularly grueling workout. This is one of the more sugar-heavy protein shakes, with 18 grams per serving, sourced from organic agave and brown rice syrup. Reviewers say that it’s great for weight gain and tastes delicious.
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