The scene: You walk into a convenience store, workout complete, dripping in sweat. You don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, but you know you need protein—and fast. To the right is the deli counter, replete with questionable, how-long-have-those-been-sitting-there ingredients. To the left, though? That cooler jam-packed with juices, milks, and an array of ready-to-drink protein shakes.
RTDs, as they’re known in industry lingo, can be lifesavers for fitness enthusiasts on the go, especially when the alternative—making your own smoothie—requires so much more time and energy. To do it yourself, you’d have to go home, pray you have fruit on the counter, hope there’s still protein powder in the tub, blend it all together, get the proportions all wrong, drink it anyway, clean the blender, cut your finger cleaning the blender—you get the picture. “Shakes can be a great way to recover from a strenuous workout,” says Lisa Hayim, MS, RD. “The fact that they’re premade adds an important convenience factor.”
Of course, drinks that come in plastic containers and almost always have a hint of chalkiness to their taste are not ideal. But for when you’re in a pinch, Hayim walks us through what you should be looking for in that grab-and-go blend—and gives us the baseball card highlights on five of the most popular options out there.
A brief recap of why this matters in the first place: Your muscles aren’t going to just build themselves after a tough workout. When you get in a pump, you’re breaking down your muscle tissue. All that lifting results in a bunch of microscopic tears, and it’s the healing of those tears that allows your muscles to come back bigger—like, Jonas Brothers revival-level bigger—and better than before.
But in order to kick-start this rebuilding process, your body needs fuel first. “You should be looking for a post-workout option with carbs, protein, and a little fat—without adding too much sugar,” says Hayim. Aim for a 2:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein, and rely on whole, organic food sources instead of refined grains and added sugars. Think of it this way: In the best protein shakes, blending an actual apple is great; chugging apple juice is not.
Warning: The shakes in that cooler usually don’t check either of these boxes. Many of them offer a 1:2 ratio of carbohydrates to protein, or 1:1 at best. In other words, protein shakes are meant to be just that—a protein source. Further supplementation may be necessary for optimal results. “If you’re looking to up your carbs in addition to your shake, it may be worthwhile to grab a banana or a piece of toast to go with it,” Hayim says.
Core Power High Protein Milk Shake, Chocolate
The numbers: 170 calories, 26 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar.
The lowdown: Having consumed this one myself after a long run just last weekend, I can attest that it tastes a whole lot more like a glass of chocolate milk than a protein shake. The good news? The taste isn’t the only good thing about it. “The fact that it contains real dairy means that you’re getting a complete protein—all the essential amino acids—which assists in muscle repair and growth,” says Hayim. “Despite containing dairy, it is free of lactose, making it easier to digest for those with lactose intolerance.”
OWYN Plant-Based Protein Drink, Chocolate
The numbers: 180 calories, 20 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar.
The lowdown: OWYN is completely plant-based, yet still packs in the nine essential amino acids necessary for recovery. “It’s free of stevia, sugar alcohols and anything artificial,” says Hayim. “I love that it also contains a blend of greens from kale, spinach and broccoli.” With about four grams of sugar—the exact number varies by flavor—OWYN drinks are also free of allergens like dairy, soy, wheat, peanuts, and eggs.
The not-so-good? It contains sunflower oil, which some research has connected to inflammation, part of the body’s response to tissue damage or infection. While some inflammation can be critical to muscle growth, chronic inflammation can lead to issues like heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis. But! “In the amount used in this product, I wouldn’t nit-pick,” says Hayim.
Premier Protein High Protein Shake, Chocolate
The numbers: 160 calories, 30 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar.
The lowdown: Holy musclehead. At 30 grams of protein, we’re full just looking at this nutrition label. One gram of sugar is a great place to start. However, Hayim notes that this one isn’t organic, and is loaded with artificial ingredients.
Odwalla Protein Shake, Chocolate
The numbers: 410 calories, 32 grams protein, 53 grams carbohydrates, 47 grams sugar.
The lowdown: We know what you’re thinking: Guys, this has the appropriate carbs-to-protein ratio. Well, the good news is that you’re learning. But the carbs are bad carbs: This drink has a whopping 47 grams of sugar, which is equal to 11 teaspoons. I have a headache just thinking about this.
Muscle Milk Pro Series, Knockout Chocolate
The numbers: 160 calories, 32 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar.
The lowdown: The company says this drink has the same amount of protein as four eggs, 3.6 ounces of chicken breast, or four 8-ounce glasses of milk. In other words, protein-wise, it’s a total meal replacement.
“Considering this only has one gram of sugar, this isn’t awful,” says Hayim. “However, it’s not organic, has artificial ingredients, and also packs in canola and sunflower oil—which, again, may trigger inflammation.”
WellWell Protein, Coconut Chai
The numbers: 190 calories, 16 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar.
The lowdown: With flavors like coconut chai and dark cacao, WellWell’s selections satisfy the hipster in all of us. They also have 16 grams of plant-based protein in the soy- and dairy-free formula, and uses natural spices like nutmeg and cinnamon to get down to only four grams of sugar.
The only two cons? Price point, and very few carbs.
The good news: Grab yourself a 25-cent banana, and you’ve got the perfect post-workout combo.