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The average person is becoming more aware of the health benefits of consuming a high-protein diet, especially as part of an active lifestyle. Protein from whole foods can help fitness buffs manage their body weight whether they’re seeking weight loss or muscle gain, and protein supplements can be a convenient way to meet their protein needs. However, does it matter when you take the best protein powder?

There are now many different types of protein powder on the market, from dairy to plant-based and even beef and egg protein. And the source of protein may make a difference in when it should be consumed, especially depending on your fitness goals. 

So, are you wondering when to take protein powder? How much is too much, and is there really a benefit to eating protein before bed? As a registered sports dietitian, I’m here to answer all your lingering protein timing questions. Let’s investigate. 

Medical disclaimer: This article is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. For health advice, contact a licensed healthcare provider.

Timing Based on Protein Type

Timing your nutrients—like protein—precisely may play a critical role in the development of your athletic and body composition goals. So, let’s talk about the different types of protein powder, including what they are, what the best protein to take for your goals may be, and how (or even if) the timing of their consumption matters. 

Whey Protein

Whey protein powder is the most quickly digested form of protein powder and passes through your digestive tract to end up in your bloodstream less than an hour after intake. It’s also a complete protein since it happens to be packed with all essential amino acids, including BCAAs, that hungry muscles are hungry for, including leucine. Studies have shown that leucine intake, especially from whey protein powder, plays a key role in muscle protein synthesis1

RELATED: BCAA Benefits

whey protein powders

This makes sense, considering muscle tissue damage from weight lifting can lead to muscle loss if post-workout recovery doesn’t happen in a timely manner. By consuming a fast-digesting protein, you can mitigate this muscle loss or prevent it altogether by giving your muscles the building blocks they need before significant breakdown can occur. 

Due to its fast absorption rate, whey can be taken post-workout (during what is commonly referred to as the “anabolic window”) but can also be taken pre-workout because of its ability to clear the digestive tract quickly while causing minimal stomach upset in the process. This is why whey is widely considered to be the best protein powder type for general use.  

RELATED: Should You Drink a Protein Shake Before or After a Workout?

Soy Protein

To put it mildly, soy protein has gotten a bad reputation in the fitness community, especially among bodybuilders who avoid soy of any forms like the plague. Despite soy being one of those rare sources of plant protein products that contains all nine essential amino acids, some research has suggested that soybeans contain estrogen-adjacent compounds that can have undesirable effects on the men who consume them. However, there are just as many comprehensive studies2 that say soy intake has no effect on hormonal profiles. 

That said, there’s another problem. In 2020, the FDA reported that about 94% of American soy products contain GMOs3. We don’t have any evidence to say that consumption of GMOs is inherently harmful, but it’s something to be aware of when selecting your plant-based protein powder if GMOs are something you’d like to avoid. 

RELATED: Best Vegan Protein Powder

A group of different kinds of soy protein powder containers

Backtracking slightly, it seems that soy protein only affects hormones on an individual basis since science hasn’t been able to show without a shadow of a doubt that it can inhibit muscle growth or produce estrogen. Science has shown, however, that soy protein is less effective at muscle building, even when consumed with the same timing4 as whey protein.

Furthermore, studies have reported that soy protein—compared to whey and leucine—was less effective5 at achieving long-term muscle growth when taken post-workout. The counterpoint is a 2020 randomized control trial6 that found no difference between whey and soy. So, it appears that soy protein has all of the trappings of a great protein powder when you consider its amino acid profile, but it may not be quite as effective as whey, even with optimal timing. 

Pea Protein

Pea protein is made from dehydrated and powdered peas with the fiber removed, which helps improve its digestion speed. It’s also surprisingly high in leucine and some other BCAAs, which is why research has shown it performs similarly to whey7 in terms of its muscle building and strength-boosting abilities. 

RELATED: Best Pea Protein Powder 

A group of Pea Protein Powders

While there are many pea protein benefits—such as its lack of common food allergens—the big drawback is that it also lacks methionine, an essential amino acid, meaning it supplies less BCAAs gram for gram when compared to whey. So, if you’re looking for a more complete protein source, pea protein may not be your best move. 

That said, it’s got less of a gray area than soy in terms of how it affects the body, and given its mechanisms are similar to whey, it can also be consumed post-workout. Pea protein doesn’t appear to digest as quickly, though, so it’s not advised to take it pre-workout.

RELATED: Pea Protein vs. Whey

Casein Protein

Casein protein is a type of protein that’s found in dairy products like milk and cheeses. What differentiates casein from whey is that when milk is heated, the solid curds are skimmed off, and the liquid portion is dried and powdered to make whey. As for the protein you find in those little curds? That’s casein, my friends. 

RELATED: Casein Protein vs. Whey

Casein digests and absorbs much more slowly than whey, which has both its positives and its negatives in terms of timing, as we’ll elaborate more on later. However, compared to whey, this means that instead of amino acids hanging out in the bloodstream for only an hour or so, amino acids from whey can stick around for hours and hours8. That said, the spike in the amount of those building blocks of protein is much lower than whey, which is something to keep in mind. 

Gold Standard Casein

Though some people swear by the benefits of casein, including that its slower absorption leads to more dramatic gains in muscle mass over time, science leans towards whey and casein being very similar5 in their effectiveness. 

So, it appears casein intake can be timed similarly to whey, and you won’t be doing anything wrong. However, I have a huge point of caution: if you are lactose intolerant or your tummy generally doesn’t do well with dairy products, even the best casein protein powder may lead to some stomach upset. This is just because whey is processed from milk in a way that removes most of the lactose, but not all casein will be processed the same way. 

RELATED: Best Protein Powder for Sensitive Stomachs

Hemp Protein

Alright, let’s all calm down now. Hemp protein is processed in a way that means it lacks any THC or marijuana-containing compounds. It exists solely to give those who eat a plant-based diet another protein source that doesn’t come from animals and is derived from hemp seeds.

You may be surprised by some of the hemp protein powder benefits—like increased fiber content and sustainability—but frankly speaking, this is a pretty weak source of protein compared to the other types of protein on this list. Primarily, hemp protein doesn’t contain a lot of BCAAs or essential amino acids. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that science has shown it doesn’t perform well in terms of muscle protein synthesis or helping you with your fitness goals. 

An image of the best hemp protein powder

Finally, if you’re an athlete, it’s generally advised for you to choose another protein powder as consuming hemp protein in big enough quantities9 may put you at risk for failing a drug test. All of this considered, when talking about timing, hemp could be put to the best use as a tool to meet protein requirements without compromising your dietary preferences. 

RELATED: Best Hemp Protein Powder

Rice Protein

Rice protein fares as a more promising source of protein from a plant source. It has a digestibility rate of about 70%10, which isn’t too bad. It also has a pretty sweet amino acid profile, so sweet to the point that research has suggested it performs similarly to pea and whey protein11 in terms of muscle protein synthesis. 

An image of Transparent Labs rice and pea protein

That said, rice protein does lack lysine, a key branched chain and essential amino acid. So, using rice protein as a substitute for something like whey for purposes other than muscle gain likely isn’t the best idea. Therefore, you should time rice protein to be consumed primarily during the anabolic window. 

Protein Timing Based on Fitness Goals

Protein supplements are shrouded in the misconception that they only exist so bodybuilders can capitalize on their resistance training. However, a protein shake, when timed wisely, can have a multitude of uses and can be a convenient way to meet daily protein needs. Let’s take a peek at how you can leverage the timing of protein supplements based on your fitness goals. 

RELATED: Best Time to Drink a Protein Shake

Building Muscle

The body is constantly in a state of either muscle building (when there are enough amino acids in the system and strength adaptation from resistance training is occuring) or muscle breakdown (when muscle damage is occurring following exercise or the body isn’t getting enough food or protein). 

RELATED: What is Resistance Training? 

The key to adequately building muscle is to take measures to stay out of the state of muscle breakdown as often as possible. To do this, you need to both meet your daily protein requirements and give your body enough protein post-workout to minimize muscular damage caused by exercise-induced inflammation. This is why consuming a high-quality, fast-absorbing protein after engaging in intense physical activity is such a focus. 

The faster you can flood that muscle tissue with those sweet, sweet amino acids, the sooner your muscles can get to work at building up to be even bigger. Also, we used to think that consuming your protein shake during this anabolic window was the most important thing in the world if you wanted maximum gains. If you missed your window, you missed your opportunity for optimal hypertrophy. However, more and more recent research is telling us that, though having your protein after a workout is important, timing and portioning your protein throughout the day is even more important12

Man deadlifting in the Lululemon License To Train shorts using JerkFit Death Grips

A meta analysis published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition13 concluded that, even if you consume protein during the post-workout anabolic window, you won’t build muscle as efficiently if you aren’t enough protein to meet your daily needs or evenly distribute your protein throughout the day.

RELATED: How Much Protein Do You Need to Gain Muscle?

To put it simply, if your daily protein requirements are 150 grams per day, you’ll gain more muscle eating 50 grams of protein at breakfast, 50 grams of protein at lunch and 50 grams of protein at dinner than you would eating 30 grams, 40 grams, and 80 grams of protein respectively. 

It appears that the muscle cells just respond more favorably to a consistent protein intake, and obviously we already knew hitting our macros consistently makes a big difference. It may also indirectly help you build muscle if you time your casein protein intake before bed, but we’ll talk more about that later. 

Weight Loss

Now, if your primary reason for being all about that protein shake life is fat loss, then the time of day you consume your protein is more lax. Why use protein powder for weight loss? Protein, when compared to the other two macros, is the macronutrient known for being very effective at promoting a feeling of satiety or fullness14

RELATED: Best Time to Drink a Protein Shake for Weight Loss

A registered dietitian would look at the diet of someone trying to lose weight to ensure they have a solid daily protein intake. Think of this: if someone put a huge mixing bowl of potato chips in front of you along with a mixing bowl of shredded chicken, which do you think you could finish first? Although both are delicious, you would likely finish the chips with no problem but not get far on the bowl of chicken before you started to feel full (and maybe even queasy).

This makes a high protein diet a powerful tool for weight loss, as one of the biggest struggles with losing weight is controlling your hunger while in a calorie deficit when all you want to do is snack and cravings are running wild. With this in mind, these are the best times to have protein or a protein shake if you’re trying to lose weight:

  • Before you go out to eat to prevent overeating
  • First thing in the morning to get your hunger hormones under control for the day
  • Between meals when it’s not quite time for a meal, but you don’t want to snack on junk 

All in all, utilizing protein timing can allow you to consume fewer calories throughout the day as long as your chosen protein supplement is high in protein, but low in calories.

RELATED: High-Protein, Low-Fat Foods

Recovery

The best time to consume protein for recovery is definitely post-workout, but it could also boost recovery when consumed before bed. The key is giving your body a big enough load of amino acids to help your muscles recover from intense weight lifting and minimize muscle soreness so you can train a bit stronger during your next session. 

While eating a whole-food meal can help your muscles recover by providing enough protein throughout the day, the difference between whole foods and a protein shake is their absorption rate. A chicken burrito bowl is what RD’s call a “mixed meal,” meaning it contains carbohydrates, fiber, and fat, along with protein, and can take hours to be fully absorbed by your system. 

woman doing quad stretch

With a protein powder, the protein compounds are isolated from the food, allowing it to absorb quickly and can help mitigate soreness before muscle damage becomes too advanced. 

RELATED: Best Muscle Recovery Supplements

Performance

So, since we established that post-workout protein can help with muscle recovery and building muscle mass, you can benefit from improved performance indirectly if you take protein powder after intense activities. 

What about pre-workout, then? Well, blood glucose levels must be elevated to ensure the body has enough available fuel to generate the power and strength needed for some high-quality resistance training. 

RELATED: Best Pre-Workout Food

Given that protein slows down your digestion and doesn’t do a lot to raise blood sugar, it doesn’t really benefit athletic performance to have it pre-workout, and if you consume it along with your source of carbs, protein can also slow down the rate that your blood glucose goes up. So, a nutritionist would tell you this isn’t the best idea, but it can be done if you tolerate it well.

That said, a sports nutritionist would also tell you that you should eat a pregame meal to optimize athletic performance, especially if you are going into a competition or a bout of physical activity that is very extended or demanding. In that pregame meal, you should have a significant amount of protein just to make sure those muscles are ready to go before the event. 

This pregame meal should be consumed no less than three hours before the physical activity but no more than four hours. Since it takes about four hours for the body to fully digest most meals, this timing will give the meal enough time to fully digest so you don’t still have salmon and broccoli hopping around in your stomach while you’re on the track, field, or court. 

Protein Before Bed: A Do, or a Don’t?

Remember what I said earlier about the body either being in muscle building or muscle breakdown mode, and for optimal gains and maintenance in lean muscle, you want to stay in muscle building mode as often as possible? Having protein before bed can help you to do that.

One study published in the Journal of Nutrition15 using 44 healthy adult men who engaged in regular resistance training found that those who consumed high-quality protein before bed saw more gains in lean muscle and strength than the men given a placebo. 

That said, a similar study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that having protein before bed had the same impact on muscle growth16 as simply meeting your necessary daily protein intake and spacing that intake evenly throughout the day, as previously mentioned. 

RELATED: What Should My Macros Be?

So, should you have protein before bed? This nutritionist says yes. For one, it appears that significant gains in lean muscle occur on an individual basis, meaning it may work for some but not others. Whether you belong in either of these groups, at the very least, the practice of having nighttime protein may only help.

woman drinking quest protein

In the studies when muscle gain was seen with pre-bedtime protein ingestion, it appeared that casein was most effective. If you were paying attention earlier, you know by now that casein is a quality protein source that digests much more slowly than whey. 

This could be a critical tool for muscle recovery, as this slow digestion could translate to casein, providing your muscle tissue with a gradual dose of amino acids throughout the night while you sleep. This keeps your body in muscle-building—rather than breakdown—mode. 

Some athletes even report feeling notably less muscle soreness when having protein before bed, likely because the nocturnal amino acids are working to repair the muscular damage caused by the adaptations to resistance training. 

It’s recommended if you choose to do this, you consume both casein protein and carbohydrates before bed since the latter macronutrient elevates insulin levels, preventing catabolism. A few protein snack ideas include a casein protein shake and a banana, Greek yogurt with granola, or cheese and crackers. 

Protein Dosages: Get the Right Amount

So, I know I’ve massively talked up protein powder, but don’t get carried away. Too much protein powder in one sitting can come with unpleasant side effects like bloating, abdominal cramps, or excess gas, especially if the supplement contains the wrong kind of artificial sweeteners. 

This is because the sudden influx of fast-digesting, concentrated amino acids entering the digestive tract so quickly can overwhelm your intestines. That said, it’s a good idea not to consume more than 50 grams of protein from protein powder in one sitting unless you’re used to this amount.  

RELATED: Does Protein Powder Really Give You Protein Farts?

Another point: it’s important to remember that protein powder is a supplement, not a food, meaning it contributes plenty of protein but not many nutrients. So, it shouldn’t be your sole source of nutrition or only protein source, but a convenient way to meet high protein needs that you may have trouble meeting from whole foods alone. Otherwise, you could put yourself at risk of cutting important vitamins and minerals out of your diet, and it’s counterproductive to sacrifice your wellness for fitness goals. 

Scoop On Body Fortress Protein Powder

So, how much should you take? For fat loss, the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism17 recommends consuming 2.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. When you do the math on this, protein needs get quite high, which is why protein powder can be a convenient way of meeting these numbers when combined with quality protein from whole foods. 

RELATED: High-Protein Diet Side Effects

You can get enough protein for both muscle growth and maintenance by consuming about 1.3 to 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight18. However, needs could be much higher for individuals who are very well trained or have an appreciable amount of muscle mass to maintain. 

Finally, if you want to try before-bed protein supplementation, the studies that produced positive results found that 30 grams of casein protein19 plus 15 grams of carbohydrate induced more muscle protein synthesis.

As I’ve mentioned before, as long as you’re meeting these daily protein goals as they apply to you and distributing them as evenly throughout the day as you can, you don’t have to worry so much about how much protein and when to ingest pre or post-workout. 

That said, if you are participating in a competition such as a game or a race, protein timing is key. In that case, you should seek counseling from a sports dietitian to sketch out how many macros you need and when to eat them to maximize your athletic performance. 

When to Take Protein Powder: Final Thoughts 

There are numerous fitness and health benefits to eating enough protein, and protein powder can make your life a lot easier as you work towards increasing your protein intake. However, some protein powders are better than others, and it appears whey is the gold standard for covering most fitness and wellness goals. 

Furthermore, unless you have specific, short-term performance goals, the timing of protein intake is probably not as big of a deal as you’ve been led to believe. The idea of an anabolic window is becoming more and more of a myth than the law it once was.

As far as protein before bed, the jury is out on this being definitively effective for muscle growth and recovery, but it can’t hurt integrating the practice into your routine if it makes sense to your lifestyle. All in all, it appears that, in terms of timing, even distribution and total daily protein intake are the most important to support lean muscle mass.

When to Take Protein Powder: FAQs

Is it better to drink a protein shake

It may be better to drink your protein shake after a workout, as protein intake before a workout can cause stomach problems and even inhibit performance. 

Should I take protein powder every day?

It’s perfectly fine to take protein powder every day as long as most of your protein intake is coming from whole foods. 

Is protein powder better in the morning or night?

You can take protein powder at whichever time is most convenient for you as long as you are meeting your daily protein needs. However, it may be more beneficial to consume certain types of protein powder at night, like casein. 

RELATED: What is Casein Protein?

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any diseases.

References

  1. Bukhari SS, Phillips BE, Wilkinson DJ, et al. Intake of low-dose leucine-rich essential amino acids stimulates muscle anabolism equivalently to bolus whey protein in older women at rest and after exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2015;308(12):E1056-E1065. doi:10.1152/ajpendo.00481.2014 
  2. Messina M. Soy and Health Update: Evaluation of the Clinical and Epidemiologic Literature. Nutrients. 2016 Nov 24;8(12):754. doi: 10.3390/nu8120754. PMID: 27886135; PMCID: PMC5188409.
  3. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Gmo Crops, Animal Food, And Beyond. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Accessed November 22, 2023. https://www.fda.gov/food/agricultural-biotechnology/gmo-crops-animal-food-and-beyond
  4. Volek JS, Volk BM, Gómez AL, et al. Whey protein supplementation during resistance training augments lean body mass. J Am Coll Nutr. 2013;32(2):122-135. doi:10.1080/07315724.2013.793580
  5. Mobley CB, Haun CT, Roberson PA, et al. Effects of Whey, Soy or Leucine Supplementation with 12 Weeks of Resistance Training on Strength, Body Composition, and Skeletal Muscle and Adipose Tissue Histological Attributes in College-Aged Males. Nutrients. 2017;9(9):972. Published 2017 Sep 4. doi:10.3390/nu9090972
  6. Lynch HM, Buman MP, Dickinson JM, Ransdell LB, Johnston CS, Wharton CM. No Significant Differences in Muscle Growth and Strength Development When Consuming Soy and Whey Protein Supplements Matched for Leucine Following a 12 Week Resistance Training Program in Men and Women: A Randomized Trial. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 May 29;17(11):3871. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17113871. PMID: 32486007; PMCID: PMC7312446.
  7. Babault N, Païzis C, Deley G, et al. Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. Whey protein. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015;12(1):3. Published 2015 Jan 21. doi:10.1186/s12970-014-0064-5
  8. Luiking YC, Abrahamse E, Ludwig T, Boirie Y, Verlaan S. Protein type and caloric density of protein supplements modulate postprandial amino acid profile through changes in gastrointestinal behaviour: A randomized trial. Clin Nutr. 2016;35(1):48-58. doi:10.1016/j.clnu.2015.02.013
  9. Leson G, Pless P, Grotenhermen F, Kalant H, ElSohly MA. Evaluating the impact of hemp food consumption on workplace drug tests. J Anal Toxicol. 2001 Nov-Dec;25(8):691-8. doi: 10.1093/jat/25.8.691. PMID: 11765026.
  10. Jayaprakash G, Bains A, Chawla P, Fogarasi M, Fogarasi S. A Narrative Review on Rice Proteins: Current Scenario and Food Industrial Application. Polymers (Basel). 2022;14(15):3003. Published 2022 Jul 25. doi:10.3390/polym14153003
  11. Joy JM, Lowery RP, Wilson JM, et al. The effects of 8 weeks of whey or rice protein supplementation on body composition and exercise performance. Nutr J. 2013;12:86. Published 2013 Jun 20. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-12-86
  12. Deutz NE, Wolfe RR. Is there a maximal anabolic response to protein intake with a meal? Clin Nutr. 2013 Apr;32(2):309-13. doi: 10.1016/j.clnu.2012.11.018. Epub 2012 Dec 1. PMID: 23260197; PMCID: PMC3595342.
  13. Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA, Krieger JW. The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013;10(1):53. Published 2013 Dec 3. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-10-53

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