It's big. It's bad. It's coming. It's swimsuit season, where every day is Judgement Day.
Getting a bodacious beach bod is as much an out-of-the-gym job as it is an in-gym one. You can workout 24/7, but if you scarf down the cupcakes after each workout, kiss those dreams of a taut physique good-bye. Diet, as much as a dedicated workout regime, is critical to avoid the toned-up beach bums from being, well, critical.
After you work out, you have a window of a half hour (and no more than that) to get something in your system before your body starts robbing Peter to pay Paul to fix all the microtears in your muscle fiber (a crucial step in the lose-weight-gain-muscle process). If you don't eat something, be prepared for a very sore morning after, and very slow results. An excellent way to avoid this fate, and help you along, dwells in those mysterious concoctions lurking behind the gym juice counter: the protein shake.
But considering what gyms can charge for a protein shake, it makes good economic sense to make your own. Protein is a major source the body uses to make more muscle, and is top on the grocery lists of bodybuilders and other athletes. A typical gym-rat will have one, maybe two, shakes on hand for a post-workout pick-me-up. And it's not like this is a closely-guarded secret: Sports nutrition stores have long since proliferated, offering a cornucopia of brands aimed at every consumer, each more ridiculously named than the last, and all promising “THIS IS SPARTA!” physiques.
So it goes without saying that shopping for a protein supplement isn’t as easy as it looks. There are different kinds for different results. Muscle is what makes a "toned body," but what degree of it are you looking for? Are you a professional bodybuilder? Casual athlete? Are you trying to gain weight, or mass? Are you trying to loose weight, or become more toned? Charles Atlas or Cindy Crawford? Some brands you take before you work out, others after, and still others during. What you end up buying largely depends on what result you want. There is no one-size-fits-all protein. In other words, it’s time to do your research.
But there are goods ones…and better ones. Protein can be derived from several sources, such as egg whites or soy, and each source is rated according to the BV (“biological value”) scale. If a particular source scores 100 on the BV scale, it means that the body absorbs it fully with no leftovers. Egg whites get an A++ on this test with a full 100, but in a serious blow to vegans, bean-based protein rates a dismal 49. Two good egg white-based brands are Jay Robb and Optimum Nutrition.
Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey
Whey protein and casein (in that order) also land at the top of the BV list. Both are extracted from the matrix left over after milk is converted into cheese, and are two of the fastest acting of any protein source. They digest quickly and enter the bloodstream just as quickly so the body can use them to build muscle tissue. Grizzly Protein from Eat The Bear and top-seller Gold Standard 100% Whey are two reliable sources. As a side note, be skeptical of the banners that herald "amino acids;" while vital to any healthy diet, these are the building-blocks of the protein themselves. If you get a good protein, you get good amino acids. Extra aminos don't hurt, and can even help you further, but protein is the main star of the muscle-making process.
Skip protein bars. Why? Look at the ingredients list and check out the sugar content; it is often as high as a candy bar, and to get the same amount of protein you get with a single shake, you may end up consuming several bars...and all that comes with them. Powders are sweetened as well, but usually with far less sweetening agents.
What's with all the sugar, you ask? Protein by itself tastes awful. All protein-makers will add some sort of sweetener, and, insofar as you don’t want to gag, only be concerned about additives if they get out of hand. If sweeteners and thickeners are the first things on the ingredients list, put that product back on the shelf. The afore-mentioned Grizzly Protein prides itself on being particularly bare-bones when it comes to extras.
Also know that no protein by itself is a magic bullet. A common mistake people make is that they can take a protein shake and miraculously build muscle without actually working out. No such luck. If it were that easy, we would all look Spartan.
The Cheat Sheet:
Eat The Bear (ETB)