Let’s get one thing clear before we begin—whole food is king. When it comes to fueling our bodies, evolution reigns supreme. We have evolved over tens of thousands of years to run well on certain foods. Eating unprocessed, whole foods should always be the goal. Now there are some instances where the use of nutritional shakes is not only acceptable but beneficial, especially in the pursuit of physical performance and enhancing our physique. I want to talk about those moments.
Sometimes using a nutritional shake is born out of necessity. There are times when even the most prepared individual (like me) will not have a freshly prepared meal at his disposal. In this case, you have two options: eat junk or skip a meal. Neither option is ideal, especially for the dedicated athlete. In this situation, the use of a nutritional shake is more than acceptable in my opinion, assuming that shake meets certain criteria.
First, the shake must digest efficiently and completely. If drinking a shake causes gastrointestinal distress, then as far as I’m concerned, you’re better off not drinking it. Second, the macronutrient profile of the shake should mimic that of a proper whole food meal. After all, if my goal is to replace a meal, then the amounts AND ratio of carbs, proteins, and fats should each be similar to that of a meal I’d prepare myself. To me, this approach is the ideal—the standard.
In some circumstances, you’ll have a freshly prepared meal but not enough time to eat it. I don’t know about you, but it takes me a good while to finish a meal because I don’t rush it. You have to spend time chewing your food properly for proper digestion to take place. Doing so will allow you to eat your next meal more easily too. Having a quality, nutritionally balanced shake at our disposal can truly save the day. You can down a shake in a minute or two without any chewing. The difference between fulfilling your macronutrient requirements and falling short can make all the difference.
I’ve said all along that whole food meals are superior to nutritional shakes. Well there may be one exception to this rule. Today, everyone knows that you should drink a shake immediately after training, right? Actually, no. I don’t personally agree. For years, I’ve eaten a whole food meal following my training. After all, it’s not like I have to worry about eating too closely to my next workout. There are times when I’ll throw down a Universal Carbo Plus drink (mixed with Universal Creatine and Glutamine) right after training, and before eating that meal, but I have never really felt I needed to have a shake after training.
The ideal time to consume a shake comes before training. Eat a solid meal too close to a tough workout and it may make an encore appearance. However, a shake can be consumed closer to training than a meal. This is important because you will have more energy to fuel your training (and you won’t get nauseated) and you’ll be at less of a deficit from your training (enhancing your recovery). An efficiently-digesting shake with the proper macronutrient profile should give you serious muscle fullness and pump during your training. If you can squeeze a shake in before training and still be able to continue with your eating as planned post-training, then you’ve added a bonus nutritional “hit” into your eating for the day.
I keep referring to a certain type of nutritional shake because not all shakes are created equal. Those of you who know me know I’ve never relied on nutritional shakes. It’s not that I don’t believe in them, it’s just that there has never been a shake that met my needs or my stringent requirements. A quality nutritional shake has to provide me with clear benefits, like convenience. It also has to supply me with the right nutrition and the correct balance of macronutrients. Finally, it also has to digest better and faster than a whole food meal. If I’m going to drink it and use it as a substitute for a whole food meal, then all of these requirements must be met: convenience, nutritional value, and superior digestibility.
But a quality nutritional shake serves another important purpose as well. Shakes can serve as a “stepping stone” to another meal. For example, let’s say you’re currently consuming 5 whole foods meals daily. You have to be conscious of your timing to make this happen, but you do it every day and you grow accustomed to it. Your training is going great and you’re pushing yourself every time you train. As you grow, you soon find yourself needing more calories. The jump from 5 to 6 whole food meals might be daunting. But going with 5 whole food meals plus one quality shake can serve as a stepping stone to that 6th meal later.
After several weeks of consuming that shake as your 6th meal, you will find the idea of adding a 6th whole food meal much easier. In other words, you can successfully use a shake to “train” your body for eating that 6th meal. This isn’t going to work well if all you’re taking down is a couple of scoops of protein. That’s a far cry from a shake with the profile of a proper meal. Use a complete nutritional shake with balanced macros and it will be as pain-free as it gets.
I understand that many people will decry the use of shakes and cite the superiority of freshly prepared food. Hey, I agree. I won’t argue with well over a hundred thousand years of human evolution. But I’m also a realist. I know that life isn’t always perfect and a steaming plate of food isn’t always being handed to me. I know that I won’t always have 30 minutes to properly eat and chew that food. Practically speaking, a quality shake that is balanced and digests well can be used in ways that meals can’t. The right shake can allow you to get nutrition that you might otherwise miss. It might even help you bridge the gap between what you’re currently doing and what you want to be doing. And what we all want to be doing is growing.