Between pre-workout powders and post-workout protein chips, electrolyte chews, and creatine pills, it seems a new sports supplement is hitting the market every day. One of the latest options to enter the fold resides in the refrigerator section of many big box gyms and studios: protein water,
But is protein water actually beneficial for your health? Ahead, Reda Elmardi, R.D., C.S.C.S, registered dietician, certified strength and conditioning coach, and founder of wellness site The Gym Goat, breaks down all you need to know about protein water.
What Is Protein Water, Exactly?
Protein water is exactly what you think: water infused with protein. And it's lower in fat and calories than your typical protein shake. Sold in the supplement section of many grocery stores or drugstores, protein water includes roughly as much of the macronutrient as other post-workout protein supplements. If you survey the most popular brands, you'll find that one 16-ounce serving of protein water typically contains around 15 to 20 grams of protein and about 100 calories. Obviously, instead of a protein bar or a shake, protein water comes in the form of a fruity liquid.
Recently, many brands have hopped on the protein water bandwagon as the trend has taken off. The brands you're most likely to spot on your local grocery store shelf or in your gym's fridge include Protein2o, Ascent, and Trimino, but Gatorade, Vital Proteins, and Ready. "While the various protein water options may taste different and have stronger or less strong flavors, they all contain similar ingredients," according to Elmardi. The vast majority, for instance, contain whey protein isolate, which is a non-vegan protein extracted from cow milk. (Exceptions would be those that get protein from animal-based collagen peptides, such as Vital Proteins Collagen Water, or a vegan protein, such as pea protein found in My Vegan Protein Water.)
Are Protein Water Drinks Healthy?
Ultimately, any food or drink can be incorporated into a healthy diet so long as it's done so in moderation or under the guidance of a healthcare provider. That said, protein waters are generally low in sugar, calories, and sodium, and free of fat and cholesterol, so they may be helpful if you're trying to limit any of the above. (The Ultimate List of High-Protein Foods)
"Despite being sweet in taste, protein water is usually quite low in sugar," says Elmardi. The Ascent Orange Mango Recovery Water, for instance, contains just 2 grams of sugar per 17-ounce serving. If you do the math, a similar amount of orange juice can contain nearly 40 grams of sugar. As it goes, protein water has about the same amount of sugar as pre-packaged protein shakes, which are often also quite low in sugar. Though, it's worth noting that both protein water and protein shake products usually contain some artificial sweeteners such as sucralose or stevia, which may be harmful to certain populations (e.g. people who suffer from migraines), according to research.
Protein water is also pretty low in calories. To give you an idea, Protein2o contains 60 calories, Ascent contains 100 calories, and Ready contains 90 calories, each for one 17-ounce serving. That means protein water contains fewer calories than many pre-made protein shakes, making protein water superior for people trying to put on muscle mass and lose weight at the same time, says Elmardi. Protein water can be consumed by those looking to add muscle and mass, but because traditional protein shakes are higher in calories they may be the better option for people having a hard time hitting their caloric goals, he says.
Benefits of Protein Water
Thanks in large part to its star macronutrient, protein water offers several perks.
Supports Post-Workout Recovery
Protein water's main claim to fame is that it supports post-exercise recovery. Indeed, many of these protein-infused beverages are marketed specifically as recovery drinks. To grasp why this elixir is best after a bout of exercise — especially weighted exercises — you have to understand how muscle growth happens.
When you exercise, you create microscopic tears in your muscles, explains Elmardi. (Sounds counterintuitive, but trust, these tears are ultimately helpful.) After your workout, your body mends those tears by rebuilding muscle fibers. To do this, requires amino acids, which are the building blocks that make up protein, explains Elmardi. To support this muscle repair, it's best to consume a protein-rich snack within two hours of training, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN). And that's exactly where protein water comes in.
"Protein water contains high levels of branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) which stimulate muscle growth and repair damaged cells," explains Elmardi. And so chugging one of these drinks post-workout can support muscle-building goals, he says.
Depending on your specific fitness goals, to really upgrade your post-workout nutrition you may want to nosh on some carbs alongside the protein water, e.g. a banana, rice, or oatmeal. When you exercise, your body uses your stored carbs as its first source of fuel, explains Elmardi. If you fit in a lengthy (we're talking 60-minute) sweat session, you'll need to replenish those carbs with about 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates, according to the ISSN.
With, on average, just 5 to 10 grams of carbohydrates per bottle, protein water alone doesn't offer enough carbohydrates to meet that recovery criterion. (FTR, that's a similar amount of carbs to what you'll find in most protein shakes, so this is something you'll run into with most pre-made protein drinks).
While the macronutrient is obviously the main draw of protein water, it'd be a mistake to ignore that the drink also contains quite a bit of, well, water, which isn't true of all protein supplements. "The drink is great for hydration," says Elmardi. "Following a workout, drinking protein water can help reduce symptoms of dehydration such as muscle cramps, headaches, or fatigue." (Related: How Much Water Do You Actually Need to Drink Per Day?)
Counts Toward Daily Protein Needs
Just because you sip protein water after you sweat doesn't mean you can't benefit from it on your rest days. The macronutrient isn't just for muscle growth and repair — research shows it can also support healthy digestion, hormone regulation, and skin and tissue health, explains Elmardi.
Exactly how much protein you need per day varies based on your goals and current body weight. "If you are looking to build muscle mass, then you want to consume around 1 to 1.5 grams per pound of body weight," says Elmardi. This helps you recover faster from training sessions and allows you to gain lean muscle mass, he says. If, however, you are trying to lose weight, then you may want to consume 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day, he says. So, a 150-pound athlete would want to consume 150 to 225 grams of protein per day if they were looking to increase muscle mass, or roughly 120 grams of protein each day if they were looking to lose weight.
Regardless, it's possible to meet your recommended protein intake without supplementation through protein water or otherwise and instead with whole foods alone. For a frame of reference, a 3.5-ounce (fist-sized) portion of grilled chicken contains over 30 grams of protein and a 3-ounce slab of salmon contains nearly 20 grams. (See: The Ultimate List of High-Protein Foods)
Can Aid In Weight Maintenance
Healthy weight loss may be a side effect of a combo of regular exercise and a post-workout protein water drink. And exercisers who replace their post-workout protein shake with protein water likely will drop some pounds, according to Elmardi. "If you're trying to lose weight, drinking protein water is a much healthier alternative to consuming protein shakes," he says. "You won't have to worry about gaining extra pounds from the high-calorie content of protein shakes."
Plus, the macronutrient breakdown of protein water is spelled out on the package. So, if you keep an eye on macro consumption in order to lose (or gain or maintain!) weight, these pre-packaged bottles make it easy to keep a tally.
Who Should Be Drinking Protein Water?
For the most part, protein water is marketed for athletes — everyday exercisers and advanced pros alike. So if you work out frequently and have specific fitness goals in mind, protein water may be best for you. To put it simply, "protein water is best for people who are looking for a quick protein hit after a workout," says Elmardi.
Protein water is also especially useful for anyone who has a hard time meeting their daily protein needs, he says. This often includes vegetarians and vegans, who may not get enough protein through their regular diet, he says. Protein water can also be helpful for people who are pregnant or moms who are nursing as well as those who are recovering from surgery or illness, since both groups have higher protein needs, adds Elmardi.
The only people who should avoid protein water are those who are on a lower-protein diet for health reasons, e.g. those with kidney disease or disorders that interfere with protein metabolism. You should also avoid these kinds of products if you try them and get a stomach ache from artificial sweeteners, recommends Elmardi. "Some people may experience gastrointestinal distress after drinking protein water, so if that occurs, then it's best to avoid drinking protein water altogether," he says. But, so long as you tolerate all the ingredients in your protein drink of choice, the odds of this happening are quite low.
At the end of the day, protein water can be a convenient way to make sure you're including enough of the nutrient in your diet. However, if you're not sold on the beverage, you can find protein in a wide range of other supplements or whole foods.