Protein shakes are a great way to rejuvenate your body’s nutrient stores post-workout or to get additional protein throughout the day. They’re also versatile – you can mix in additional food for nutritional extra calories during a bulking phase or use a lighter version if you’re cutting. The most important decision to make is whether to use water or milk as the base.

Water adds no calories to a protein shake and allows your body to digest the protein in the supplement even faster while cow’s milk will add lots of nutrients and slow down the rate of digestion. Using water makes for a thinner shake while milk is smoother and richer. Taste and nutritional value are the two main factors when choosing to mix protein powder with milk or water, but there are a few other things to consider as well.

Read on to find out everything you need to know about cow’s milk and water as a base for your protein shakes. We’ll also highlight a few other options for vegans and lactose-intolerant people, plus a few ways you can thicken a protein shake with and without tons of extra calories.

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Different Types of Protein Powders

There are many varieties of protein powders on the market, each with its own benefits. Casein and whey protein are both lactose-based. Whey protein helps your muscles recover while casein helps them perform better during a workout. Whey is also a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids your body can’t produce and must find in food.

If you want a protein powder with any lactose, whey isolate should work for most people who don’t have a very sensitive allergy. For completely dairy-free options, try hemp or pea protein powder. Hemp protein powder doesn’t have as much protein content as whey does, but it still works great as a supplement and a protein-rich diet of whole foods can cover the difference in protein content between whey protein and hemp protein.

Pea Protein is a better option than soy protein and doesn’t have the same risk of estrogen-related effects. Besides having a comparable amount of protein to whey, pea protein also offers a few nutritional benefits like blood sugar and appetite regulation. Pea protein builds just as much muscle as whey when paired with training and has three times the amount of arginine, an amino acid used for building muscle.

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Protein Breakfasts
Protein shakes be used to give your body extra protein at critical times.

Who Should Drink Protein Shakes?

Professional athletes and bodybuilders drink protein shakes to give their body the amount of protein it needs to build a huge amount of muscles. For most other people, the right diet with enough protein sources will have enough protein to cover daily needs and build muscle. However, protein shakes can still be used to give your body extra protein at critical times.

Post-workout replenishment and pre-workout preparation are both great uses for protein shakes. People switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet can also keep their protein consumption on track with protein powder shakes. If you’re just starting a workout plan or recovering from an injury, you’re likely to see better results with the protein spike from a well-timed shake.

The human body can only absorb between 25 and 35 grams of protein per meal, so if you’re already getting that in your meals then a protein shake is not going to be worth your time. However, if you want to get extra protein at a specific time or if your diet is a bit short on protein, a shake could be the perfect solution.

Milk-Based Protein Shakes

For those who aren’t lactose intolerant and don’t have any objection to consuming animal products, mixing protein powder with cow’s milk is one of the most common ways to prepare a protein shake. The mixture tastes great and it’s smooth, unlike water-based shakes which generally feel very thin. Milk also contains additional protein so you can get even more out of a whey protein or casein powder shake.  

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You can also get extra carbohydrates from cow’s milk, which your body will use for fuel during a workout. Those extra carbs and milk’s higher fat content also bring a higher calorie count, which is great if you’re bulking but not so good if you’re trying to cut or just lose weight.

While you can get extra protein by using cow’s milk as a base for your protein shake, your body won’t absorb it as quickly. The casein protein in cow’s milk, and possibly your protein powder, is a slow-burn protein, while whey is absorbed quickly and put into action much sooner. If you’re spending money on whey protein, mixing it back in with cow’s milk negates the speed advantage.

Water-Based Protein Shakes

Mixing protein powder with water allows for everything to be processed much quicker but it also makes a thinner shake that will likely be less satiating. On the other hand, if you’re chugging a protein shake down immediately post-workout, water will be more thirst-quenching than milk and won’t sit as heavily on your gut after you drink it. Most powders also clump less when mixed with water compared to milk. 

Water is also cheaper and readily available at most gyms and offices. It doesn’t have to be refrigerated although the shake will taste better if it’s cold. Since you can carry a water bottle around without having to worry about it going bad, water-cased protein shakes are also more convenient if you need to drink one on the go. 

Can I Use Both Milk and Water for My Protein Shake?

Some lifters who have a very mild case of lactose intolerance, want to watch their calories but aren’t cutting drastically, or simply don’t enjoy drinking lots of milk use a small amount of cow’s milk and make up the difference with water. This is a great way to make the shake richer and a little more diet-friendly. There is certainly no danger to using both milk and water; it’s up to personal preference. 

If there’s no lactose intolerance or allergy, you can also use both bases strategically. For instance, you can drink milk-based protein shakes on rest days or between meals and water-based shakes immediately pre- and post-workout.

Milk vs. Water Protein Shakes for Bulking & Cutting

Maintaining a calorie surplus to build muscle mass during the bulking phase will give you ample room for the additional calories in a milk-based protein shake. Depending on the size of your surplus, you can use whole milk and add in some extras like bananas and nuts. If you’re cutting, you’re better off using a water base and skipping most of the add-ins.

If you aren’t cutting severely and want to mix protein powder with milk, consider the fat content of different types of cow’s milk:

  • Whole Milk – 3.5% Fat
  • Semi-Skimmed Milk – 1.7% – 2% Fat
  • Skimmed Milk – <0.3%

These numbers will vary with brand, but you can tell from these general categories that skim milk is best for weight loss and cutting while semi-skimmed will work for a maintenance diet and whole milk is optimal to gain muscle during a bulking phase. 

Helpful Hint: Shred fat during a cutting phase with our Body Elevate Fitplan!

Milk can provide nutrients including potassium, phosphorus, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B12, riboflavin, phosphorus, and of course protein, but it can be hard for your body to digest.

Health Benefits of Milk Proteins

There are plenty of additional health benefits of milk proteins besides their ability to boost muscle growth. You can get some of these health benefits from milk proteins like casein and whey and you’ll be adding to that if you mix your protein powder with cow’s milk. 

Milk can provide nutrients including potassium, phosphorus, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B12, riboflavin, phosphorus, and of course protein, but it can be hard for your body to digest.

The calcium in milk also helps build strong bones and teeth. That might be a secondary goal for lifters and bodybuilders, but stronger bones will also help the skeletal muscles that are attached to them.

Cow’s milk can be a high-quality protein, or complete protein, especially A2 and raw milk. If you can drink cow’s milk, you can increase these health benefits. But a whey protein shake will also give you the essential amino acids your body needs. If your body doesn’t tolerate lactose, consider some of the following alternatives.

Alternatives to Cow’s Milk for Protein Shakes

Whether it’s for ethical reasons, gut issues, personal preference, allergies, sensitivities, or lactose intolerance, many people don’t like to include cow’s milk in their diets. There are a few types of milk that are plant-based and have a similar protein content to cow’s milk. You might miss out on some of the health benefits of the whey protein in cow’s milk, but you can still get plenty of protein to build up your muscle mass.

Oat milk is a classic alternative type of milk for vegans and vegetarians who don’t want to drink cow’s milk. It doesn’t have the negative hormonal effects of soy milk, and it also has a small amount of fiber since it’s plant-based. Almond milk is another popular candidate for protein shakes, but it doesn’t have the same calcium content as cow’s milk so you’ll have to get that from food sources.

If you’re bulking and want a similar fat content to cow’s milk, coconut milk works best. It’s also incredibly rich and flavorful, but it’s more concentrated so use it sparingly and balance out the rest with water.

Helpful Hint: Build massive muscles during your bulking phase with our Dumbbells at Home Fitplan!

Calories in Protein Shake Bases

Cow’s milk has more calories and fat than water, even if you use a skim milk variety. But what’s the difference in calories?

One cup of full-fat cow’s milk has over 150 calories and up to 9 grams of fat. Semi-skimmed milk with 2% fat content has about 125 calories and under 5 grams of fat. One cup of skim milk has 94 calories and 0.6 grams of fat.

Water, of course, adds no calories, but make sure you know how many calories are in the protein powder you use. Plant-based alternatives are generally very low in calories, with the exception of coconut milk which has a whopping 445 calories and 48 grams of fat per cup. By comparison, unsweetened almond milk only has 30 calories and 2.6 grams of fat per cup.

Can I Drink More Water-Based Shakes?

Since water doesn’t add calories or fat to your diet, you might be inclined to go crazy and knock back 5 protein shakes a day. That won’t kill you, but it will waste a ton of protein powder over time. 

Studies have shown that the optimal way to meet your protein requirements is to eat 0.4 grams per kilogram of body weight at each meal for four meals a day. That will add up to a minimum of 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. If you need tons of extra protein, you can go as high as 0.55 grams of protein per kilogram of weight at each of the four meals for a daily maximum of 2.2 kilograms of protein per kilogram of body weight.

You shouldn’t be using protein shakes to completely replace entire meals and you’re very likely to surpass your daily protein requirements if you’re on a healthy diet of whole foods and consuming protein shakes. But unless you’re a professional athlete or bodybuilder spending hours upon hours working out at the gym each day, you should limit your daily protein shake intake to 3 regardless of whether you use milk or water as the base.

If you’re using a cheaper protein powder you could be consuming unknown calories and carbs with each shake, meaning 3 or 4 shakes a day could wreck all your fitness goals. Even high-quality powders are going to give you way too much protein if you drink too many shakes. So while you probably physically can drink more water-based protein shakes without feeling full, you should really only be drinking one or two.

Preparation of Water and Milk-Based Protein Shakes

Most protein powders seem to dissolve better in water than they do in milk. This is because of all the other nutrients that saturate the liquid part of milk. It can also be caused by the preparation process you use to make your shake. 

People who drink protein shakes regularly know that clumps are not always avoidable. Some methods help, like adding a cube or two of ice to the shaker to agitate the powder and make sure it keeps mixing. You can also get a heavy-duty immersion blender to make sure everything is finely cut.

The granules of your protein powder don’t actually dissolve in the milk or water you use as a base. They’re actually just mixed into a state of suspension, which is why people tend to chug their protein shakes instead of sipping them slowly. In that sense, water-based protein shakes are superior because they’re easier to drink quickly, and downing a whole glass of milk feels kind of gross. 

Regardless of the base, if you’re experiencing clumping you can try adding a small amount of base to your powder and stirring until a kind of slurry forms in the shaker. When you add the rest and shake you’ll have much fewer lumps.

How to Thicken A Protein Shake

Water protein shakes almost always come out thin, but even milk-based shakes need to be thickened up sometimes. If you’re bulking, this is easy because you can add whole foods like bananas, avocados, and peanut butter to get the job done. If you can’t afford the extra calories, try some of these other options:

Chia Seeds

A natural thickening agent that doesn’t have tons of calories, chia seeds are tasty and have tons of nutritional benefits. You might need to plan ahead and make some overnight chia yogurt to mix with your shake. Also, be sparing with the seeds because they can make the shake so thick you have to eat it with a spoon.

Acacia Fiber:

Acacia fiber comes from the acacia tree. It’s a bit hard to find but it has health benefits like reduction of IBS systems and better digestive function than other thickeners and gums. There are very few calories in pure acacia fiber so it won’t make your body build up pesky fat if you use it to thicken your protein shake.

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Powder shakes are a great way to round out your protein intake and give your body what it needs for high performance during a workout and muscle recovery afterward. The most common bases for protein shakes are milk and water, each with its own advantages. 

Water is best for calorie-conscious lifters and people who want protein in their system immediately. Milk has more nutrients and extra calories for people who are bulking up to build muscle mass. For people in between, a mixture of both or alternating between the two may be the best option. 

There are also plenty of plant-based milk options that can make a low-calorie protein shake even tastier. Whatever base you choose, adding a protein shake to your pre- or post-workout routine can help your body build muscle and replenish the nutrients it uses up to keep your body working during tough physical exertion.

(Note: Want our elite trainers to help you kickstart your fitness journey? Start your Fitplan free trial today!)  

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