Can You Drink Protein Shakes Without Working Out? The Hard Facts

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Protein shakes are surprisingly divisive: people seem to either love them or hate them.

Most people associate protein shakes only with meatheads at the gym, avid bodybuilders, or serious athletes training for a competition of some sort, but can you drink protein shakes without working out?

Do protein shakes make you gain weight without working out?

In this article, we will look at the effects of drinking protein shakes and will answer the question, “Can you drink protein shakes without working out?”

We will cover: 

  • What Do Protein Shakes Do?
  • What Happens If You Drink Protein Shakes Without Working Out?
  • Can You Drink Protein Shakes Without Working Out?

Let’s jump in!

Protein power and a protein shake. Can you drink protein shakes without working out?

What Do Protein Shakes Do?

Before we explore the effects of drinking protein shakes without exercising, it’s useful to cover the basics of what protein shakes do in the body.

The term “protein shake” is a loose term that can be used to describe any sort of high-protein drink made with different ingredients.

Although most protein shakes are made with protein powder, it’s also possible to make protein shakes with whole food ingredients like Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and milk.

The type of protein powder can span the gamut from single-ingredient or multi-ingredient plant-based protein powders like brown rice, pea, hemp, or soy to animal-based protein powders like whey, casein, egg, and collagen.

Protein powders may be flavored and sweetened with real or artificial sweeteners and flavorings, or they may be unflavored.

Scoops of protein powders.

Many protein powders used in protein shakes are fortified with vitamins and minerals such as iron, vitamin B12, zinc, and niacin.

The most basic protein shakes are made with just protein powder and water, while the next step up includes simple recipes like protein powder and plain cow’s milk or a plant-based milk like almond milk, rice milk, or oat milk.

From there, the range and variety of ingredients used in protein shake recipes rapidly explode in diversity, along with the nutritional content.

Many protein shakes recipes include a banana and 1-2 tablespoons of peanut or other nut butter.

More elaborate recipes for protein shakes might include other fruits like berries or peaches, Greek yogurt, avocado or frozen cauliflower, and more.

Due to the diversity in the constituent ingredients in a protein shake, it’s hard to place specific numbers of protein shake nutrition facts in a general sense.

Protein shakes and oatmeal.

With that said, when protein shakes are made with just one scoop of protein powder and water or milk, they usually contain around 25-30 grams of protein and 200-300 calories. 

The higher end of things would be if the protein shake is made with dairy milk.

When using only water or unsweetened almond milk, the grams of fat and carbohydrates in the protein shake will be minimal. 

Protein shakes made with cow’s milk will have additional protein, carbohydrates, and fat (unless you use skim milk).

Once you start adding banana, nut butter, and yogurt, the calories, fat, and carbohydrates increase substantially.

These protein shakes can contain anywhere between 300-800 calories or so, up to 20 grams of fat, and 15-50 grams of carbohydrates.

Based on the nutrition in a protein shake, the primary function of a protein shake is to facilitate muscle protein synthesis or the process of muscle repair and growth.

The muscles, like all tissues, are constantly in a state of breakdown and rebuilding based on the activities we do.

A protein shake in a shaker.

For example, anytime you exercise, you create microscopic damage to the muscle fibers.

This damage signals the body to shuttle amino acids to the muscles so that they can be assembled into reparative proteins.

As long as you have the available resources, the muscle fibers will be repaired and strengthened with new proteins formed by muscle protein synthesis.

These “resources” come from the foods you eat—proteins are broken down into amino acids. 

Additionally, the body needs an adequate amount of calories to carry out muscle protein synthesis because it is an energy-requiring process.

This is why most health and fitness experts say that you need to be in a slight caloric surplus (consuming 10-20% more calories per day than you’re burning) to really facilitate significant hypertrophy or muscle growth.

When protein shakes provide other nutrients, namely carbohydrates and fats, they offer additional sources of energy. 

Carbohydrates can be used to replenish depleted glycogen stores after a hard workout, while fats provide satiety and support cellular membranes, skin, and hormone production.

Bananas and a protein shake.

What Happens If You Drink Protein Shakes Without Working Out?

As can be seen, protein shakes provide the ideal post-workout nutrition.

They have the protein needed for acquiring the amino acids that will be assembled into new proteins to repair, rebuild, and strengthen muscle fibers, calories to support the muscle protein synthesis process, and if there is fruit, yogurt, or another form of carbohydrates in the shake, it will also help replenish depleted muscle and liver glycogen.

But what happens if you drink a protein shake without exercising? Can you drink protein shakes without working out?

Ultimately, it depends.

The effects of drinking protein shakes without working out depend on four primary factors:

  1. The protein shake recipe, which will determine the protein shake nutrition facts.
  2. What else you’re eating in a day—in other words, your overall diet (calories, carbohydrates, protein, fat).
  3. Whether or not you usually exercise, and what sorts of workouts you do.
  4. How often you drink protein shakes without working out.

Let’s briefly look at each of these individually:

A person drinking a protein shake.

Protein Shake Nutrition Facts

The effects of drinking a protein shake without working out will depend a lot on the ingredients used to make the protein shake.

As described at the beginning of the article, the number of calories and the overall nutrition facts of a protein shake vary widely depending on the recipe used.

If you are drinking a protein shake with just protein powder and water or unsweetened almond milk, you’re going to be getting far fewer calories and additional nutrients than if you’re drinking a souped-up protein shake with lots of fruit, nut butter, and other add-ins.

Your Overall Diet

The rest of what you eat during a day plays a major role in what happens when you drink a protein shake without working out.

If you drink a protein shake for breakfast without exercising but don’t eat any other foods until lunch, you’ve substituted a meal for a protein shake. 

This will have little to no adverse effect on your health and caloric intake and may actually be healthier than what you were previously eating.

A similar thing can be said for any meal or snack that you replace with a protein shake: if the caloric content is similar, you may actually be improving your nutrition and health, provided you’re using a clean protein powder free from fillers, chemicals, or excessive sweeteners.

If the calorie content in the protein shake is less than what you were previously eating in a meal or lower than your energy needs, you will lose weight by drinking protein shakes.

On the other hand, if you add protein shakes to your diet without exercising and without making compensatory cuts elsewhere in what you’re eating (and are in a caloric surplus), you will gain weight.

A person making a protein shake.

Your Exercise Habits

If you typically work out by lifting weights, running, or doing some other intense exercise, occasionally drinking protein shakes without working out that day will have little to no effect.

Your muscles can still be undergoing the repair process up to 48-72 hours or so after a workout, so your body will just use the protein in the protein shake to provide more amino acid building blocks for your muscle fibers.

If you never work out, your body’s protein needs are much lower because the muscles aren’t undergoing as much damage plus your energy needs are lower.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the National Academy of Medicine recommend that for general health, the average adult should strive for a daily protein intake of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram or 0.35 grams per pound of body weight.

In contrast, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends that athletes consume at least 1.2–2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. 

Therefore, if you consume excessive protein without working out, there’s a greater chance that the protein and calories in protein shakes will be converted to triglycerides and stored as fat.

Various protein shakes.

How Often You Drink Protein Shakes Without Working Out

Drinking an occasional protein shake without working out will have little to no positive or negative effect on the body, but if it’s habitual, the excess calories can add up.

A caloric surplus of 3,500 calories results in gaining one pound of body fat. If each protein shake has about 300 calories, you’re looking at drinking about 10 protein shakes without exercising to gain one pound (provided you don’t eat less).

Can You Drink Protein Shakes Without Working Out?

You can certainly drink protein shakes without working out; there’s no rule that you must exercise to have a protein shake. There are plenty of people who drink protein shakes who don’t work out regularly, or perhaps they do exercise fairly often but also regularly drink protein shakes on days when they’re not working out.

With that said, depending on where you land on the factors that affect what happens if you drink a protein shake without exercising, you may experience weight changes, and you won’t put on appreciable muscle.

Although some amount of muscle repair is always occurring, you won’t see significant muscle growth unless you’re doing heavy resistance training. The muscle fibers need to be broken down in order to trigger significant growth.

So, can you drink protein shakes without working out?

If you want to drink protein shakes without working out, think about your overall body composition goals and the overall context of your diet. See what adjustments you can make to facilitate these goals.

A person holding a protein shake shaker.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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