I usually suggest people to eat whole foods as opposed to protein shakes, and to drink protein shakes as their last option. Whole food meals are going to be your best bet for improving body composition, and your diet should consist of mostly whole foods. I do think however, there is a time and a place for protein powder. You shouldn’t just nix them out altogether.
Times of convenience
Protein powder is just more convenient to tote around as opposed to a chicken breast. I am a full-time student, and most of my classes are back to back. Some teachers don’t care about eating in class, but some do. This is when a protein shake comes in handy. This also applies to people who work at a job that they can’t exactly take 20 minutes to eat a chicken and rice meal every 2-3 hours. Other times like traveling, and any other everyday life responsibilities could also not let you have time to eat, but you can almost always drink a shake.
When you are really pushing calories high
Another good time to use protein powders is when you are pushing calories, and are struggling to get the meals in. I have the appetite of a bird. On my high carb days, I am pushing around 5-6k calories and on normal training days around 4k. Sometimes I just don’t have the appetite to down a steak and rice meal every 2 or 3 hours. 2 cups plus of rice, and a 5-6oz steak is a lot of food volume. But If I opt for something like a whey protein shake and a simple carbohydrate such as kid’s cereal or something, that is easy to put down, and it digests quickly, so within a few hours I will be hungry again as opposed to still feeling full. However, If I was in a prep or trying to lose weight, I wouldn’t be opting for a protein shake and kid’s cereal. When you’re hungry, you are going to feel much fuller between meals eating steak and rice and veggies as opposed to a whey shake and kid’s cereal.
I almost don’t even want to put a post workout section in an article about the best times to use protein powder, but this point kind of piggy backs from the previous paragraph. I think if you can, it is best to eat a whole food meal post workout, such as steak and rice. However, after a hard leg or back day, it can be very challenging to get down a large steak and rice meal. If you are in a situation where your appetite is taking 2-3 hours to come back after a hard workout, and it’s throwing off the rest of your meal timing, you can opt out of the whole food meal and replace for some faster digesting foods. As mentioned earlier, kid’s cereal and whey protein are a great option here. Drinking calories is much easier to get down, and it won’t make you feel as full, and fast digesting powder like whey is something you can really benefit from here. If you can down the steak and rice though, opt for that.