All hail the power of protein. Our bodies, quite simply, need it. As part of a healthy diet, protein can almost magically help us feel full, build and maintain lean muscle, and keep energy levels up. But getting enough of it in our daily diet can be easier said than done — especially when we’re constantly on the go, running from meeting to meeting and obligation to obligation.
Enter protein shakes, the number of which lining drugstore shelves and (of course) popping up in your Instagram feed has certainly seemed to skyrocket in the past few years, for one big, completely understandable reason: simplicity. Just mix and go? What do you know! But are they actually good for you?
“It’s so important for me to get my workout in, even when I’m traveling! No excuses. Thanks @ProteinWorld for keeping me fuelled [sic] on the go,” the Kardashian sister currently peddling her Revenge Body posted on Instagram earlier this year.
Last year, JWoww gave 310 Nutrition Shakes an online shout-out (for a fee, of course) for keeping her “so fit even during my pregnancy,” and she kept the shake love going postpartum with a post touting the brand’s starter kit immediately after the new year. Because only a fool doesn’t monetize her resolutions.
And those aforementioned Real Housewives? If they’re not boozing, they’re shaking — at least according to this tongue-in-cheek Instagram ad. (Fellow Bravo alums Kyle Richards and Kim Zolciak prefer to share their shake love on Facebook.)
But should the rest of us be following their lead? And if we do, will shakes help to kick-start weight loss? Yes and no, depending upon how you use them, say experts.
“If you go from eating, like, 3,000 calories of food to getting 1,200 calories [a day] from shakes, of course you’re going to lose weight,” says registered dietitian Jessica Cording. “But unless you do the legwork to come up with a maintenance plan,” the results won’t last. Protein shakes have their place, she explains, as a supplement — not a one-stop-shop solution. “If someone is having a difficulty eating big meals or if someone is traveling or on the go, it can be a good option.”
Berit Young, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at the University of Rochester Medical Center, agrees. “For patients who don’t like breakfast or feel nauseous in the morning, a protein shake can be a great option, in terms of just helping you get something to eat that is nutritious versus not, which in and of itself will help jump-start your metabolism for the day,” she tells Yahoo Beauty. “These protein powders provide us with a large dose of protein all at once without any preparation,” and that can be both smart and amazingly convenient in certain circumstances.
After a hard workout, the average body needs about 15 to 20 grams of protein to repair itself, she explains. Thus, “If you’re not going to be eating right away, giving your body that boost via a protein shake could be helpful.”
Likewise, for patients who might find themselves getting home really late from work or work events, “Making a healthy shake for dinner instead of gorging on a big meal can be good for weight loss,” Young says. But remember: There’s “nothing magical about a protein powder versus a piece of salmon or chicken,” meaning it’s “not necessarily about the various components in the shake” but more about what you’re using the shake for and what foods you might be replacing with it. A preportioned protein shake is most likely “better than a bagel sandwich you would have grabbed on the run instead.”
But speaking of those “various components in the shake”: What are they, exactly? Most protein shakes contain some form of protein powder (of course), along with a mixture of various vitamins and minerals and a few other specialty ingredients with complementary health and wellness claims. Khloé Kardashian’s preferred Protein World Slender Blend Shake is made with a whey protein concentrate and touts green tea extract and raspberry ketones among its active ingredients, while the aforementioned 310 Nutrition Shakes boast a plant-based protein mixture of pea protein powder, brown rice protein, and hemp protein alongside probiotics and “superfoods” including organic broccoli, kale, spinach, alfalfa juice powder, beet juice, and pomegranate extract.
First things first: those protein powders. “Protein takes longer to digest than carbs, so eating a combo of protein, healthy carbohydrates, and fat together will make you feel fuller, longer,” explains Cording. But what kind of protein should we be eating? Think clean.
“The body is more readily able to utilize animal sources of protein, like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products,” says Cording, “because they provide the complete set of essential amino acids.” But, she adds, “some people legit feel better when they eat more plant sources of protein, like beans, which have more fiber in them. So even though they also have more carbs, you’re getting protein and fiber with those carbs.” And the Tri-Plex Plant-Based Proteins that 310 Nutrition touts? “That’s a great combination,” she says.
“If you’re going to do a protein powder, we want to keep it clean, and we really don’t need more animal protein in our diet,” adds Young, who recommends getting away from whey and soy proteins “as much as you can” in favor of plant-based options. “Plant-based protein has many of the vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory aspects that come from plants and are generally not as factory-produced as many of the animal concentrates on the market,” she explains.
But what about all the stuff mixed in with these protein powders? Some are better for you than others. When they use green tea extract in these shakes, they “just take extractions of actual green tea that contain higher amounts of, say, caffeine than typical green tea, and they tout that as helping with weight loss because caffeine speeds things up,” explains Young. But science doesn’t necessarily back that up, and studies have found that people who take green tea extract had very small, statistically insignificant weight loss.
Likewise with those raspberry ketones. “Those got popular when Dr. Oz brought them on the market, and there was one small study that showed they helped mice digest fat faster, but it hasn’t been reported on in humans,” says Young. “Remember, there’s nothing magical in these powders that helps us lose weight. If there was, every dietitian would be advertising them.”
When it comes to probiotics, however, both Cording and Young are big fans. “Probiotics benefit digestive function,” explains Cording. “They fight the good fight, they help keep digestion regular.” But as with anything, beware the packaging. “I am a huge believer in probiotics,” says Young. “But I think that taking it in a pill form is where you’re going to see the benefits. They are live bacterial organisms, so you need to be sure you’re buying the right ones from the right companies, and I would assume that with the ones in these protein shakes, the bacteria is already dead.”
Bottom line? The effects these protein shakes claim to have are ultimately just the effects of protein itself.
“We shouldn’t rely on protein shakes or any kind of packaged product to really enhance our well-being fully,” warns Young. “Focusing on real food first is priority number one.” (Need some help in that arena? Let Yahoo present your ultimate guide to protein along with a handful of high-protein snacks perfect for eating on the go.)
If you do opt for a protein shake, just be smart about how you incorporate it into your diet. Young recommends opting for one that contains a plant-based protein powder and not a lot of added sugar. And try not to have more than one protein shake per day. Sure, different protein shake companies might recommend more, but that’s just because “you’ll then buy more of their products,” she warns. “And, yes, you’ll lose weight regardless then, because you’re restricting your calories so much, but that is ultimately not sustainable. Are you going to have two protein shakes every day for the rest of your life? Probably not.”
Yahoo Beauty reached out to Protein World and 310 Nutrition Shakes for comment but did not hear back.
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