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Protein is known as a nutritional superstar for a reason: It helps keep your muscles and bones strong, repairs cells, serves as the building blocks of hormones, and so much more. Many people also turn to protein when trying to lose weight because the nutrient is typically low in calories and can help keep you full and satisfied between meals—exactly what you want when the hunger pangs kick in.
But if you love to use protein powder for this reason and suspect it’s making you gain weight, you might be onto something—after all, pro bodybuilders love to guzzle the stuff for a reason.
Protein powders are a great source of the nutrient because they’re often low in fat, portable, easy to access, and can be added to whatever you want for a big protein boost, says Kristen F. Gradney, M.H.A., R.D.N., L.D.N., a registered dietitian and senior director of Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Health in Louisiana. Plus, they’re great to add in a filling snack and come in tons of flavors and varieties, so you’re guaranteed to find one you actually like.
Now, weight gain isn’t necessarily a bad thing (and can even be a good thing!), but it all comes down to your personal goals. That’s why it’s so important to determine how much protein you actually need and how much you’re already consuming before adding in a dietary supplement like a powder. Not sure if your protein powder is fueling your weight gain? Here’s everything you need to know before you blend it into your shake.
First, how much protein do you really need?
Protein needs vary based on age, gender, and physical activity, but a good starting point is to consume 0.36-0.6 grams (g) per pound of body weight per day, explains Wesley Delbridge, R.D.N., a registered dietitian and creative director of Nutrition Technology Innovation at Colyar Technology Solutions. This is about 46-75 g per day (or about 15 to 25 g per meal) for the average woman who performs little-to-no exercise, he says.
For a more specific protein estimate, the USDA has a tool called the MyPlate Plan and a general nutrition calculator, which can be adjusted to your needs. If you’re totally new to nutrition, it can also be helpful to meet with a registered dietitian, who can give you personalized guidance.
How can protein powder make you gain weight?
In reality, protein powder itself isn’t likely causing you to gain weight, but the way you’re using it might. White explains that if you add protein powder to your diet without changing the rest of your meals to accommodate the added calories, you could very well start gaining weight, says Jim White, R.D., ACSM-certified exercise physiologist and owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios. Again, this might be your overall goal—but if your original plan is geared toward weight loss, it may not be a wanted side effect.
Gradney agrees and says adding protein powder to foods like oatmeal or pancakes (which are usually low in the nutrient) can help you feel fuller longer after breakfast, but again, you need to account for the extra calories added into the meal.
Plus, she notes that if you’re simply drinking protein shakes as meal replacements, you may not feel as satiated as you would with solid food, potentially causing you to snack more (and thus eat more calories) than you normally would. “Oftentimes when we are starting a weight-loss journey, drinking does not satisfy the ‘hand to mouth’ need that eating meets for many of us,” Gradney explains. “The need for snacking and eating often still arises, even after consuming calories via drinks made with protein powder.”
That said, a higher number on the scale isn’t always a bad thing. While says that putting on muscle through strength training and larger protein intake may increase your weight without adding to your body fat because you’re building lean muscle. This will ultimately help you burn more calories at rest and define parts of your body you’ve been working in the gym, giving you that “toned” look.
These effects hold true for any protein powder, but some varieties are worth noting, including those that contain branched-chain amino acids (commonly known as BCAAs), three essential amino acids the body needs for muscle growth and cannot make on its own. These stimulate muscle gain (and thus, weight gain) more than other types of protein powder, White explains.
How to choose a healthy protein powder
Be sure to read the packaging before purchasing. White warns that because protein powders are considered a dietary supplement, they do not need FDA approval before hitting the market—so it’s crucial to scan the label. Gradney suggests aiming for a lower-calorie, higher-protein pick, so aim for a powder that contains 150 calories or less and around 20 grams of protein per serving.
Bottom line: Remember to keep your goals in mind—and that the number on the scale doesn’t necessarily paint the whole picture. If you’re using protein as part of your weight-loss journey, just be sure to account for the added calories throughout your day and adjust your remaining meals accordingly. Check out the dietitian-approved options below if you’re in need of a new brand to try:
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