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Protein shakes are having a moment, with serious athletes and celebrities talking up their perks. You’ve probably also heard that it’s often recommended that people who want to slim down eat plenty of protein. So, are protein shakes good for weight loss or are they considered separate from food sources of protein?
The answer is a little complicated. “It depends on a lot of factors,” says Jessica Cording, R.D., nutritionist and the author of The Little Book of Game-Changers. Those can include what else you’re eating, your total calorie count, and how you’re using protein shakes in your overall diet, she says.
Interested in trying protein shakes to lose weight? Here’s what you need to know.
Meet the experts
Jessica Cording, R.D., is a nutritionist and the author of The Little Book of Game-Changers ; Sonya Angelone, R.D., is a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; Keri Gans, R.D., is the author of The Small Change Diet
What is a protein shake?
There’s no official definition for this, Angelone says. “Basically, it is a shake that has a significant amount of protein,” she says. “They can vary widely from about 10 to 40 grams of protein per shake.”
These shakes typically have an added source of protein that can include whey, collagen, or “a variety of plant proteins like pea, hemp, or almond,” shares Angelone.
Protein shakes usually involve blending powder with water or another liquid, adding powder to a smoothie, or buying premixed drinks, Cording says.
Are protein shakes good for weight loss?
There are a few things to consider. “A protein shake may help with weight loss, but that depends on many factors,” Gans says. “For example, drinking one solely in the morning as your breakfast may help provide a convenient way to get nutrition with built-in calorie control.” Protein shakes can also be an “easy grab-and-go snack,” Gans adds.
“Eating more protein during a weight loss can enhance the loss of fat and minimize muscle loss,” Angelone says. “So, for the same amount of weight lost, a greater amount is fat and not muscle loss which is what happens when someone loses weight without enough dietary protein.”
Protein is needed to help support muscle-building and stable blood sugar, Cording says. “It can help you have energy and recover from workouts, and that can all be helpful for weight loss—but it’s not a guarantee,” she says.
But the calories in protein shakes can “add up quickly,” Angelone says, noting that they often have extras like nut butters and coconut oil. “If pre-made shakes are purchased, it is important to read the nutrition facts and ingredient label,” she says.
Cording also stresses the importance of being mindful of your overall calories when you’re using protein shakes for weight loss. “One thing I’ve seen in my practice is somebody incorporates a protein shake, but doesn’t realize that the calorie count might be exceeding their needs,” she says. As a result, they can find it harder to lose weight, she says.
“Ultimately, it really depends on the person and their unique activity, metabolism, and nutritional needs,” Cording says. “Just adding a protein shake alone to your daily routine is not going to guarantee weight loss.”
Types of protein powders
There are different types of protein powders to consider. Cording says the most popular types you might see on an ingredients list include:
Which type of protein is best?
It depends on what you’re after, along with any individual dietary needs you have. Whey, casein, and soy are what’s known as complete proteins, which means they contain larger amounts of the essential amino acids that your body needs, Cording explains.
But people who eat a plant-based diet or those who can’t take the above three may prefer rice, pea, and hemp protein, Cording says. (Just keep in mind that rice and pea proteins aren’t considered complete proteins.) “My top two favorites are grass-fed whey protein and, for a plant-based option, pea protein,” Cording says.
Challenges of using protein powder for weight loss
If you’re planning to use protein powder for weight loss, there are a few things to keep in mind. “Protein shakes may contain too little or too much protein,” Angelone says. “Excess protein can be converted to fat, just like excess carbs can be converted to fat.”
Some protein powders also have added sugar, and that can add extra calories, Gans says. “Some drinks may have too many calories per serving, interfering with your weight loss goals,” she says.
How to use protein shakes for weight loss
Angelone suggests using a protein shake as a meal replacement. “Dinner is a good time, since dinner is often the largest, most calorie-rich meal of the day,” she says. “A protein shake can supply the protein component with fewer calories.” She recommends adding some spinach to your shake to get a dose of vegetables, too.
You can also use a protein shake in the form of a smoothie in the morning, Angelone says.
Cording offers this simple advice: “Just look at it as a serving of protein. It’s replacing another protein that you may be eating at that meal or snack. It’s a classic exchange system.”
If you’re interested in using a protein shake as part of a weight loss plan but aren’t sure where to start, or you feel like you’re not getting anywhere with it, Cording recommends consulted a registered dietitian. They should be able to provide personalized guidance to help you reach your goals.
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