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Many of us have done it: wondered, longingly, if the before-and-after photos on the in-your-face protein shake ad were actually legit.
It can be tempting to buy a product with the hope that it’ll be the quick fix that finally works — even if you have a cupboard full of other ones that didn’t.
Protein shakes are an incredibly popular option for people hoping to lose weight — they’re super convenient, and the mere act of drinking one makes you feel like some kind of fitness demigod. But there’s a ton of information (and misinformation) online about how to use them effectively.
Adding protein shakes to your diet could have some benefits that may lead to weight loss, but shakes alone are not a weight loss magic bullet (not if you want results that last, anyway).
Let’s start at the beginning…
If you’ve ever stepped into a GNC (or researched protein shakes online), then you know the world of protein shakes is vast and seemingly endless.
They come in a slew of types, flavors, and formulations for every dietary need under the sun. You can buy premixed, ready-to-drink bottles or protein powder.
Protein shakes are often sold as meal replacements to help people lose weight, and there is some evidence to support this. Protein is filling and may help suppress your appetite by getting your out-of-whack hunger hormones back under control.
Popular weight loss shake programs typically work by having you replace one or two meals per day with a shake, with your third meal being small and low in calories. Some extreme “diets” involve exclusively drinking shakes for several days (Take note: Most health professionals do not recommend this method, for many many reasons).
When consumed in moderation, protein shakes can actually be a valuable tool for your weight loss journey. But to truly be effective and healthful, they should be paired with other sustainable lifestyle changes.
Weight loss is most successful when you commit to a healthy lifestyle for the long haul. So if you can see yourself growing old with protein shakes by your side, then they may just work for you.
Considering all the different protein options available, there’s sure to be one right up your alley. You could probably even find one to match your Myers-Briggs personality type. (Mine is INF-whey.)
Here are a few of the most widely available types of protein and some need-to-know info about each:
Whey is the most common and inexpensive type of protein. It’s isolated from cow’s milk, readily absorbed, and great for building muscle, and you could probably find a whey shake at a gas station if you were really having a protein emergency.
Casein is also isolated from cow’s milk, but it’s not quite as beneficial for muscle building as whey. It’s also a bit more expensive. It’s digested more slowly than whey, so it’ll keep you feeling full a bit longer — definitely a plus if you’re trying to lose weight.
Egg-based protein powder is another solid option because the protein from eggs is really easy for your body to absorb. Unfortunately, egg protein powders are made with only the whites, so you miss out on all the benefits of the yolks.
Soy protein is great for plant-based diets because it’s a complete protein, meaning — like animal protein — it has all the essential amino acids your body needs to make new proteins.
Soy is a tad controversial because it contains phytoestrogens, which some studies suggest may have negative effects on hormones, though more research in this area is needed.
Along with serving as fodder for endless juvenile jokes (“What are you drinking?” “Pea!”), pea protein is another solid choice for vegetarians.
It’s a complete protein but a little low in the amino acid methionine. This is easily fixed by adding nut butter or nut milk to your pea protein shake.
Another plant-based choice, hemp protein is a complete protein and a good source of healthy omega-3 fats. It’s slightly low in the amino acid lysine, which can be remedied by adding tofu or almond butter to your hemp protein shake.
Brown rice protein powder rounds out the most common vegan protein choices. It’s also a complete protein but — like hemp — is low in lysine.
Cricket protein is a newcomer to the game, and it’s solving worldwide hunger issues in big ways. This option may make squeamish folks bug out.
A word to the wise: Collagen is having a real moment right now. And while collagen is protein, it’s actually not a good choice for protein shakes.
It’s an incomplete protein, so you shouldn’t count on it as a protein source. But def take it for that glowy skin.
Getting enough protein is key for successful weight loss and weight maintenance, and protein shakes can easily help you with that.
Protein works to help boost weight loss in a number of ways: It’s more filling than refined carbs, it may boost your metabolism, and it helps you build muscle — which can promote fat loss.
Protein is dense, so it takes longer to digest, keeping you full much longer than, say, an apple.
It can also help stabilize your blood sugar levels. Ever find yourself getting hangry? It may be because your blood sugar has dipped a bit low between meals. Try adding a bit more protein to your meals to help keep that blood sugar line straight and steady.
Finally, protein also helps regulate ghrelin, the hunger hormone — so named because “ghrrr” is the sound your stomach makes when it needs food, obviously.
Basically, protein is like yoga for your hunger hormones. It helps them chill and be a little more flexible.
Strategic supplementation with protein — especially whey — can really accelerate muscle growth, especially if you’re pairing it with resistance exercise.
You won’t go totally Hulk (Hogan or the green one), but building muscle can help your body appear more firm and lean.
Protein increases the thermic effect of food, which is just fancy science talk for how many calories you burn by digesting what you eat.
Proteins are much denser and slower to digest than carbs, requiring more energy to break down. So a diet with plenty of protein will actually increase your daily calorie burn.
Building muscle also has the benefit of increasing the amount of calories you burn at rest.
It’s pretty easy to add protein shakes to your routine for weight loss.
The first step, of course, is to decide what type of protein you’ll use. Vegan or vegetarian? You have plenty of options, like soy, rice, pea, or hemp. For nearly everyone else, whey is a fine starting point.
Next, you need to decide if you’ll be making your own shakes or buying premade. If you buy premade, be prepared to shell out a little more dough. If you’re going to make them, you’ll need a blender or a blender bottle and other ingredients for the shake, like milk or plant-based milk.
You’ll also need to know your daily protein needs. Protein needs vary considerably based on many factors including age, body composition, and health.
Most people need 20 to 25 percent of their calories to come from protein — that’s about 0.5 grams of protein per pound (or 1 gram per kilogram) of body weight (although some people need much more protein than others). To calculate this, multiply your weight by 0.5 if using pounds or by 1 if using kilograms.
Also, more is not always better! Excess protein can be taxing for the kidneys in people with preexisting kidney disease. Plus, your body will excrete excess amino acids — the building blocks of protein — and will store excess protein as fat.
If you’re slamming several protein shakes a day, you’re making some really expensive pee, and you may be sabotaging your weight loss goals.
Depending on the calorie content of your protein shake, you may be able to use a shake in place of one meal per day. But keep in mind that many protein shakes are much too low in calories to substitute for a proper meal.
To make your shake more filling and nutritious, add frozen berries, nut butter, or avocado. It’s not a good idea to replace more than one meal per day with a protein shake. Some programs encourage replacing two meals per day with shakes, but that’s a recipe for burnout.
Eating too little often leads to bingeing and rebound weight gain, so it’s better to make small changes that will result in lasting weight loss.
Finally, consider starting some resistance training — even if it’s just doing squats in front of your TV — to magnify the muscle-building, metabolism-boosting effects of your new protein shake routine.
Losing weight is hard, and you don’t have to go it alone. If you need help navigating the ocean (or, more accurately, black hole) of advice you see online, you should seek out a registered dietitian (to ensure that you maintain a healthy dietary pattern) or a certified personal trainer (to come up with an effective and safe workout routine for weight loss).
These professionals can help you develop a sustainable and healthy weight loss plan that works for you — with or without protein shakes!