Protein shakes, to some, look like milkshakes or smoothies. They’re thick and creamy and come in delicious-sounding flavors like cookies and cream, chocolate peanut butter and mocha latte, as well as the standard vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. So, the thought of going on a protein shake diet to lose weight sounds pretty appealing. But, do they work?
They can, says Suzanne Farrell, MS, RDN, a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor and owner of Cherry Creek Nutrition in Denver. “Protein shakes can be a quick and convenient option during the day that provides the body with protein, nutrients and energy that it needs.”
However, it’s important to note that protein shakes won’t magically make pounds melt away. And, if they’re high in sugar or calories, they can have the opposite effect. But, adding protein shakes to your diet can help if consumed as part of a healthy eating and exercise plan.
Why is protein important?
Protein is essential for weight loss and overall health in a variety of ways. “Protein has a number of functions in the body such as providing energy, balancing blood sugars, supporting our immune system, and for growth and repair of muscles,” says Farrell. “And it makes meals and snacks more filling and satisfying, which helps to regulate appetite.”
The recommended daily intake of protein per the USDA is 46 to 56 grams of protein a day. That amount can vary, though, depending on the individual and factors such as age, gender, body size, levels of physical activity and total energy needs. “For adults, the recommended range for protein is 10% to 35% of total calories,” explains Farrell.
If you’re already getting the recommended protein from food, which most adults do, adding extra protein to your diet through shakes won’t make the pounds melt away. And, if you have kidney disease, it can actually be harmful to consume too much protein. In addition, added protein can mean added calories, and that does not help with weight loss.
To lose weight, you must burn off more calories than you consume. Therefore, combining exercise to burn calories with eating fewer calories is the key to a successful weight loss program.
Studies show that protein increases fullness, which can reduce snacking and cravings and ultimately help you eat fewer calories. Additionally, protein is key for building muscle, and muscle can also help you burn more calories. However, roasting a chicken or grilling a steak can take time that many people don’t have. Additionally, high protein meals can also come with high-calorie counts. A protein shake can be a quick, easy, low-calorie and satisfying way to consume protein.
Protein shakes come in a few different forms. You can buy premade shakes, which are easy to stick in your purse or backpack for a protein-rich snack on the go. Or, there are powder forms that you mix with water or some sort of liquid such as almond or soy milk. You can also toss in fruit or yogurt to make them more filling and satisfying.
Farrell says that protein shakes can be used as a meal replacement as long as they have adequate calories and accompanying nutrients or a snack. However, she recommends avoiding protein products with added sugars, too many calories, and saturated fat.
How to use protein shakes as part of a weight loss program
Some protein shake diets require that you replace all three meals with three protein shakes. While that might sound easy, it’s probably not sustainable in the long run. You’d most likely start craving solid food.
The best way to use protein shakes to aid you with your weight loss goals is to replace one or two meals, or a meal and a snack with a shake, and to make sure your remaining meals, snacks and the shakes, too, are low in sugar, nutritious and balanced. To ensure those protein-packed shakes help build muscle, it’s important to make sure you’re getting in your weight-training and cardio workouts as well.
There are a variety of types of protein powders, including whey, casein, soy, pea, hemp and rice. Whey is probably the most common shake type you’ll find in stores and a good place to start. Farrell says that she doesn’t know of one type that’s superior to others when it comes to weight loss.
You should choose one based on taste, availability, and personal preference. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, look for options such as soy, pea and hemp that are plant-based.
It’s important to note that piling on the protein is not enough to help you lose or maintain weight. You must be conscious of the calories you consume and the meals and snacks you choose in addition to the shakes. And lastly, Farrell recommends spreading your protein intake throughout the day rather than packing it all in during one meal or sitting.