Protein is a vital macronutrient, and every day, more and more information is coming out about the benefits of protein not just to build muscle but also to burn fat and lose weight for weight loss.
Many people, logically, want to use protein shakes to drop a few pounds and stay slim; admittedly, they are a simple and quick way to eat protein while also keeping you full with a few calories throughout the day.
However, despite all the research on the effects that protein can have on weight loss, and the large supply of protein shakes available anywhere, they are an instant and miraculous path to weight loss.
In this article we talk all about the potential health benefits of protein and protein shakes for weight loss; and how you can work them into a healthy lifestyle to help you lose weight.
Why is protein so important?
Protein is an essential macronutrient crucial to good health. To give you an idea of just how important proteins are, the name comes from the Greek word “proteos”, which means “primary” or “first place”.
Protein is found throughout the body, in muscle, bone, skin, hair, and virtually in every cell of our body. They are large and complex molecules that do most of the work and play important roles, such as regulating cell growth and maintenance, providing structure, balancing fluids inside and outside cells, strengthening the immune system, and transporting and storing nutrients (1).
Proteins are made up of over 20 building blocks called amino acids, which link together to form long chains, something like a string of beads in which each bead represents an amino acid. 9 of these building blocks are known as essential amino acids because our body cannot produce them by modifying others and must necessarily come from food, they are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine (2).
Increasing our daily protein intake can have several health benefits.
High protein consumption has been linked to increased metabolism and may help promote weight loss without sacrificing muscle (3, 4, 5).
Studies have shown that a high-protein diet can aid in appetite regulation and has been recommended as a good strategy for preventing or controlling obesity by promoting satiety and improving body weight management (6).
What are protein shakes?
Protein shakes are a quick and easy way to bulk up your daily protein intake, they come in all types of flavors and formulations, and you can find ready-to-drink options but also you can build your own by using protein powders.
Protein shakes are often promoted as meal replacements to help with weight loss. There is some evidence to support this since protein provides us with a high sense of satiety and can additionally control hunger-regulating hormone levels (3, 4, 5, 6, 7).
However, whether your goal is weight loss or muscle building, it is critical to incorporate protein shakes into a healthy lifestyle, such as good nutrition and hydration, good rest, proper stress management, and regular physical activity.
If you have some kind of food restriction, allergies, or intolerance, it is important to check not only what is the main protein source, but also the rest of the ingredients to see if it suits you.
Types of protein shakes
There are many options out there, both of animal origins and various vegan options.
Some need-to-know facts to take into account when choosing.
The most common animal sources are whey and casein, both isolated from cow’s milk. However, when compared to casein, whey protein is less expensive and better digested, tolerated, and absorbed by our bodies.
Another great animal source option is egg protein that’s easily absorbed by our bodies, but, since they are commonly made with only whites, we don’t get the additional benefits of the yolks.
When it comes to vegan options, on the one hand, soy protein could be considered the number one because it’s a complete protein, meaning that it has all nine essential amino acids our body requires.
On the other hand, since its content of phytoestrogens, soy protein also has a lot of detractors. Some studies suggest that phytoestrogens could disrupt hormone regulation, affecting estrogenic activities; although more research is required (8).
Hemp protein is another great vegan option, that has also a complete protein, although it has a lower content of lysine when compared to soy protein. The additional benefit is that is a good source of healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Pea and rice protein are also good options, but because they lack or have very little of one or more essential amino acids, it’s important to supplement your shake with another protein source throughout the day, such as nut butter or soy milk.
The rest of the ingredients are equally important apart from the protein source itself reminder, the shorter the list of ingredients, the better. And, if possible, avoid protein shakes or powders containing artificial sweeteners, colorings, and flavorings.
Another important thing to weigh in is if the product has been tested by a third-party laboratory for purity and potency, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not evaluate protein powders for safety, equality, or efficacy.
In addition, some protein shakes can be a source of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), namely leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
Supplements with these types of amino acids can lead to better results in stimulating muscle growth, improving exercise performance, and reducing post-exercise fatigue, but also help with weight loss. Some studies have shown that people with a higher intake of BCAAs have a lower risk of becoming overweight or obese (9, 10).
Are protein shakes good for weight loss?
Protein shakes, in addition to being quick and simple to prepare, can help you achieve your weight loss goals in a variety of ways.
Here are some of the potential advantages of protein shakes.
They can control your appetite and satiety levels
To avoid overeating while also lowering your calorie intake, your meal should leave you feeling full. This is essential. Furthermore, the feeling of fullness may reduce the desire to snack on less nutritious foods in between meals.
A high-protein diet has been endorsed as a good strategy to prevent or control obesity by better managing body weight.
Protein is regarded as one of the most satiating macronutrients, more than carbs or fats. Since protein takes longer to digest, this means that it can provide us with a long-lasting feeling of fullness and reduce our appetite.
So, having a protein shake instead of a non-protein meal can help you feel fuller for longer.
According to studies, a high protein intake can increase anorexigenic hormone levels, like glucagon-like peptide-1, and cholecystokinin while decreasing orexigenic hormone levels, namely ghrelin. This lead to increased satiety signaling to help regulate appetite levels, and, eventually, a reduction in food intake (6)
Moreover, higher dietary protein will lead to increased blood amino acid levels, increased hepatic gluconeogenesis, and increased ketogenesis, all factors that contribute to increased satiety (6, 11).
They can boost our metabolism
A high protein intake has been linked with boosting our metabolism.
Firstly, protein increases the thermic effect of food, meaning that they require much more energy to digest when compared to carbs or fats. So an increase in protein intake will lead to a rise in your daily calorie burn, thus promoting weight loss without losing muscle (3, 4, 5, 11).
Secondly, an adequate protein intake combined with strength training enhances body composition because it decreases fat mass while preserving lean muscle.
Since lean muscle aids in metabolism and energy production, this helps our body to maintain a constant energy expenditure, even when we’re resting (11, 12).
Related: How to boost your metabolism
They can aid in weight loss
It has long been established that getting enough protein is essential for both weight loss and weight maintenance. Although few studies use protein shakes specifically, they could be beneficial in terms of weight and body fat loss (4, 5).
Since protein is much more filling than other nutrients, having a protein shake can keep you full with fewer calories, which can support weight loss.
However, we should mention that swapping most of your daily meals for protein shakes in your weight loss drive is not the best approach, not only because you will most likely be eating an excessive amount of protein but also because your diet will be deficient in other nutrients.
A 2020 randomized controlled trial discovered that combining resistance exercise with a high protein calorie-restricted diet helps lose more body fat than a high-carb diet (13).
Another study from the same year found that a high protein diet helps reduce waist circumference in normal-weight women with high body fat percentages (14).
How to consume protein shakes for weight loss?
To aid in your weight loss journey, you can replace one meal a day with a protein shake. For a more nutritious and satisfying shake, you can add fruits, like frozen berries or bananas, nut butter, tofu, milk, either dairy or plant-based, or avocado.
A review study from 2021 that took into account twenty-two studies with 24 interventions and 1,982 patients found that people that were getting at least 60% of their recommended calorie intake from meal replacements lost more weight than those with a lower percentage of meal replacement (15).
When choosing protein shakes, either for weight loss or muscle build, or both, first you’ll need to decide on the type of protein, you have tons of options to pick from, but whey is always a good starting point.
You can also choose between buying pre-made protein shakes and making your own. Regardless of protein type or format, choose one that is low in calories and contains no added sugar, as a high intake of added sugar has been linked to weight gain, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (16)
How much protein do you need?
You’ve chosen your protein, but you’re not sure how much to take.
A balanced diet for most people means getting 20 to 25 percent of their calorie needs in the form of protein, which adds up to about 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight (17).
However, keep in mind that some people, such as older adults, athletes, or those with particular health conditions, require far more protein than that.
More does not always equal better. If you don’t have an increased protein requirement and consume too much of it, you may end up affecting your kidneys and gaining weight because your body converts excess protein into fat.
Furthermore, you will waste money because your body will excrete excess amino acids that cannot be converted into muscle or fat.
How many protein shakes should you have?
Even though protein shakes can help with weight loss, replacing more than one meal a day with protein shakes is not a good practice in the long run.
As with anything that you do repeatedly, it can lead to boredom and burnout, causing you to crave less nutritious foods.
While protein shakes can still be used regularly, the key to long-term weight management is having a satisfying and nutritious diet based on whole foods.
As a result, you should gradually transition off protein shakes by substituting healthy foods with comparable calorie counts.
Other good food sources of protein
Protein shakes are not the only way to increase your protein intake. You can add to your diet nutritious foods like lean cuts of meat, eggs, Greek or plant-based yogurt, nuts, and seeds, pulses, tofu, oats, quinoa, and spirulina.
Although protein shakes can be great weight loss allies because they increase metabolism and help us regulate appetite and satiety, they are not a magic bullet and should only be used for short periods to replace only one meal per day.
Choose protein shakes that are low in calories, have few ingredients, and have been tested by third-party laboratories.