Do protein shakes help with weight loss:
Fact or Fiction?
If you are on a mission to get in shape, you will undoubtedly have come across the idea that protein shakes can be of value. However, understanding how these lifestyle strategies fit into the broader framework of your goals can be confusing. This article will bring things together to help you get the desired results. Let’s jump in.
Some of the areas covered in this article are:
- What is a protein shake?
- What is weight loss?
- How can protein help with weight loss?
- Who should be taking whey protein?
- How much protein do you need?
- What is the best time to take protein?
What is a protein shake?
To begin, we must define what a protein shake means. A protein shake is a drink made by mixing protein powder with some milk (dairy or plant-based), water, or another liquid such as coconut water.
There are many different types of protein powders on the market, and they each offer a concentrated source of protein made from various sources, such as whey, casein, soy, pea, hemp and rice.
The primary purpose of a protein shake is to provide the body with a quick and convenient source of protein.
What is weight loss?
It’s also important to define more accurately what we mean by weight loss.
When talking about weight loss, we focus on something more specific: fat loss. We want to decrease the amount of fat (adipose tissue) in the body to become leaner and healthier.
This fat loss happens by sustaining a calorie deficit (eating fewer calories than you are expending)). In this hypocaloric state (calorie deficit), fatty acids are mobilised from fat cells into the bloodstream and used for energy production. This is called lipolysis. What is the net result of burning fatty acids for fuel? A smaller fat cell – and we become leaner.
This focus on fat loss is worth knowing for a few reasons. First, it helps us understand what we mean by “losing weight”: it’s about getting leaner, not simply lighter. As importantly, throwaway terms like “toning up” are also confusing. We don’t really “tone up” a muscle; rather, we reduce fat stores within a muscle (intramuscular fat) and on top of a muscle (subcutaneous fat) sufficiently to look more cut.
Second, focusing on fat loss puts a primary focus on energy balance. We need a sustained calorie deficit over time to mobilise those fatty acids for fat loss. Research shows a cumulative energy deficit of 3500 kcal is required to drop one pound of body fat (Hall 2008). Thus, we need to create a daily calorie deficit of 500 calories below maintenance to lose one pound of body fat per week. 12lbs in 12 weeks of fat loss is an outstanding achievement!
Third, refining the term weight loss down to a more accurate lens of body composition also puts our attention toward maintaining (or increasing) muscle mass. We want to burn off excess fat but keep overall muscle. Why? There are heaps of reasons, but here are a few:
- Increased lean muscle mass helps to boost our resting metabolic rate (the amount of calories our body uses at rest) (McPherron, Guo et al. 2013).
- Muscle is not just for movement; it is an endocrine organ (organs that release hormones) with many positive roles in our health (Hoffmann and Weigert 2017).
- As we age, loss of muscle (sarcopenia) has wide-ranging and negative effects on our wellbeing (Aragon, Tipton and Schoenfeld 2023).
In short, when we talk about “weight loss”, we really need to focus on fat loss and preserving lean muscle. Combining both can make an enormous difference to our health, body shape and longevity. It’s also where protein can help us.
How can protein help with weight loss?
As you know, our diet has three primary macronutrients – protein, carbohydrates and dietary fats. Protein is a priority. Indeed, protein comes from the Greek word proteios, meaning “primary” or “of first rank”.
We need to eat a certain amount of protein each day because of the amino acids they contain. There are 20 amino acids, and 9 are deemed essential. In other words, we cannot make these amino acids from other aspects of our diet and must consume them from food and supplementation on a regular basis to maintain our health and wellbeing (Lopez and Mohiuddin 2023).
Amino acids provide the building blocks for many aspects of our physiology – muscle, hair, skin, nails, organs, and hormones. Protein also plays a wide variety of roles in our health, including keeping our immune systems strong (Pakula, Maier and Vorup-Jensen 2017, Williams, Killer et al. 2019).
From a fat loss perspective, prioritising protein helps in a variety of ways:
Satiety: Protein is known to be more satiating than carbohydrates or fats. This means that consuming protein can help you feel fuller for longer, potentially leading to reduced overall calorie intake (Hansen, Astrup and Sjodin 2021).
Thermic Effect of Food (TEF): Protein has a higher TEF than fats and carbohydrates. This means your body burns more calories digesting and metabolising protein than other macronutrients. The thermic effect of protein (25-30%) is higher compared to carbohydrate (6-8%) and dietary fat (2-3%) (Jequier 2002). TEF can be pretty important in the grand scheme of things, accounting for 8-15% of total daily calorie expenditure (Aragon, Schoenfeld et al. 2017).
Muscle preservation: From a muscle retention perspective, consuming sufficient protein each day is also vital. When trying to lose weight, primarily through calorie restriction, there's a risk of losing muscle mass. Consuming adequate protein can help preserve muscle mass when dieting, especially during regular resistance training (Helms, Zinn et al. 2014, Hector and Phillips 2018). As you get leaner, protein intake becomes even more critical when in a calorie deficit.
Increased metabolism: Muscle is metabolically active and burns calories even at when we are at rest. By preserving or building muscle through protein intake and resistance training, you can support resting metabolic rate and boost insulin sensitivity (Aragon, Tipton and Schoenfeld 2023). Insulin is the primary hormone for regulating blood glucose, and resistance training helps to increase GLUT4 function - your ability to handle carbohydrates (Richter and Hargreaves 2013).
Once your protein intake is dialled in, you can customise fat and carbohydrate intake to suit your preferences and match your activity levels. This point is essential. Research shows that no single diet works best for all people (Aragon, Schoenfeld et al. 2017). There are various ways to achieve sustained calorie deficits to get leaner, and each type of diet has pros and cons. The key is to find the approach that works for you and keep protein as a priority as a starting point (Kerksick, Arent et al. 2017).
Who should be taking whey protein?
There are many different types of protein powder, and whey is one of the most popular. Research has consistently shown that whey can help with fat loss in the gym and doing resistance training whilst in a hypocaloric state (Miller, Alexander and Perez 2014, Bergia, Hudson and Campbell 2018).
In this way, whey protein can be helpful for many different types of people:
Athletes and fitness enthusiasts: Those who engage in regular workouts, especially resistance training, can benefit from whey protein to support muscle recovery and growth.
Fat loss seekers: As mentioned earlier, protein can aid in fat loss, and whey protein provides a convenient source.
Vegetarians or those with protein-deficient diets: While whey is not suitable for vegans (since it's derived from milk), vegetarians might find it a beneficial supplement to ensure they get enough protein.
Busy folk: Many people do not have time to prepare fresh meals with high-quality protein; therefore, whey can be a valuable option to have on hand to meet your daily protein needs..
Several key factors make whey an excellent protein powder: nutrient density, rapid absorption and comprehensive health benefits:
- Nutrient density: In a typical 30g scoop of Kinetica whey, you will get 22-23g of protein, of which 2.47g comes from leucine alone. Leucine is one of the body’s essential amino acids (meaning that we can only get it from the diet), and research shows that this level of leucine makes a big difference in maximising muscle protein synthesis, an essential key to protecting muscle mass (Jager, Kerksick et al. 2017).
- Rapid absorption: Whey is considered a “fast protein” as it enters the small intestine quickly (Boirie, Dangin et al. 1997). Research suggests that the absorption rate for whey is about 10 grams per hour compared to egg protein at about 3 grams per hour (Bilsborough and Mann 2006).
How much protein do you need?
When the goal is fat loss, and you are in a sustained caloric deficit, taking on protein above the RDA level of 0.8g/kg/day is essential to consider (Hector and Phillips 2018).
Suppose you are an athlete training consistently and looking to lose body fat. In that case, protein intake might require anything between 1.6-2.4g/kg/day, depending on the severity of calorie deficit, type of training, and sports-performance needs (Phillips, Chevalier and Leidy 2016).
Is it possible to gain mass whilst also losing body fat? Yes. This is often called “body recomposition” (Barakat, Pearson et al. 2020). However, anabolic signalling is not at its greatest because you are focused on a net calorie deficit to lose body fat. This can blunt some people’s best efforts at muscle hypertrophy (increasing their lean muscle mass). In this scenario, protein remains a priority with body recomposition efforts (Ribeiro, Pereira et al. 2022).
What is the best time to take protein?
There has been a lot of research into nutrient timing (Kerksick, Arent et al. 2017). The biggest priority for protein is ensuring you take on enough over 24 hours. In this sense, timing is less important than hitting your protein numbers – eating protein at each meal and supplementing as needed.
If you want to look at timing, there are specific moments when it might be beneficial to take on protein:
Breakfast: Including protein in your morning meal can help you feel full and provide sustained energy and focus throughout the day (Lefferts, Augustine et al. 2020).
Post-workout: After a workout, your muscles are primed to absorb nutrients. Consuming protein soon after training can support muscle recovery and anabolism (West, Burd et al. 2011).
Kinetica’s whey and plant-based protein powders are premium products, WADA-compliant and certified through Informed-Sport, giving you peace of mind about the quality of what you are consuming.
While the focus of this blog article was to understand the role protein can or can’t play when looking at weight loss, a common concept many come across, it’s important to remember that how we turn up each and everyday trumps all. Body composition is only one piece of a larger puzzle, taking account of your energy levels, happiness and overall wellbeing is so important and is not to be underestimated.
About the author
Justin Buckthorp is a Kinetica Ambassador, a Health and Performance specialist and founder of 360 Health and Performance, a company passionate about helping people thrive. Justin has over 20 years’ experience working in clinics, professional sport, and corporate wellness, as well as extensive training in preventative health, functional medicine, strength & conditioning, and human performance.
Justin holds an MSc in Personalised Nutrition from Middlessex University and has a vast range of experience in numerous fields. He was an educator in the fitness industry delivering courses for the National Academy of Sports Medicine in the UK, has supported Team Europe in Ryder Cup events since 2008, and has sat on the European Tour Medical Advisory Board since 2009.
Justin is motivated by helping others achieve their goals, and in 2012 he founded 360 Health & Performance which leverages technology and education to help people in sport, the workplace, and healthcare. Justin also continues to support PGA, European Tour, LPGA Tour and LET golfers, which includes helping Justin Rose win the US Open in 2013, Olympic Gold in 2016, the Fedex Cup in 2018, and go from a world ranking of 70 in 2009 to world number one in 2019.
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