Are Protein Shakes Good for Weight Loss?

Dr. Christopher McGowan
July 17, 2023

If you spend any time on the internet these days, you won’t have to look far to find advice on how to lose weight. Whether it’s a fad diet, an expensive piece of specialized exercise equipment, or a supplement that promises rapid results, there are countless options to sift through. A popular phenomenon in the world of weight lifting that has been repurposed for weight loss is the protein shake. These easy-to-prepare mixtures of protein powder and water may have some value for those who are trying to put on muscle mass, but can they also be helpful for a weight loss journey?

What’s in a Protein Shake?   

In essence, a protein shake is a thick, viscous beverage made by blending or mixing protein powder with a liquid like water, animal milk, dairy-free milk, or a plant-based alternative. Some people also like to add fruits, vegetables, or other ingredients that can potentially improve flavor, texture, or nutritional value, but others just use a liquid and a powder. The protein powder that gets mixed in is typically a concentrated source of protein derived from various sources; below are some common examples: 

  • Whey: Whey protein powder is one of the most popular and widely used types of protein powder. Derived from milk during the cheese-making process, whey has become popular especially among athletes and fitness enthusiasts in part because it is a complete protein that contains all nine essential amino acids and is quickly absorbed by the body.
  • Casein: Also a complete protein derived from mammalian milk, casein is additionally a good source of the minerals calcium and phosphorus. Casein is slower to digest than whey, however, and that makes it beneficial for post-workout recovery where sustained release of amino acids is welcome. 
  • Plant-based proteins: Plant-based protein powder (or vegan protein) can be derived from different kinds of plants. Pea protein and brown rice protein have become common in recent years, but soy, hemp, and chia seed have also grown in popularity. Unlike animal proteins, though, plant-based proteins are not complete and don’t contain all the amino acids.  
  • Blends: For those who are less sure about the type of protein they want to emphasize, there are also high-protein blends that offer a balanced amino acid profile. 

Besides the additional ingredients that can be added to a protein drink or smoothie, powders may also include vitamins, minerals, or antioxidants that are great for overall health. Just because it is presented as a high-quality protein supplement, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s perfectly healthy. Many protein powders also contain preservatives, added sugars, or artificial sweeteners for instance. So even though you’re drinking a protein-rich shake, it might be subtly adding calories to your diet that you didn’t expect.  

What is the Benefit of Protein?

For most people, the basic purpose of a protein shake or smoothie is to increase one’s daily protein intake. But why is protein so important? Along with fat and carbohydrates, protein is one of the main macronutrients that the body needs for normal functioning. Protein is necessary for both muscle growth and the repair and growth of tissue around the body in general, and insufficient protein intake can negatively affect one's health in a number of ways. That is why doctors, registered dietitians, and nutritionists recommend that adults get 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.

Are There Downsides to Protein Powder?  

While protein shakes can be a convenient way to increase protein intake, it's important to remember that they aren’t meant to replace whole foods in a balanced diet. Whole foods are unprocessed or lightly processed foods that are known to provide essential nutrients and are associated with a variety of health benefits. Unless you’re a bodybuilder or high-performance athlete, you can easily get enough protein simply by eating a balanced diet that includes items like lean meats, fish, nuts, seeds, or legumes

Another possible concern to be aware of with protein powder is that it is considered a dietary supplement by the FDA. This means that manufacturers are solely responsible for how they label their products and what substances are included. And with no oversight, that means there could be potentially unhealthy ingredients that wouldn’t be evident from the label. Moreover, research into dietary supplements is limited; very few studies have, for example, explored the long-term effects of protein supplements on different aspects of health.   

Can Protein Shakes Help With Weight Loss?   

While protein shakes are most commonly associated with gym-going types who are trying to build muscle, there is some evidence that they can help with weight loss as well. Body composition (the proportion of fat and lean muscle) is complex and is driven by many factors, but protein does play a significant role. Below are some of the ways that dietary protein can have an impact on weight loss: 

  • Satiety: One of the most valuable aspects of protein as far as weight loss is the fact that it can more quickly lead to a feeling of fullness after eating. Compared to simple carbs, protein takes longer to digest, and that can make you feel less hungry and can reduce the kinds of cravings that often lead to overeating.
  • Calorie control: Protein powder is sometimes used in meal replacement shakes, which are intended as a low-calorie alternative to a full meal. If properly fortified with other valuable nutrients, the protein in such a shake can help you get into a calorie deficit that is necessary for weight loss.
  • Muscle preservation: When weight loss occurs, it ideally means a loss of stored fat; what often happens, though, is that muscle tissue also gets broken down for energy. So increasing your protein intake is a way to preserve muscle mass while still burning fat. This is especially important for weight loss since muscle burns more calories at rest than fat.  
  • Convenience: A common obstacle to weight loss is not having enough time to prepare all the foods necessary for a healthy diet. Protein shakes offer a much quicker alternative that can fit a busy schedule and may help you stay on track.       

It’s important to note that while protein shakes can provide a quick and easy source of additional protein, they may lack other essential nutrients that are found in healthy foods. It would be unwise, therefore, to rely too much on them. Also, sustainability is a crucial factor of any successful weight loss program; it’s possible to get bored or tired of protein shakes over a period of months or years, and that can lead to overeating if you decide to go back to your old diet.  

Sustainable Weight Loss Solutions  

Weight gain is an all-too-familiar experience for many Americans, and it’s quite common to get fed up with being overweight and start looking for an easy fix. The truth is, though, that there are no sustainable, quick-fix paths to weight loss. At True You, we know how challenging this journey can be, and that’s why we are passionate about offering a different approach that can be reliable over the long term. If you’re like most people and are eager to finally find that freedom, please contact us today to request a consultation.

Dr. Christopher McGowan
Dr. Christopher McGowan

Dr. Christopher McGowan, MD, a leader in endobariatrics, specializes in non-surgical obesity treatments and is triple-board-certified in Internal Medicine, Gastroenterology, and Obesity Medicine. Renowned for pioneering endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty (ESG) with over 2,000 procedures, his global influence and research contributions define him as a top expert.

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