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Do Protein Powders Work? (From A Nutritionist)

Connor Sellers
Published by Connor Sellers
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: April 14, 2022

Everyone’s advising you to use protein powders to reach your fitness goals. But the truth is they don’t always work.

During my eight-year career as a fitness trainer, I’ve seen people drinking protein shakes without getting results.

That’s because most beginners don’t know how to use powders the right way.

I partnered with a dietitian to put together this quick guide to making protein powders work for you. We also discussed the many benefits powders have when taken properly.

Here’s what you need to know.

Summary Of Our Key Findings

  • Protein powders can help you reach your ideal daily protein intake.
  • Powders also equip you with all nine essential amino acids.
  • Still, there are no guarantees — the results largely depend on your diet and physical activity.
  • Eat protein-rich foods and cut unhealthy fats for the best results.

Do Protein Powders Actually Work?

close up image of scooping powder from a container

Protein powders work when it comes to two things:

  • They help you reach your required daily protein intake
  • They equip you with the essential amino acids that you can’t get from food

Both outcomes can help you gain muscle mass and lose weight. But there’s no guarantee that either of those things will actually happen.

Here’s the thing —  protein shakes alone can’t meet all your body’s needs.https://totalshape.com/diet/how-much-protein-to-gain-muscle/

For example, let’s imagine a person who eats a lot of junk food and zero protein-rich foods. They also never exercise.

But then they start drinking a protein shake every day. What do you think? Should they expect great results?

The answer is absolutely not.

They still need to combine protein supplements with physical activity and a diverse, high-protein diet to benefit from them. Here’s how one nutrition expert put it [1]:

“It’s a combination of eating protein and carbs, as well as strength training.” - Leslie Bonci, sports dietitian for the Kansas City Chiefs and owner of Active Eating Advice

It would be wrong to expect results just because you’re drinking protein shakes.

If nothing else, it’s possible that you still won’t meet your required protein intake from powder alone.

For reference, it’s recommended that an average adult consumes 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram — or 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight [2].

So, in conclusion, powders only work when they’re used properly. When that’s the case, they can lead to many benefits, such as muscle growth and weight loss.

Let’s look at how they produce these two benefits in more depth.

Benefits: Muscle Gain

When combined with resistance training, protein stimulates muscle protein synthesis [3].

Synthesis of new protein is crucial for gaining muscle mass because protein is constantly being broken down in the body.

So, if you want to grow your muscles, you need to produce more protein than you’re breaking down.

This isn’t possible if you’re not fueling your body with enough protein.

A protein supplement — such as protein powder — can help you with that.

Joe Johnson, an online weight loss coach with a lot of remote workers as clients, says that protein powder comes with a lot of benefits. A scoop of the average protein powder contains around 20g of protein.

It also generally tastes good, mixes well with water, and takes seconds to drink. He reminds his clients though that to build muscle mass, protein powders are not enough — there has to be consistent and intense exercise sessions as well.

Benefits: Weight Loss

man flexing his arms and a woman measuring her waist

Protein shakes may lead to weight loss, but not directly. Instead, they lead to three outcomes that promote it.

We’ll go through them one by one.

1. Accelerated Metabolism

Protein shakes will help you burn more calories, i.e., boost your metabolism. And an accelerated metabolism can lead to weight loss.

But how do protein shakes help you burn more calories?

Well, protein has a thermic effect. That means your body needs a lot of energy to digest it — more than it needs to digest carbs or fat. So, your body will burn more calories during digestion [5].

As a result, you’ll shed a few pounds without cutting your calories or making any other changes to your lifestyle.

2. Feeling Full

woman resting her hand on her stomach

Protein also reduces hunger, so you’ll be less likely to give in to your cravings if you drink protein shakes on the regular.

Whey protein seems to be especially effective in controlling your appetite.

One study found that whey increases PYY and GLP-1 levels while simultaneously decreasing ghrelin levels [6].

Here’s why that’s important: 

PYY and GLP-1 reduce your appetite

Ghrelin increases your appetite

Because of that, you’ll feel full for a longer period of time — even if you don’t change your diet.

3. Less Belly Fat

Research suggests that high-protein diets reduce fat mass, especially in your abdominal area [7].

Belly fat is notoriously hard to get rid of because it partly consists of visceral fat.

Visceral fat surrounds your internal organs and can’t be eliminated solely with physical activity.

Whey protein seems to be particularly helpful in battling it. It contains lactoferrin and immunoglobulin, two milk proteins that protect against obesity and further promote loss of visceral fat [8].

Combine Protein Powder With Proper Diet

To make your protein shakes work, combine them with foods rich in protein.

Here are a few examples of such foods to help get you started:

  • Poultry (e.g., chicken, turkey, goose)
  • Red meat (e.g., beef, veal, lamb)
  • Dairy (e.g., milk, cheese, yogurt)
  • Fish and seafood (e.g., fish, crabs, prawns, lobster, clams)
  • Nuts and seeds (e.g., almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds)
  • Eggs

It’s also important to avoid foods that contain a lot of unhealthy fat, no matter if you’re trying to lose weight or build muscles. Unhealthy fat impedes both processes.

The list of foods you should avoid includes:

  • Fried food (e.g., fried chicken, chips)
  • Processed meat (e.g., sausages, bacon)
  • Desserts (e.g., fatty cakes)
  • Fast food (e.g., burgers, french fries, sandwiches)

Lastly, try to eat every three hours to give your metabolism an extra kick and drink more water to lose weight and build muscles faster.

FAQs

Should I Take Protein Powder Every Day?

You should take protein powder every day if you’re not meeting your recommended dietary allowance with your diet.

But Should You Really Use Protein Powders?

You should use powders if you want to gain noticeable results faster. But you shouldn’t expect miracles.

Protein supplements can’t replace a high-protein, nutritious diet. They also won’t help you achieve your fitness goals if you never practice strength training.

But you can expect great results if you combine protein shakes with protein-rich foods and adequate physical activity.

If you commit to that, we highly encourage you to try powders. Make sure you snap a photo before you start using them - you’ll be shocked when you compare your before and after results.


References:

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29462923/
  2. https://www.sclhealth.org/blog/2019/07/how-much-protein-is-simply-too-much/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21795443/
  4. https://www.nature.com/articles/ijo2014216
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25563737
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26269241
  7. https://www.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/japplphysiol.00152.2014
  8. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10408398.2014.995264

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