Should you take a protein supplement for weight loss?
Why eating more protein can help you lose weight, how to know if you’re eating enough + whether you might need a protein supplement.
Does eating more protein help you lose weight?
For a while now, high protein diets have been touted as being useful for weight loss. This is certainly one of the many strategies I use to help you lose weight, but only when appropriate for both your body + for your desired health outcome. Today I’m going to go into why increasing protein might be a useful strategy for you, when it may not be so useful + how a protein supplement fits into the overall weight loss picture.
Does protein help with weight loss?
Probably yes. A high protein diet alongside a calorie deficit has been shown to increase the rate of fat loss in some studies, which is largely why it’s promoted as being beneficial for weight loss.
Note that, there is a distinction that needs to be made between fat loss + weight loss. Weight loss means that the total amount you weigh (on the scales) comes down but this number doesn’t always accurately reflect the amount of overall fat loss you have achieved, because your body can lose weight for a number of different reasons (fat loss, muscle loss or water loss) + any one of these will result in a drop in the number on the scales. Most of my clients desire fat loss over weight loss because even though it doesn’t always lead to a reduction in your total kilograms, it tends to result in a healthier body composition, less risk of developing metabolic diseases + makes you feel generally healthier + more energetic.
With this in mind, if you are a weight (fat) loss client of mine, I will generally recommend you increase your protein intake for two reasons. First, so that you achieve fat loss over other forms of weight loss + second because adequate protein is absolutely critical to overall health + I aim to have every client leave me healthier than when they came. So let’s go a bit deeper into why both of these matter in your overall weight loss journey.
Protein helps preserve muscle + keep you full.
Protein’s primary role in aiding weight loss probably comes from it’s ability to make you full + preserve lean muscle mass (which ultimately burns body fat + also helps to regulate your metabolism). Protein may also use up more energy in its digestion, use + excretion than carbohydrates + thus may be a more efficient way to consume calories, especially if you are aiming to be in a calorie deficit (which you should be). But there are many other important reasons why increasing protein may help you lose weight.
protein Boosts your physical + mental heALTH, which is Essential for sustained weight loss.
Getting adequate protein is critical for enabling functions in the body that support weight maintenance + overall health long term. Protein serves as the building blocks for muscle + connective tissue, which is especially important for both your engagement in movement, as well as your regulation of blood sugar + energy use (all of these things are necessary to tell your body when + how to burn the energy that you eat, rather than store it as more fat). Your neurotransmitters (the chemical messengers that your brain uses to communicate with the rest of the body) are also made of protein + because of this, adequate protein intake contributes to your body having the resources required to manage stress + mood, to sleep well + to concentrate - all incredibly useful traits when trying to lose weight.
Protein is also important in the absorption + transportation of other nutrients that all work in concert with each other to make you a healthier, more robust individual. When you are trying to lose weight, it makes sense to make every bite as nutritious as possible, because when you feel well, you’re more likely to exercise, to think positively, to get out + about + to pick yourself up quickly after a setback.
Good quality protein (especially animal based sources) often comes packaged up with the very nutrients that are required for good energy metabolism like carnitine, iron + the B vitamins. Why is this important? Good energy metabolism means your body is able to use the carbohydrates + fats that you eat (+ store) effectively for energy (instead of taking from your muscles) thereby contributing to fat loss if you’re in a calorie deficit.
Ultimately all of these things work together to support your mind + body in facing the challenges posed by trying to lose weight. However, when people are trying to lose weight they are by default, decreasing the amount of food they are eating + thus the amount of nutrients. When someone is losing weight is imperative to make sure their diet is replete in all nutrients required for optimal functioning + it is not always easy to design a completely replete diet if someone is eating less + that’s where a protein powder can be useful. But before I talk about protein powders let’s quickly touch on how much protein you should be eating in your weight loss diet.
How much protein do you need to eat for weight loss?
In theory, your adequate protein intake should be calculated according to body weight + age, but here’s the thing….there is limited data on the exact amount that is required per day that is required for optimal functioning. That’s partly because protein needs vary from person to person depending on their lifestyle + state of health. The truth is, the human body can exist happily on a diet that varies in the amount of protein, carbohydrate + fat that it has daily + your macronutrient (fats/proteins/carbs) intake will already naturally vary from day to day if you have a varied diet.
This study found however that in combination with a calorie deficit + resistance + HIIT training that 2.4gm of protein/kg of body weight was more effective at maintaining lean body mass + had greater fat loss than 1.2gm of protein per kg of body weight, which gives you a ball park figure if you are quite active + in a calorie deficit (note that the study was short + conducted on men). The challenge for most people (myself included) is that it is easy to get sick of tracking your grams of protein + calories pretty quickly, which means that any weight loss program that relies on using these numbers may quickly become unsustainable.
So instead, I use a system which ensures you get enough protein from varied sources without having to count grams or measure your food all the time + still helps you lose weight (that said, if you are a numbers person, you can get nice outline of how to calculate your own approximate intake here). I find most women get enough protein for weight loss by consuming a palm size amount of quality protein in each meal + a half palm size in each snack. This is particularly important for vegetarians, vegans, those doing significant amounts of exercise + those older than 70 years of age. From here, it can be adjusted up or down as you start to understand your body more, get into good eating habits + get fitter.
Does a protein powder help with FAT loss?
The majority of studies on protein supplementation + weight loss are done in conjunction with a lower calorie diet. The aim being to preserve muscle mass for the purposes described above, not to generate weight loss alone. The results are however conflicting (for example this study showed no difference in fat free mass between the control + the whey protein supplement over a 4 week period, but this open label study did) as to whether the inclusion of protein powder into a diet will increase fat loss over + above what would normally occur with a wholefood protein diet. The focus should really be on achieving your total amount of protein in your day (which we know does help with weight loss) + if a protein powder helps you make your target then use it appropriately. For people that are already eating a high protein diet, a protein supplement is probably an unneccessary addition to their diet, however if you are struggling to include a good quality protein source into every meal then you could use a protein supplement in just those meals to make sure you are achieving enough.
Can you get enough protein for weight loss without a protein supplement?
Yes you can, but especially for women, it is a good idea to consciously prioritise your protein intake. Even though in general as a population, Australians tend to get too much protein, for women who are on a weight loss diet, this isn’t always the case. And that’s where an appropriate protein supplement can be useful, especially for meals that are typically made with lesser amounts of protein like breakfast smoothies. I generally recommend a protein powder for women that are consistently eating below or just on the recommended requirements, but only in their typical meals where it is difficult to get protein in any other way. My preference is therefore to use the wholefood protein source over a protein supplement.
What are the best protein powders for women?
The best protein powder is one that is bioavailable (i.e. easily digested + incorporated into your body) and complete (i.e. contains a balanced profile of the essential amino acids that your body cannot make itself). The four protein powders that are typically the most complete + bioavailable are milk protein concentrate, whey protein isolate + concentrate, soy protein isolate + a 70:30 pea:rice protein concentrate. Bear in mind that milk (+ sometimes whey, but to a lesser extent) concentrate is not always tolerated especially if you are dairy intolerant. Note too that soy protein is often made from GMO soybeans so it all comes down to personal preference + taste. If you’re wanting to use a protein powder, shop around + try different options for yourself + avoid additional additives, flavourings + colours where possible.
Are there any downsides to taking a protein powder?
Keep in mind that consuming a protein powder is not for everyone. Protein (from any source), fat + carbohydrate all contribute to your calorie intake so excess consumption of any of these macronutrients whilst trying to lose weight can inadvertently thwart your efforts. For some people, undigested protein will be fermented in the gut leading to excess bloating + pain so if this is you, you may want to reduce your protein powder serving size or avoid a powder altogether.
A high to moderate protein intake also makes your kidneys + liver work harder which has not been shown to be a problem for healthy kidneys + livers but for those with underfunctioning or over stressed organs, speak to your nutritionist + doctor about the appropriateness of a high protein diet. And finally, if you take any medication or supplementation that provides amino acids or amino acid precursors to the body, your dietary protein can compete with the uptake of your medication making it less effective. So as always, speak with your health practitioner before commencing protein supplementation.
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Hey! I’m Zoe Morosini, a Brisbane (Australia) based nutritionist on a mission to show every woman that wants to lose weight that she doesn’t have to lose her mind trying.