Written and Medically Reviewed by Dr Babar Shahzad, BSc and MBBS on January 4, 2020.
Dieting by eating a lot of protein and avoiding carbohydrates is increasingly popular. While low-carbohydrate diet trends can be traced back to the original Atkins diet, the high-protein component has become popular more recently.
That can seem counterintuitive since we tend to associate protein powder with people with big muscles who to the gym a lot. Protein powders are often used for muscle gain, but depending on how you use them, they can also help with weight loss.
There are various ways this works, and using protein powder correctly is important for seeing results.
In this article, we’ll go over how to use protein powders to lose weight, and why this works.
What Is Protein Powder?
Protein is one of the three primary macronutrients in the diet, along with fats and carbohydrates.
It has to be eaten every day because the body does not store protein as it does with fat and carbohydrates. Protein is used as a structural component to build muscle, hair, nails, and skin. Enzymes are also proteins – these are the biological catalysts inside your body that facilitate your metabolism and other internal biochemical processes.
Dried protein powders consist mostly of protein, with minimal carbohydrates and fats. They are available as nutritional supplements and are used for two main reasons:
- To support muscle building after heavy resistance training, and
- To help promote weight loss.
Not all protein powders are equal. Protein is made out of building blocks called amino acids. There are 20 different types, and 9 are called essential amino acids because your body can’t synthesize them on its own.
Protein sources that contain all 20 amino acids are called complete. These include meat, fish, dairy, eggs, quinoa, and soybeans. Incomplete protein sources are missing some amino acids.
High-protein foods are often high in other nutrients that you don’t always want to have. If you seek a high-protein diet by consuming a lot of meat or eggs, you’ll end up consuming a lot of saturated fats. On the other hand, eating a lot of plant protein sources will make you consume a lot of carbohydrates at the same time.
Interesting read: Leangains: A Simple, Science-Based Guide
Common Types Of Protein Powder
Protein powders can be made from plant or dairy sources. Dairy protein powders are complete protein sources. Whey protein powder is the main kind and is more quickly absorbed into the bloodstream than casein, a slow-release form (1).
To use protein powder for weight loss, it’s important how you use it. Choosing a different kind of protein powder might also make a difference, but it’s the way you use protein powder as part of your overall strategy that will determine whether it helps you lose weight or not.
To start with, one of the most effective ways to use protein powder for weight loss is as a part of a low-carbohydrate diet that induces a fat-burning metabolic state.
Protein powder is valuable as a weight-loss tool because it contains a lot of protein, and overall calories, without having much carbohydrate or fat. This makes it easy to achieve a low-carbohydrate diet, which is effective in shedding pounds.
A review of 6 studies found that a low-carbohydrate diet, in conjunction with an overall reduction in calories, was effective in losing weight. The subjects lost an average of 10 pounds over a month (4).
Another study concluded that a low-carbohydrate diet could promote weight loss even when overall caloric intake remained the same. The study subjects lost an average of 16.2 pounds over 9 weeks, despite eating the same amount of overall energy (5).
In the same study, researchers observed a dramatic increase in the concentration of ketone bodies in the urine of the subjects on the low-carbohydrate diet. These show that these people were in a state of ketosis, a fat-burning metabolic state that is the goal of the low-carbohydrate diet.
In ketosis, the body changes its energy source from glucose to ketone bodies in response to starvation. Ketone bodies are produced by oxidizing the body’s fat stores, so in ketosis, fat-burning goes up.
When you stop consuming food, your body first burns through its sugar stores. These don’t last too long, so the longer you go without food, the more fat is burned, and the more ketone bodies are produced (6).
The aim of a ketogenic diet is not to mimic a state of extreme starvation. That is unhealthy. But, by using a low-carbohydrate diet to achieve a state of mild ketosis, you can induce your body to burn fat much faster than normal and get a head start on your weight loss goals (4).
Mild ketosis is the goal of several diets that promote weight loss. As well as the low-carbohydrate diet, intermittent fasting is able to induce a ketosis state by restricting food intake for a given period of time, often 16 hours per day (5).
As a bonus, a ketogenic diet may improve your cardiovascular health. One study found that restricting carbohydrates improved blood markers associated with heart disease and stroke (6).
Further Weight Loss Benefits Of Protein Powder
As a part of a ketogenic diet, protein powder can help you lose weight fast. But it’s not the only way that this supplement can help you to lose weight. Here’s how consuming protein powder can help you lose weight without achieving a state of ketosis:
Protein Helps You Feel Full For Longer
One study measured subjects’ food intake over the course of a day after consuming 39 g of protein at breakfast. Subjects ate an average of 135 fewer calories for the rest of the day and reported feeling more full at lunch (7).
Another study reported the same effect but to a greater degree. An increase of protein’s share of the diet from 15 to 30% reduced the subjects’ caloric intake by 441 calories per day. As a result, they lost an average of 11 pounds of body weight over the course of the study.
39 g of protein can be difficult to eat first thing in the morning – that’s the equivalent of about six eggs. A protein shake provides an easy way to get that protein without filling up on other nutrients too.
Protein powder can also help you avoid unhealthy kinds of eating. A diet consisting of 25% protein helped overweight men in another study to reduce their late-night snacking by half (8).
Protein induces hormonal changes in your body. Appetite is controlled by a variety of different hormones. Ghrelin is one of the most important of these. When blood ghrelin concentrations are higher, you feel more hungry. Eating protein-rich meals significantly decreases ghrelin concentrations (9, 10).
Other hormones perform the opposite role – signaling fullness, and telling our bodies to stop eating. One of these is cholecystokinin. Protein has a strong stimulating effect on cholecystokinin production (11).
It may not require too much protein to enjoy these appetite-suppressing effects. One study found the same results occurred whether the subjects had 20 or 80 g of protein, so a single protein shake in the morning could be enough (12).
Protein Decreases Blood Sugar Levels
Altering your diet to include more protein decreases your blood sugar levels, which has various results that may help you lose weight.
Researchers studied this effect because of the potential implications for diabetes treatment. Patients with diabetes are unable to produce insulin to control their blood sugar levels when they get too high. The condition of high blood sugar levels is called hyperglycemia.
Hyperglycemia causes anxiety, reduces mood, and increases hunger. It’s not a good state to be in if you’re trying to stick to a diet. You don’t have to be a diabetic to become hyperglycemic. After calorie-rich meals, especially those containing a lot of sugar, anyone can become hyperglycemic for a time until their insulin response catches up (13).
Protein Powder Increases Your Metabolism
Metabolism is an important part of the energy balance equation that determines whether you lose or gain weight.
Physical activity actively burns calories, but your body is constantly burning energy in the background to perform the cellular processes that keep you alive and well.
Some people naturally have a higher metabolic rate than others, which is why we all have a friend who seems to eat what they like and never put on weight.
Fortunately, various foods and supplements can boost your metabolic rate, and protein is one of them.
Two studies measured the resting metabolic rates of study subjects who were on a high-protein diet versus those who stuck to their regular diet. The high-protein diet increased metabolic rate by a little over 4% (16, 17).
That is a modest improvement, but the same studies also found that protein increased energy expenditure during the digestion of food and the production of body heat, which were measured separately from the metabolic rate.
How To Best Take Protein Powder
When it comes to having protein shakes, timing is everything. A review of 34 studies found that protein powder can promote either weight gain or weight loss, depending on when people took it. In general, protein powder should be taken with meals, when it promotes weight loss. Having a protein shake in between meals will cause the opposite to happen (18).
It’s also important not to add too many extra calories to your protein shake. Firstly, you need to make sure your protein powder itself doesn’t contain extra calories. These will mostly be in the form of sugar that some manufacturers use to sweeten their powders.
When you make your shake, adding milk, fruit, yogurt, or honey will add a lot of empty calories that will ruin some of the benefits you’re trying to achieve. The best way to have a protein shake is straight, with water. If you want to add a little something to make it tastier, that’s up to you, but keep it reasonable.
As for what kind of protein powder you choose, it seems like there isn’t a whole lot of difference. Whey protein powder is absorbed more quickly than casein or soy, so the latter two may help you stay full for longer. But the evidence shows that the type of powder you use has little difference on weight loss outcomes in the long term (19).
It’s also important not to rely solely on protein powders for weight loss. Like all dietary supplements and strategies, they work best in conjunction with regular exercise and a balanced diet.
Protein powders are high-protein supplements made from a variety of plant and dairy sources. They contain little to no carbohydrate or fat, which makes them useful in achieving a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet.
Such a diet can put your body into a state of ketosis, in which it burns your fat stores to provide energy. Studies show that ketogenic diets are efficient at promoting weight loss.
Even without using protein powder to realize a ketogenic diet, protein powder can have other benefits for your weight loss regime.
It acts as an appetite suppressant, helping you stay full for longer. In clinical studies, eating protein caused subjects to eat fewer calories than others who stuck to their regular diets.
It can also boost your metabolic rate and help control your blood sugar levels. Both of these effects are potentially helpful for weight loss.
Protein powder is best taken with meals and in conjunction with exercise. It’s also important not to consume too many extra calories with your shakes, which means avoiding powders containing added sugar and not adding sugar to the shakes yourself.
Overall, protein powder can be used as an effective part of a weight loss program. Your specific goals will determine how exactly you use it, and it’s important to get that right to ensure it has the best effect.