Is the whey protein-weight loss connection fact or fiction? Find out from the Fitness Nerd if using whey protein for weight loss is “yeah” or “nay. “
Dear Fitness Nerd,
I have a question for you around whey protein and weight loss.
I would consider myself to be pretty fit. I lift weights, run and do Body Pump and am pretty lean already, although I don’t know my exact body fat right now. I’d really like to make this the year that I get flat abs, but I still have some belly fat I’d like to make go away. Nothing major, just a little “pooch” and a smidge more side and back fat than I want …. we’re not talking a muffin top or anything like that though.
My girlfriend suggested that I try drinking more whey protein to lose weight. Her boyfriend is in really good shape and drinks a ton of protein shakes and she seems to believe that’s why he is so lean. She’s in great shape herself and uses a lot of whey protein, so I’m inclined to believe her.
What are your thoughts here? I really just want to lose those last couple of lbs of belly fat. I’m fairly tall and already pretty toned, it’s just my damn belly that I want to tighten up. Can whey protein help with this?
By the way, I already drink whey protein powder once a day in soy milk, usually in the morning and sometimes after I work out. Thanks for your time. Alicia (Long Island, NY)
Alicia, this question pops up a lot on discussion boards and in places like Yahoo Answers and Yedda. So you’re not the only one who is trying to figure out if there is really a connection between whey protein and weight loss. I probably see a variation on your question at least 2-3 times a week.
There are definitely a lot of “opinions” floating around out there around whey protein for weight loss. There’s some truth to them, but they are also tied up in a lot of myths, as well. So the trick is to understand exactly what whey protein is (and isn’t) so you can come to your own conclusions based on the facts.
What Is Whey Protein?
Whey is just a form of protein that is naturally-present in diary products like skim milk, cottage cheese, yogurt, etc. If you drink a glass of milk, you are already consuming some whey proteins. The whey protein that you are talking about is in a powdered form. Basically, the manufacturer takes liquid whey and “dries it”, making whey protein powder – a form of whey that is portable and easy to reconstitute.
So What Does Whey Protein Do For A Person?
The main benefit to whey protein is that it is easily and quickly digested by the body.
The body is also able to quickly utilize most of the amino acids in whey protein to help with tissue repair and recovery after exercise. The protein in whey has a high biological value (BV), meaning it’s easily absorbed by the body. Unlike other proteins, like casein (another form of protein in milk), the speed at which whey protein is digested makes it an ideal source of protein immediately following workouts when your body needs amino acids quickly to aid with recovery.
Whey protein, especially whey protein isolate (an even more concentrated form of whey protein vs. whey protein concentrate), is also very low in fat and carbohydrates. This is because the refinement process used to create whey protein powder removes nearly all of the fat and sugars in the liquid, leaving a final product that is almost 100% protein by volume. So this makes whey protein popular among dieters and people who are trying to limit carbohydrates or fat in their diet.
Whey protein has other properties that may have health benefits, including the presence of certain biologically active compounds that may improve immunity and even stave off muscle wasting. However, the main reason people consume whey protein is to encourage lean muscle growth and sometimes as a meal replacement.
Using Whey Protein For Weight Loss
Okay, now that you know what whey protein is, let’s tackle your question about whey protein and weight loss.
First, it’s important to understand that there is nothing particularly magical about whey protein that will directly cause you to melt off that last pound or two of belly fat and get abs like Jessica Biel. Whey protein is not an anabolic steroid — it’s a food.
In fact, the goal of drinking whey protein is usually to add weight (in the form of additional muscle), not to lose it.
That said, because your real goal here isn’t to lose scale weight, but to lose body fat and change your body fat percentage to favor lean tissue, including some additional whey protein in your diet could help you become leaner overall … and yes, that would probably include losing some belly fat.
The important thing to understand though, is that the whey protein probably wouldn’t directly be responsible for the drop in body or belly fat. It would have to be combined with a solid resistance or weight training routine and maybe a mixture of solid state cardio and high intensity interval training (HIIT.)
By doing this, you’d encourage the addition of lean muscle and burn some body fat which would likely pull your overall body fat levels down. The whey protein could nutritionally support the building of lean muscle, but it’s not going to act as a “fat burner” directly.
Now, there is some research conducted by Dr. Donald Layman at the University of Illinois that has linked leucine consumption (an amino acid which whey protein is rich in) with changes in body composition — including more lean tissue and lower body fat levels. So there may be some indirect benefits to choosing whey protein over other, less-leucine rich forms of protein in terms of fat loss, but this connection is still pretty tenuous.
The Whey Protein Diet: What That About?
There are a few diet plans out there that rely heavily on whey protein or other forms of liquid protein to encourage weight loss. I’ve even seen a few whey protein diet blogs start popping up lately online.
While these whey protein diets make you believe that it’s the whey protein that makes them tick, when you look under the hood, almost all of them produce weight loss not because of the whey protein, but because the dieter is consuming less calories than their body needs to maintain their current weight.
In other words, these whey protein diets typically operate on the conventional calorie-in-calorie-out model of weight loss.
There may be some metabolic advantages to consuming a higher protein diet or switching your mix of macro-nutrients (carbs, fats and proteins) to preference proteins, but this is still hotly debated within nutrition circles.
Clearly if you are eating a diet filled with empty calories and junk, and shift some of those calories to consuming lean sources of protein like whey (or even chicken breast, for example), it’s not unusual to see some weight or fat loss. But that comes primarily from cleaning up your diet, and not because of the magic of whey.
It’s also important to note that some whey protein diets are simply unsafe.
Again, not because of the whey protein itself, but because diets that are very high in protein, but very low in fats and carbohydrates have been linked to cases of sudden cardiac arrest and death. In the 70s there was a very popular liquid protein diet that had you pretty much substituting protein drinks for all of your meals, but it also was linked to a number of deaths.
The protein itself didn’t cause the deaths, but rather the extreme restriction of other macro nutrients that the body needs to function. These liquid protein diets basically caused the body to consume its own tissue for energy, weakening key muscles like the heart. It also caused serious electrolyte imbalances that caused health issues.
Just to be clear, there should be no health risks if you are simply substituting in a whey protein shake each day for one of your five to six smaller meals. The problems arise with whey protein diets or liquid protein diets that have you consuming all — or the majority – of your food in the form of protein.
Some Ways Whey Protein May Help You Get Leaner
Now, I know that I just told you that whey protein alone won’t necessarily help with weight loss, but I also don’t want to leave the impression that whey protein can’t play a role in speeding weight loss or change in body composition, provided you use it as part of an overall clean eating approach to diet and a good exercise plan.
Just to recap, there are a number of ways that including some whey protein in your diet can help with weight loss or fat loss:
- As a meal replacement when you are pressed for time. It’s always better to eat something, than to eat nothing. Because whey protein powder is so convenient, you can keep it around at the office and make a quick shake when you are tempted to eat a less healthy snack.
- As a way to help you eat 5-6 smaller meals across the day. Eating smaller, more frequent meals has been linked to improved body composition and less tendency to overeat later in the day. If you are finding it hard to fit in five to six small meals or snacks each day, adding in a whey protein shake can help with this.
- As a way to encourage more lean muscle. Remember, getting a “toned body” requires increasing muscle (or at least maintaining it) while decreasing body fat levels. Including some additional whey protein in your diet (especially around your workouts) can help you achieve this.
- As a post workout recovery drink. Because whey protein is quickly digested, one of the best times to drink a protein shake is right after you workout. This can help encourage recovery and ensure that you have enough amino acids available to allow your body to build muscle.
- As a way to preserve the muscle you already have. There is some research that indicates that people who consume whey protein are better able to maintain lean tissue, even during periods of inactivity. Including some whey in your diet each day may be able to help you better hold on to your muscle, even if your life keeps you away from the gym for a week or so.
Watch Out For Hidden Ingredients in Whey Protein Powder
If you do decide to try whey protein powder, it’s important to read the ingredients on the product closely.
Some whey protein powders have added ingredients that can be counter-productive to your goals.
For example, whey protein “gainer” powders have hundreds of extra calories added to them in the form of sugars in order to increase their calorie content for people who are trying to gain weight. They can also have supplements like creatine added to them.
Look for a 100% whey protein powder with no additional listed ingredients.
The Skinny on Whey Protein and Weight Loss
At the end of the day, whey protein may be able to help you drop some body fat and maybe add some additional muscle, but it’s not as if you can simply start drinking more whey protein and watch the belly fat magically disappear. In fact, it’s conceivable that you might not lose a single pound of scale weight (or very little) as a result of drinking whey protein powder.
Can it help you reach your fitness and fat-loss goals? Possibly, but not on it’s own. Whey protein is just one tool of many available to you. Focus on eating a clean diet, exercising regularly (including lifting weights or resistance training), throw in some cardio and you’ll typically get good results, with or without whey protein.
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