Should fat people be drinking protein shakes for weight loss?

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When I first started this blog I told myself that I would stay away from weight loss and fitness topics. The main reason for this is because fat people are bombarded constantly with weight loss tips and “tricks.” This constant tirade isn’t applicable to everyone and can be harmful!

In fact, if you google something like, “The Best Product for Fat People” you’ll typically get a bunch of results that tell you to “just lose weight.” Well, what are you supposed to do in the meantime? Or, what if you can’t lose weight due to a medical condition? Or what if you love yourself as you are and don’t really care about losing weight?

So in response to all of these issues, and the current craze of drinking protein shakes and even replacing one or more meals per day with a shake, I decided I’d better weigh in on whether a fat person should be drinking protein shakes or not.

In short, no, fat people should not be drinking protein shakes. This is not to say that protein shakes are inherently bad, but protein shakes miss the mark for most people for the following four reasons:

  • They are a highly processed non-whole-food
  • They are low in fiber (which helps you feel full)
  • They are calorically dense
  • They are low in nutritional content
  • You probably don’t need more protein

Despite these truths, protein sales remain a $17,000,000,000 industry. As always, if there is money to be made, there are truths to be twisted. So let’s talk about the reasons you don’t (or possibly do) need to be drinking protein shakes as a big guy or plus-size woman.

The top 3 myths pushed by supplement companies and media:

  1. You need more protein! Supplement companies and misinformed fitness coaches tout that “amino acids are the building blocks of life” and if you want to craft a better body shape, you better have protein for the construction. However, your body can utilize only so much protein. Truthfully, more protein will not make you lose weight or gain muscle more quickly.
  2. Protein is filling. It is, no doubt! However, the best weight loss solution would have fiber in addition to protein to slow digestion, stabilize blood sugar, and maintain satiety for longer. If drinking a protein shake reduces your fiber intake (which helps control diabetes risk, reduce your chances of cancer, etc.) then it’s a poor trade-off.
  3. It is easier to drink a shake. One of the main arguments for consuming a protein shake is that it takes the place of a low-quality meal. While there is no doubt that it’s easier to grab a shake, it’s not a great solution if you’re looking for overall health and/or weight loss. It is relatively easy to craft a meal that will contain fewer calories, keep you full longer, and be more nutritionally complete.

Scientific Truth and the Problem with Protein Shakes

How Satiety Works:

There are a few mechanisms in your body that can make you feel more full. The most effective of these is the much-touted “ileal brake.” When undigested food reaches the lowest part of the small intestine (called the ileum) you body recognizes that, because there are unabsorbed nutrients, you probably don’t need to be eating more and so it puts on the “brakes.”

The effect of the ileal brake is increased satiety (the feeling of fullness), slower digestion, and decreased appetite. So the question becomes, how do we activate this amazing body response?

The longer it takes your body to digest a portion of food, the more likely it is to reach the ileum intact and hit the brakes. Fat (lipids) seem to be the most effective at helping you feel full, but that prevents a bit of a problem for those interested in weight loss. You can’t just be eating fat all day to try and feel full!

The jury is still out on what is most effective, but it appears that fiber and protein (especially when they are found together) are the most effective. The perfect example of this would be legumes such as beans or lentils and whole grains with protein content such as quinoa.

Protein Shakes and Digestion

Shakes and protein powders are specifically engineered to be easy to digest. While this is great news if you’re prone to bloating or are sensitive to dairy, it means that no part of it is going to be reaching your ileum and activating the ileal brake.

Whole foods such as beans may be more difficult for your body to digest, at least initially until you acclimate, but they tend to be much more filling and reduce your appetite for much longer periods of time that a simple shake.

The other problem with a protein shake is the volume. Protein shakes typically have a milk or water base. In the case of milk, you’re getting extra fat and calories you don’t need. In the case of water, you’re really not getting much at all.

The best option for weight loss is to find foods that are not “calorically dense.” That is, they don’t have many calories for their volume. Here’s an extreme example, the low-carb protein shake I drank earlier today was 16oz and had 280 calories. As you might expect, it kept me full for about 45 minutes. Now, an entire pound of broccoli has 153 calories. While you probably don’t want to eat plain broccoli, a pound of it would probably keep you satisfied for half the day or more. Got it?

How much Protein do Fat People Actually Need?

There is no evidence that obese people need more or less protein than any other person trying to lose weight. The RDA for protein remains at .4-.5 grams per pound of bodyweight. So, if you are 340 pounds, you need 170 grams of protein per day.

Now, here’s an important point, more protein will not help you lose weight faster. Weight loss is determined by an overall caloric deficit. Your best option is to find foods that will meet all of your nutritional needs and still be filling. Protein shakes may help you meet your protein needs, but will the calories and lack of volume they bring, you’ll probably be reaching for something else pretty quick!

What should you do instead?

If you are obese and need alternatives to your daily protein shake, look for options which meet the following criteria:

  • They are whole foods. Whole foods tend to be healthier and contain nutrition not found in processed options.
  • They are high in protein. We both know that protein can help you feel more full.
  • They are high in fiber. Fiber can slow down the emptying of your stomach and make you feel full longer.
  • They are high in volume. Foods that have high amounts of air, water, or structural fiber (cucumber being the perfect example) tend to be more filling.
  • They have low calorie-density. The lower the calories per given volume the more you can eat and still stay within your caloric restrictions.

So, what does this look like in real life? If fat people shouldn’t be glugging down protein shakes all day, what’s better? Well, here are three options to get you started:

  1. Oatmeal. I know, I wish I had a sexier option to lead the way too. However, in the satiety index (a ranking of how filling foods are) oatmeal ranks #3, trailing only boiled potatoes and eggs. Oatmeal is packed full of water and provides a good amount of soluble fiber to keep you full all day. In fact, people who ate oatmeal at breakfast (instead of cereal) reported feeling more full and ate fewer calories at lunch. If you’re not much for oatmeal (I’m not) you might still love overnight oats (like I do). Try this recipe.
  2. Greek Yogurt. Greek yogurt is high-protein, high fat (hello ileal brake), and contributes to the culture of your gut biome. It makes an excellent snack, especially when paired with fruit.
  3. Vegetables. Yes, vegetables. I’m going to cheat here by not listing any specific ones, but seriously, eat your veggies. They are the most nutritious things on the planet, help you feel full forever, and have a laughably small number of calories.

Conclusion: Let’s be real…

I still drink a protein shake every day. So should obese people be drinking protein shakes? It probably doesn’t actually make much of a difference in your overall weightloss strategy. If you like them or need them to make sure you have some calories on the run, then more power to you!

However, if you’re drinking protein shakes at the expense of consuming more nutritious food, or you are feeling too hungry to stick to your weight loss plan, it’s probably time to explore some other options.


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