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Can Protein Shakes Cause Belly Fat?

author image Andrea Cespedes
Andrea Cespedes is a professionally trained chef who has focused studies in nutrition. With more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, she coaches cycling and running and teaches Pilates and yoga. She is an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, RYT-200 and has degrees from Princeton and Columbia University.
Can Protein Shakes Cause Belly Fat?
A shake has the potential to support your weight-loss efforts. Photo Credit: PeterGrof/iStock/Getty Images

You'll gain weight when you eat more calories than you burn, regardless of how healthy those calories are. However, excess calories in certain foods can encourage the development of belly fat, also known as visceral fat, that inflates your waistband and increases your risk of chronic disease. However, a protein shake isn't most likely the only cause of your belly fat. If you're working out regularly, a post-exercise protein shake can help your muscle-gain progress and recovery; just make sure you count the calories in the shake toward your daily intake to avoid gaining weight.

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Causes of Belly Fat

When men gain weight, most of it goes first to the abdominal region. Women, especially during their child-bearing years, tend to store extra fat in their hips, thighs and buttocks. As women's hormones change during peri-menopause and menopause, more fat is stored in the abdominal region as well.

A poor diet and sedentary lifestyle accelerate the accumulation of belly fat. Eat too much sugar, refined grains and saturated fats, and your middle is likely to expand. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation reported that drinking more fructose-sweetened beverages, like soda, can increase visceral fat in as little as 10 weeks.

Your activity also affects your belly fat levels. A job that has you stuck at a desk and hours in front of the television make you gain weight, especially belly fat, more readily. Regular exercise, including cardiovascular workouts and weight-training, helps you keep a healthy weight and minimizes expansion of your belly. Being active often throughout the day with non-exercise activity is also important. Walk often, fidget and do household chores, for example.

How a Protein Shake Could Cause Weight Gain

A protein shake serves as post-exercise nutritional support or a quick meal replacement. If you drink them in addition to your regular daily meals and don't budget for the calories, you could very well gain weight. A pound equals 3,500 calories, so eating 3,500 calories more than you need will make you gain a pound. Even if you consume excess calories in small increments, you'll eventually gain weight. For example, an extra 250 calories per day can lead to a 1/2 pound gain per week. When you gain weight and aren't working out, two-thirds of every pound comes in the form of fat -- including belly fat.

Commercial shakes from the smoothie store and the market vary in calorie count, but they can be 300 or more calories each. Lighter versions are usually available, so chose wisely.

Drink Protein Shakes Wisely

A protein shake consisting of fruit, milk and whey or vegetarian protein powder assists in repair and growth of hard-worked muscles following a workout session. Alternatively, use a protein shake as a meal replacement when you're rushing out the door in the morning or too tired to cook a full meal at night. When whole-food sources of protein are unavailable, or your only choice is a processed food snack, a protein shake is a valid alternative.

Protein shakes also have the benefit of keeping you feeling full for longer, as compared to a carbohydrate-snack, such as a handful of pretzels or even a banana. But any whole-food source of protein will have the same appetite-crushing effects as a protein shake. A 3-ounce serving of chicken with raw vegetables or a cup of low-fat Greek yogurt is just as effective post-workout or as a quick meal, and may be lower in calories and sugar as well as offer other valuable nutrients along with the protein.

Examine Your Protein Shake Ingredients

Pre-packaged protein shakes marketed to bodybuilders may contain excess calories from carbohydrates, especially sugar, that don't support the healthy-weight goals of the average person. They also often contain more grams of protein than you need in one sitting. An appropriate amount of protein post-workout or for a meal is between 20 and 30 grams.

You're better off mixing plain whey protein powder in milk or water as a post-exercise boost, especially if you're trying to manage your weight. This makes for a snack of just 120 to 250 calories, depending on the protein powder you use and what you mix it with.

Some homemade meal-replacement smoothies can also tip the scales in terms of calories. Too many "healthy" additions to your drink raise a shake's calorie count to 400 or more. Calorie-dense fruits, such as pineapple and banana, fruit juice, honey, nut butter and coconut oil offer quality nutrients, but their calories add up when you put them all together in a protein shake. A healthy, portion-controlled shake contains just a scoop of protein powder, 1 to 1 1/2 cups low-fat milk or water, 1/4 to 1/2 cup of fruit and 1 tablespoon of a healthy fat, such as ground flaxseeds.

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