Protein powder was once marketed only to people who wanted to build muscle and recover from hard workouts. Now, protein powder is considered as a possible supplement to help you lose weight. Protein helps keep you full and may give your metabolism a boost, but consuming protein powder isn't a guaranteed way for women to slim down. Use protein powder as an occasional dietary supplement, not as the crux of your weight-loss plan. Exercising along with eating a balanced, whole foods diet will help you reach a healthy weight.
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What Is Protein Powder
Protein powder, sold in tubs or packets at health food stores, gyms and some large grocery chains, comes from animal and plant sources. Whey, derived from milk, is one of the most commonly found, but you can also find brown rice, soy, egg white, hemp and casein. Blends that usually combine vegetarian sources, such as cranberry, brown rice and pea, are also available.
When you don't have time or access to a whole protein, such as meat, cottage cheese or fish, protein powder is a quick and convenient alternative. Mix a scoop into water, milk or juice and shake to incorporate; alternatively, blend protein powder into a smoothie, add to oatmeal or stir into yogurt. Most brands contain between 15 and 25 grams of protein per scoop, equivalent to 3 to 4 ounces of lean flank steak or a cup of cubed, soft tofu.
Protein in Weight Loss
Getting enough protein protein is essential to weight loss. It helps keep you feeling full and prevents spikes in your blood sugar, which often induce cravings. Protein also takes slightly more energy for your body to digest than fat and carbohydrates. As you cut calories and exercise, an adequate protein intake supports the maintenance of lean muscle mass. Weight loss happens when you create a calorie deficit, or burn more calories than you consume. If you do this without exercise, your body often uses your valuable lean tissue for fuel and much of the weight you lose is muscle mass. Consuming enough protein as part of your daily meals helps discourage this effect.
A 2012 issue of the British Journal of Nutrition published a study showing that consuming a higher-than-recommended 0.55 grams per pound of protein per day helps in the treatment of obesity and metabolic syndrome -- a cluster of symptoms including excessive belly fat, high blood pressure and excessive blood lipids. For a 180-pound woman, that's about 99 grams of protein per day. Protein powder could help you reach that higher intake level when you can't get enough from whole foods.
Using Protein Powder for Weight Loss
Protein powder can stand in for whole foods when you're in a hurry or need a portable protein option, but meat, tempeh, fish, chicken, beans and eggs are best when it comes to fulfilling your calorie needs. Whole protein sources have other nutrients and usually aren't as highly processed as powders.
You can use protein powder as a pre- or post-workout snack to promote muscle growth and repair. It's a convenient option because you want to consume the protein as close as possible to the end of your exercise session to garner the most benefits; carrying a whole chicken breast in your gym bag isn't always practical. Protein powder in a fruit smoothie with berries and almond milk stands in as a quick breakfast when your alternative is skipping the meal altogether or reaching for a white bagel or doughnut, which can spike your blood sugar and make you feel hungry soon after.
Protein Powder Pitfalls for Women
Protein powder on its own doesn't actually cause weight loss; it simply may be a lower calorie alternative to other options. There are far fewer calories in a shake made with protein powder, skim milk and a cup of fruit than the calories in a plate of pancakes and sausage. You may benefit slightly from the hunger-curbing qualities of protein powder, but no more so than you would from eating 3 ounces of chicken or fish.
If you aren't careful, protein powder can actually increase your daily intake of calories and discourage weight loss. Add nut butter, flax meal, coconut oil, yogurt, honey or sweetened fruit to a protein powder smoothie, and you can easily create a high-calorie meal or snack that makes you exceed your daily needs. When weight loss is your goal, don't consume protein powder in addition to your current diet, or you'll only add calories and gain weight. Count the powder and anything you eat it with in your daily calorie allotment.
Picking a Protein Powder
Protein powders aren't regulated well by the Food and Drug Administration, so read the ingredient label and make sure the brand you choose doesn't contain artificial sweeteners, supplements, preservatives or extra calories from carbohydrates.
The type of protein powder you choose is largely a matter of personal preference. Taste is an important consideration, as is mixability. If you plan on using the protein powder as a support for your exercise plan, whey and casein are good choices because they digest quickly and support the growth of lean muscle mass. If you have dietary restrictions that require limiting milk products, you might choose soy or another vegetarian version. Animal-derived protein powders can cause digestive issues for some women, such as gas or bloating, and if this is an issue, you might prefer a brown rice or hemp option.