Could Protein Shakes Be Impeding Your Weight Loss?

Article By: Whittany Gibson, RDN

Whittany is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who specializes in bariatric nutrition counseling, providing education and support prior to and following weight loss surgery.

Protein water, protein shakes, protein soup, protein puddings... You’ve likely had one or all of these prior to or following weight loss surgery. The whole post-op process after surgery can seem daunting, especially during your post-op diet phases when you are constantly having to think about how you will reach your protein and hydration goals. Sometimes it can seem like a full time job trying to meet these goals, and you will find that having a plan is necessary. But all too often I see my patients depend too much on liquid protein supplements and not enough on solid protein foods. “What’s the difference and why does it matter?” you might ask. Hold tight, I’ll get there in a moment.

First, as a bariatric dietitian, I have to question why my patients are depending on supplements so often. Is it because they are feeling a lot of restriction with solids and this is how they are meeting their protein needs? Is it because they have poor planning practices and it’s just easy? If it’s the latter, I have to coach them into practicing better time management and planning for more protein-rich solid foods versus so many liquids. Don’t freak out yet! I’m not advising against incorporating protein shakes, because they are a wonderful way to meet nutrient needs. But I do not advise patients to get the majority of their nutrition from liquids. WHY????

Follow me here... Let's start with the fact that liquids require minimal digestion. You drink it, it quickly makes its way to the stomach, but doesn’t hang around in the stomach for very long. Most protein shakes only satisfy your hunger for a short amount of time just due to it being a liquid. Of course, the extent of fullness it can offer you may be very dependent on the nutrition profile of the shake. Protein shakes typically are low in carbs and fats but are high in protein. In contrast to liquids, solids take longer to digest. For example, if you eat 2oz tuna salad or chicken breast, this will sit in your stomach for longer, keeping you satisfied for longer, keeping hunger hormones in check.

Onto my second point... Did you know your body burns calories when digesting foods? If you had to guess as to whether solids or liquids burn more calories, which would you say? The chicken or the protein shake? If you chose chicken, you are correct! What we can assume from this is that we can support our metabolism a bit more by choosing solid foods rather than liquids. Do your best to avoid the habit of making your liquids your meal replacement on a regular basis. My suggestion is to use your protein shake as a means of meeting what you’re not getting via foods, you know, as a protein supplement. After all, that is what the word supplement means. To make up for what you’re not getting through food alone.

Studies also show that the desire to eat is greater when liquid meal replacement products are consumed. What do you think might happen when this occurs? If your hunger is really speaking to you, you may end up choosing food options that are suboptimal, fall into old eating habits like eating too fast or pushing to the point of fullness. Planning your food options well is the best way to avoid this.

So where do you go from here?

If you are looking for a supplement that provides a lot of protein per serving size, you could opt for protein bars. But be careful which ones you choose. You could end up going down that road of overly processed or sugary options that carry little nutrition value. When choosing a protein bar, of course we want to ensure there is significant protein in it. I tell my patients to aim for at least 12g protein and at least 3g of fiber to keep you satisfied longer. Keep it around 200 calories or less per serving and limit added sugars to 5g per serving.

Another option could be protein smoothies as they can be an elevated version of a protein shake. But wait, it’s liquid. Yes I know, but with a fully balanced smoothie, you can add a lot of nutritional value. By simply adding sources of protein, healthy fat, and fiber, you can help slow down digestion, making you feel fuller for longer. I give each and every patient a smoothie guide that teaches them how to do this and they absolutely love the different combinations of flavors they can use.

So what is the main takeaway from this? The takeaway is to not have most of your nutrition come from liquid supplements after surgery. This can lead to higher levels of hunger, not feeling satisfied, confusing hunger hormones, and increased snacking on not-so-awesome choices. But with a little planning and effort, you can start to incorporate more protein rich solids into your day.

BariMelts provides general recommendations, not to be construed as medical advice. Please consult your doctor.

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