Protein works on both sides of the “calories in vs calories out” equation. It reduces calories in and boosts calories out. A higher protein intake is also associated with less belly fat, the harmful fat that builds up around the organs and causes disease.
Interestingly, a higher protein intake can also help prevent weight regain. In one study, a modest increase in protein intake (from 15 to 18% of calories) reduced weight regain after weight loss by 50%.
Dietary protein intake and specifically the quality of the protein in the diet has become an area of recent interest, particularly when combined with resistance training (for a thorough review the reader is directed to ref). “Quality of protein is defined as the ratio of essential amino acids (EAA) to dietary protein in grams. The dietary reference intake (DRI) includes no specific recommendation regarding the type of dietary protein consumed or distribution of that dietary protein throughout the day. Approximately 10 g of EAA, at a meal, maximally stimulates muscle protein synthesis (MPS)”. EAA intake beyond this level does not appear to result in an additional anabolic response.
We sought to determine the relationship between the amount of quality protein consumed in 24-hours and the amount of times the ~10 g EAA threshold was reached at a meal, with respect to percent CAF. This is a secondary analysis using a data set from a previously reported paper on quality protein, overall body composition (lean mass and total body fat), and bone health.
For this reason, it is not surprising to see that high-protein diets lead to weight loss, even without intentionally restricting calories, portions, fat, or carbs.
I used to think protein powders were reserved for “gym bros” who wanted to bulk up, but I’ve since learned that isn’t true — lots of people can benefit from boosting their protein intake (ideally from whole foods rather than powders, as many nutrition experts recommend).
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Eating a high-protein diet helped me lose fat while holding on to muscle, and it still helps me progress on my fitness journey, but I don’t often have a protein shake after working out.
I usually time my training so my next meal or snack falls shortly after my workout. And as for protein powder, I mainly use it to give me a boost at breakfast, whether in baked oats, a smoothie, or pancakes.
Registered dietitian and personal trainer Alix Turoff told me when you consume protein doesn’t matter, as long as you’re getting enough of it in your diet throughout the day.
Eating More Protein Helps With Muscle-Building and Fat-Loss
You’re right that upping your protein intake can have benefits — protein helps your muscle tears repair after working out, helping you build muscle.
But it’s also an important nutrient if you want to lose fat (rather than just overall weight) and create a “toned” look with lean muscle. Along with strength training, eating a high protein diet helps you hold on to muscle while losing fat through eating in a calorie deficit.
Turoff said she recommends people eat 0.7-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight, and to aim for the upper end of that range if you’re looking to build muscle.
That would mean someone who weighs 150 lbs would be looking at 105-180 grams of protein per day.
Protein is essential regardless of your workout style.
“Even for people who aren’t strength training or someone doing strictly endurance exercise, getting adequate protein is still important,” Turoff said.
Protein Intake Over The Day Matters More Than Post-Workout
Previously, studies suggested that consuming protein in the so-called “anabolic window” immediately after working out was essential for muscle repair and growth, but new research has debunked those claims.
“Based on the newer research we have on protein specifically, it seems like the actual timing of your protein intake after your workout is less important,” Turoff said.
She recommends distributing your protein intake evenly over the course of the day.
“For someone eating three meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) and an afternoon snack, that might look like 20-40 grams of protein per meal and 10-20 grams of protein at snack,” she said. “It’s likely that one of these meals or snacks will fall somewhere within a few hours of your workout.”
This tends to be the case for me because I never go too long without eating.
“For example, if you workout in the early evening, you might have dinner 1-3 hours after and that would suffice as your post-workout meal,” Turoff said.
If you’re getting enough protein at lunch there’s no reason you have to have a protein shake after your workout, she added, but it can be convenient (and delicious).
If you eat a protein-rich meal before training, research, such as this small study by the City University of New York, suggests your muscles can still use that afterwards too. Since you don’t eat anything before your workouts, your body might appreciate some extra fuel afterwards.
“Ultimately, I’d still recommend trying to get 20-40 grams of protein in (depending on your size and activity level) within a reasonable amount of time after a workout, but I would be less concerned with rushing to get a protein shake in within a certain window,” Turoff said.
Overall Calories Matter Most For Changing Your Body Composition
While drinking a protein shake after training could help you make fitness progress, if fat loss is a goal, you need to factor it into your overall calorie intake.
A calorie deficit is required for weight loss — and eating a high protein diet can in fact help you stick to it, as it did for me previously — so if you do have post-workout shakes, be mindful of the extra calories.
A basic protein shake made with just powder and water might only clock in at around 100 calories, but if you’re struggling to lose weight, this could make a difference.
However, eating more protein also helps keep you full, so a shake may stop you from snacking later on.
There’s nothing magic about protein shakes, but if you think you might not be eating enough protein overall, adding the occasional one into your diet — at any time of day — could help.
“Eating a high-protein diet can cause weight loss, even without calorie counting, portion control, or carb restriction. A modest increase in protein intake can also help prevent weight regain”.
Related: Here Are “The 11 Ways Your Body Is Telling You That You Aren’t Eating Enough Protein”
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