Luckily, we have largely moved away from the myth that eating fat makes you fat, but instead, we have replaced it with the fear that protein is the culprit for unwanted fat gain instead.
With nutrition science, things are rarely black and white, and the role of protein in our diet is no different. Whilst we are taught the importance of getting enough essential amino acids (building blocks present in protein), we are also told that you can have too much of a good thing - so people looking to maintain a lean body mass should ease off on their protein shakes.
In particular, we are often encouraged to avoid drinking protein shakes or eating protein bars unless we are extremely active, otherwise, this ‘excess’ protein will surely end up on our waistline. But is this really the case? Here we separate fact from fiction and explore exactly how essential protein is for our health and fitness goals.
What is protein and what does it do?
Protein is an essential component of a healthy diet - it contains the building blocks our bodies need to repair, grow, build muscle, fight infection, and function well. Without adequate function we struggle to repair from injury and illness, are unable to synthesise (grow) new muscle mass, and cannot gain the muscular endurance we need to exercise well.
We can find protein in many different foods including:
What are the benefits of protein?
Protein is fundamental for our health whether we work out regularly or not - without it, we cannot carry out essential day-to-day processes of repair and growth. But when we do exercise, we encounter stress and minor muscle tears in the body - this requires adequate protein post workout to ensure we can repair these minor tears and recover for the next session.
Another key benefit of protein is that it is satiating - it leaves us much more satisfied than the same quantity of carbs. This can help us to reduce our overall calorie intake, and manage our weight. The body even has its own inbuilt protein target - it encourages us to keep eating until this has been met, so the more protein we consume, the earlier our appetites will be satisfied.
Does excess protein cause weight gain?
The reason people are concerned is that protein is insulinogenic - meaning in large amounts it can promote energy storage. But this effect is offset when you move, so you shouldn’t worry.
Additionally, carbs are far more insulinogenic than protein and are much more likely to cause weight gain when consumed in excess than protein. Protein is satisfying, so you are unlikely to overeat in the way that you would with say a bag of crisps.
Remember also that eating a protein bar or drinking a protein shake is often the most convenient way of consuming protein - many people who follow calorie-controlled diets, and or plant-based lifestyles actually struggle to get the amount of protein they need to maintain effective muscle stamina.
Can too much protein be bad for you?
Too much protein is only a concern if you have specific kidney issues, or end up replacing other key nutrients with protein, putting you at risk of a nutrient deficiency. Eating a balanced diet and adding in a post-workout shake or bar will pose no risk to a healthy individual.
Do protein shakes make you gain weight without working out?
Unless you spend all day sitting on the sofa drinking protein shake after protein shake, you do not need to be overly concerned about protein causing weight gain. In fact, having a protein shake instead of, for example, a sandwich, can easily keep you fuller for longer, prevent overeating, and aid muscle growth too.
When is the best time to drink a protein shake?
You may like to drink a nutrient-dense protein shake first thing in the morning to aid your busy day, but the very best time to consume your protein shake is soon after your workout. This allows for rapid protein availability which will get straight to work on repairing your muscles and stimulating new muscle growth. Remember that the stronger your muscles, the higher your resting metabolic rate will be too - enhancing energy expenditure even at rest.
How does the body convert protein into fat?
The body converts protein into fat by changing it into glycogen that can then be transported to the cells for storage. This only happens when you have consumed far more protein than the body needs to meet both its basic daily functions and its added exercise requirements. The exact same thing happens to carbs - these are stored in the body as glycogen when the body does not need them for immediate energy - so with all food groups, it comes down to balance.
How much protein is too much?
This all depends on how active you are, how much muscle-based activity you do, as well as whether you have any injuries or illnesses. Broadly speaking research shows that regularly consuming more than 2g per kg of body weight would be excessive - but most people would not come close to this with reasonable intake.
Overall, protein from the diet, as well as via quality protein shakes, bars and snacks are an essential aid to your general health and fitness goals. Consuming protein shakes or bars in line with an energy-balanced nutrient-dense diet, outside of or alongside exercise is a great way to boost your body.