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I have recently started regular swimming with the main goal of weight loss. Im curious as to whether protein shakes would help me lose weight?

Increased muscle growth burns calories but then the shakes would add them to my diet?

EDIT: in response to the comments; By lose weight I really mean "Become less fat". I'm more than happy for some of the fat to turn into muscle Building muscle isn't my primary goal though.

I swim for 30 min 5 times a week with reasonable intensity (I'm tired afterwards)

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The answer might depend a little on whether you want to lose absolute weight or improve your looks/"general condition". A theoretical change of 10 pounds fat less and 10 pounds muscle more is a net non-loss, but might improve your looks. (That being said, I'd tend towards: no, keep the calorie deficit high.) –  Ulrich Schwarz Dec 6 '11 at 19:21
    
Protein powder itself is quite low on calories, when combined with something like orange juice (without additional sugar) and some cereal its very light and can be used as a regular meal. But in the end it can't perform miracles, you'll have to keep your calories 'lower' regardless of what you eat. Btw: how often and long or intensive do you swim? –  Ivo Flipse Dec 6 '11 at 19:52
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3 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Let's take a step back and understand some basics about nutrition as it relates to exercise. I'll cover the popular memes and then try to apply them to your situation.

  • More muscle mass burns more calories. This is true, but it is only part of the picture. I'll expound on this a little more later on.
  • Protein is more thermogenic. Thermogenic means it requires more Calories to process. And yes, protein has a higher Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) than either carbs or fat.
  • You can't lose weight if you don't eat less. Basic principle is that if you consume fewer calories than you burn you will loose weight. Where that weight comes from is a function of diet and exercise. And keep in mind the adjustments have to be within reason here.

Now, before I go any further, I do want to call out that there are two major classes of protein shake mixes: mass gainers and simple protein. Mass gainers have a higher carb content and more calories, and are designed to make you gain weight. Whey protein and creatine supplements only contain enough extra to provide some palatable flavoring, but are largely protein. So when you are trying to lose fat, go for the simple proteins. Everything from this point forward simply has to do with the macronutrients. Whether you get them from protein shakes, food, or injection; it does not matter.

How do we get more muscle mass?

Our bodies respond to stress by making physiological changes so that it can handle that stress better the next time. That's how the flu shot and other inoculations work. The same goes for building muscle mass. You have to provide stress in the form of exercise to tell the body that it needs to get ready for heavier work. You then need to provide the body the nutrients it needs to build the muscle and help with recovery. It's a two step process.

It's great that you are swimming 30m a day 5 days a week. The problem is your body will only adapt to the point it needs to handle the stress you are putting it under. Unless you do something to intensify the work you are doing, the body will simply maintain. Weightlifters do this easily by adding more weight on the bar, or doing more volume. As a swimmer you have a few options: try to get more laps in the same amount of time (increase intensity), or increase the amount of time you are working (increase effort). It takes bigger muscles to be able to sprint effectively, so shaving off seconds from your lap time will help in this situation. If you hit a speed wall, supplement the swimming with some strength training to build up weak points, or overall strength.

The other part is you need enough protein to sustain your muscle plus extra so that your body can use that to build bigger/stronger muscles. For sedentary people, about .5g protein per pound lean body mass is sufficient to maintain the amount of muscle they have. Which means if you want to build muscle mass you need more than that. How much more will be in the next section. On top of that your muscles need energy for recovery. Fortunately they don't care whether that energy comes from carbs or fat.

Protein: little do good, heap do plenty

First, if you have renal (kidney) problems, you have to limit the amount of protein you eat. The kidneys do the bulk of the protein processing, and if they are not healthy you can overtax them if you are not careful. Healthy people don't have this problem.

You have a couple of strategies for protein intake if you are not trying to do the bare minimum to maintain the mass you have. Go for 1g protein per pound total body weight which will be more than enough to increase muscle mass, provided you are increasing the intensity of your exercise. Or you can go for the higher TEF of protein itself, and aim for 30% of your Calories coming from protein.

The macronutrients have the following amount of Calories per gram:

  • Protein: 4 Cal/g
  • Carbohydrates: 4 Cal/g
  • Fat: 9 Cal/g

You can divide up the remaining Calories how you like. Any more than this, and you are reaching the law of diminishing returns. Now, if you take in very little carbohydrates, you can induce ketosis. With the elevated protein intake, your muscles will be fine.

Last parting shot: when you have a higher protein intake, the excess protein can start leeching calcium from your bones. You may need to supplement your Calcium while on a high protein diet.

Eat fewer Calories

Last but not least, you will need to eat fewer Calories than your burn to lose weight. If you want that weight to be predominately fat, keep your protein intake higher. However, don't overdo the calorie deficit, as that can backfire in a big way.

The best approach is to adjust your Calorie intake by 10-20% until the scale is moving in the direction you want. As long as your exercise is spot on, you are eating good food, and have the proper nutritional balance, the fat will come off.

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First of all, sipping protein shake does not increase muscle growth by itself. Muscle growth is more about lifting weights and daily protein intake.

On the other hand, yes protein shakes may help fat loss. But remember it's just a supplement and can not replace whole foods.

Protein has a complex structure which causes thermogenic effect on body and leads to more calory burn.

Also consuming right amount of protein on a daily basis will help you to maintain your muscle mass and lose fat instead of losing muscle mass.

Just a little reminder; fat loss and weight loss are completely different.

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Can you give more information on the right amount? –  Tom Squires Dec 7 '11 at 13:14
    
It should be like 1.5 grams per pound of lean body mass. Or let's say you weigh 90 kg, protein intake should be around 220-240g per day. –  Cihan Yılmaz Dec 7 '11 at 13:16
    
@CihanYılmaz I find this really high just in terms of a realistic diet. Unless you just eat meat every meal and top off with protein shakes and wind up at a lot of calories, this is very hard to do. As a semi-vegetarian, even with protein shakes it's a daily struggle to break 135 g/day! It's also expensive! –  Chelonian Dec 8 '11 at 4:10
    
About the cost, i don't really agree. It depends where you like. It costs me like $10 min to get a 200g meat in a restaurant, which contains around 30g of protein. For the same amount, single serving of protein shake costs just couple bucks. Since i train 5 days a week and eat 6 meals every single day, it's pretty much realistic for me. Actually i just wanted to give an idea. Diets, food or calorie sources can vary from people to people depending on their activity and nutritional choices like being vegeterian. –  Cihan Yılmaz Dec 8 '11 at 20:59
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My experience has been that protein shakes can be good meal replacements, but unless you've got the diet dialed in with real foods you're better off focusing your efforts there!

I think there are two approaches: Either use them to replace a meal, in which case you need to make sure it's nutritionally superior to the meal it replaced, or if you're using it to supplement your existing intake it won't get you anywhere if the rest of your food is crap.

If you feel you're eating well and just need additional protein, its probably not a bad way to go. Hope that helps, but its just my perspective.

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Care to elaborate on why you think so? –  Ivo Flipse Dec 7 '11 at 20:51
    
Thanks for the edit Ivo. :) –  SpacemanSpiff Dec 8 '11 at 14:30
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