Calories: Those “little creatures that climb into your closet at night and sew your clothes just a little bit tighter.” The enemy of weight loss. Whatever you choose to call them, they often stand in the way of fitness goals. To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you ingest, and that’s a task much easier said than done.
If you live an active lifestyle – or you just want to start making healthier food choices – low-calorie protein shakes are a great place to start. You’ve got so many options to choose from – countless brands and flavors, so where do you begin your search? At the core of many weight loss programs is a low-calorie diet, so we’ll start with a rundown of low-calorie protein shakes that are full of nutritional value.
In order to understand what the best options for low-calorie protein powder, first we have to ask….
If science-y stuff makes you bored, feel free to skip down to our low-calorie protein shake recommendations.
What is calorie?
A calorie is a unit energy. It’s that simple.
Remember this next time you are looking at food labels. The more calories a food has the more energy that food will give you. Now settle down before you go slam three Big Macs and try to run a marathon immediately after.
The key to everything is energy balance. The more energy you expend, the more energy you need to put in to reach equilibrium.
Now as far as your body is concerned, if you were to always eat exactly as many calories as you burned, then your weight should stay the same forever.
Why choose a low-calorie protein shake?
Protein powder is a supplement and for good reason. If given the option of eating some chicken, beef, greek yogurt, or dry roasted almonds over a low-calorie protein shake, most people will take the food option every time.
I personally prefer to get all of my protein from natural food sources, but sometimes it is not always easy. Protein powder is generally used in one of two ways, either as a meal replacement or as a supplement to get extra protein in their diet to help build (or preserve) muscle.
If you are trying to replace a meal as a means to keep your caloric intake below a certain number, a lower calorie protein powder will give you a higher calorie budget to use with your other meals.
If you are mixing up protein shakes as a meal replacement, try using skim milk to make it more filling while adding extra protein. You can also add ice to thicken up the shake to make it more filling. If you go this route, check out one of these blenders to help chop up the ice.
If you are drinking protein shakes purely as a supplement to increase your protein intake, a lower calorie option is still a great way to go because it will allow you to eat more of the foods you love, without breaking your diet!
If you are in a calorie surplus and just need some delicious recipes, check one of these out.
Protein Shakes – Low-Calorie AND High-Protein? How?
For every gram of protein, you’re getting four calories. If you’re looking at a protein powder that offers 25 grams of protein per serving, that’s at least 100 calories alone – not including any additional ingredients. The “trick,” then, is to look at protein shake options that are strictly protein with only one or two other ingredients added. If you check the Nutrition Facts panel and see a laundry list of additional ingredients, chances are the calorie count is going to be higher than you want.
One of the biggest challenges you’ll face as someone on a low-calorie diet is the quality of your food. It may be low in calories, but does that mean you should be eating it? To make up for the limited calories, companies will often load their products with preservatives and unnecessary additives in order to make up for what the products lack in nutrients.
On top of that, a protein source that’s low in calories can still contain high amounts of fat and sugar. An Odwalla Original Super Protein drink, for example, contains 19 grams of protein and relatively few calories (350), but its sugar content is exceptionally high at 56 grams. When you’re monitoring caloric intake, remember to take a look at all the ingredients, so you can make an informed decision.
While you’re monitoring sugar, carbs, and calories, you’ll also want to watch out for ingredients with long names that are difficult to pronounce. A great rule of thumb is this: If you can’t pronounce it, you probably shouldn’t eat it.
What Science Says
A study published in March 2008 examined the results of a reduced-calorie diet on a group of obese test subjects. Part of the study involved giving the test subjects a protein supplement called Prolibra 20 minutes before breakfast and 20 minutes before dinner every day for 12 weeks. The results of the study were very telling: The subjects lost an average of 6.1% of their body fat mass over the 12-week period – and research has shown that a mere 5% decrease in body fat mass greatly reduces the risk of obesity-related illnesses and other health problems.
Other studies closely examine the effects of drinking low-calorie protein shakes at different times of day. A 2012 study tested the results of low-calorie protein consumption in 16 young, healthy men. The study showed that drinking a casein protein shake before sleeping drastically increased each man’s post-exercise recovery process. The study was the first of its kind; up to this point, it was generally believed that protein consumed too close to bedtime was not effectively digested and absorbed by the body. Below is a more in-depth look at the best times to drink your protein shake.
Which Types of Protein Shakes Are Low in Calories?
Buying protein powder for the first time can be intimidating, especially when you realize just how many choices you have. ‘Low-calorie protein shake’ is a rather broad filter, so where do you start?
When people buy protein powder, they usually have one of two goals: 1) They want to bulk up and gain muscle mass, or 2) they want to slim down and lose weight. The low-calorie options are generally going to fall into the second category, so start with powders that have “fat-burning” in the description or the word “lean” in the title.
After that, you can choose your protein powder’s base. Options include plant-based (vegetarian: soy, hemp, and pea), milk-based, and even meat-based – in fact, protein powders derived from meat often contain additional substances beneficial to strength trainers, according to an article published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal in 2012. Of these, milk-based powders typically make low-calorie protein shakes.
- Optimum Nutrition 100% Whey Gold Standard Protein. Recommended as a low-calorie protein shake by fitness enthusiasts everywhere, Optimum Nutrition offers a protein powder that comes in four different flavors. The best part? It packs 24 grams of protein and only 120 calories per serving. The powder is sold in 2, 5, or 8-pound tubs.
- Naked Nutrition Egg White Protein. For those who want to stay away from whey and other milk products but don’t want to sacrifice your desire for a low-calorie protein shake, egg white protein is a great option. Packing 25 grams of protein and just 110 calories, each serving only has two ingredients: egg white and sunflower lecithin.
- Kura Grass Fed Dairy Protein Powder. Ethically sourced in New Zealand, this particular brand of protein powder contains 18 grams of protein in each serving – along with a host of vitamins and minerals. Amazon offers 1-pound bags in vanilla, chocolate, or berry.
Ways to Mix & When to Drink
If you’re constantly on-the-go and need a quick fix, buying a shaker is usually the easiest way to go. Available at health food stores and websites like Amazon, they’re easy to take on the road and are great to help curb cravings, even with a busy lifestyle.
If you’ve got time for a more relaxed meal, adding protein powder to a smoothie as part of a low-calorie breakfast is a great way to start your day off right. A blender gives you the smoothest mix and allows you to add ice and fruit — again, low-calorie additions.
When is the best time to drink protein powder? Research indicates that there are generally four prime times to drink your shake:
- First thing in the morning, as part of a healthy breakfast,
- Two hours before you train, to get your body ready for the workout,
- Right after you strength train (within 30 minutes, if possible), and
- Before bed, to refuel your body before sleep.
Of these, directly after your workout is the most crucial time to get your protein fix, since your muscles are broken down and almost immediately start rebuilding, which requires a fairly quick supply of protein.
More Ways to Decrease Caloric Intake
Even with low-calorie protein shakes, there are steps you can take to decrease your caloric intake when it comes to protein shakes.
- Mix the protein powder with water. Cows’ milk, almond milk, and soymilk are all commonly mixed with protein powder to give it added flavor. To really minimize calories, however, water is your best bet.
- Mix the protein powder with coffee. Just about everyone drinks coffee first thing in the morning, so why not add protein powder into something that’s already a part of your routine? To top it off, black coffee actively BURNS calories, so if you’re starting with a protein powder with a low-calorie count to begin with, the total number of calories you consume with this mix will be negligible.
- Buy a flavored protein powder. Many a rookie has made the mistake of buying an unflavored powder only to find that it requires additional sweetener. Adding additional flavors to the protein powder is a great way to add calories – so your best option is to buy a powder that’s already flavored.
Other Benefits to Choosing Low-Calorie Protein Shakes
Consuming protein powders as part of a low-calorie, low-carbohydrate diet isn’t just for gym junkies. Studies have shown that the results of such a diet include increased energy for daily functioning, increased concentration, reduced “brain fogs” and distracted tendencies, and even elevated mood levels, which make you much less likely to engage in emotional eating behaviors. Low-calorie protein shakes also reduce cravings by giving you the nutrients you need without the addictive properties found in many chemicals used in protein supplements. On a medical level, low-calorie protein shakes help lower insulin levels and decrease blood pressure significantly.
So What Next?
The tips we’ve listed here are merely a starting point, so when you’re ready to start shopping for protein shakes, visit your local GNC or Vitamin Shoppe and check out the options they offer. Spend time looking at the Nutrition Facts panel and check out the list of ingredients on each package. Finding the right low-calorie protein shake is a multi-step process, and sometimes a trial-and-error process — but it’s one that produces real results and contributes to long-term health.