Protein powders have become an incredibly popular nutritional supplement, especially among athletes and bodybuilders looking to build muscle mass. But some people are concerned that the calories in protein powders may lead to weight gain.
What are protein powders?
Protein powders are powdered forms of protein that come from sources like whey, casein, egg, soy or plant proteins like pea or rice. The powders are concentrated sources of protein, meaning they provide protein in a quantity that you could not get as conveniently from food sources like chicken, fish, eggs or beef.
Protein powder supplements are popular because they offer a convenient way to get extra protein in your diet. They can be mixed with water, milk or other liquids to create a shake or smoothie. Some people also add them to food dishes to boost the protein content.
The main reasons people take protein powder supplements include:
- Building muscle mass — Extra protein helps stimulate muscle protein synthesis and aids muscle recovery after workouts.
- Improving exercise performance — Some research shows that protein supplements can help increase strength and endurance for athletic activities.
- Weight loss — Protein supplements may help reduce appetite and preserve lean muscle mass when dieting.
- Convenience — Protein powders provide concentrated protein that is easily mixed into drinks and meals.
Are protein powders high in calories?
The number of calories in a protein powder varies depending on the specific brand and type of protein used. But most protein powders provide around 100–200 calories per serving.
For example, here are the calories for some popular protein powder supplements per typical 30–35 gram serving:
|Protein Powder||Calories per serving|
|Egg white protein||110|
As you can see, most protein powders provide 100–150 calories per serving. Some types, like whey and casein, are on the higher end while plant-based proteins tend to be a little lower in calories.
But if we compare that to whole food sources of protein, are protein powders actually high in calories?
Here are the calories for equivalent serving sizes of some high-protein foods:
|Chicken breast (3 oz)||140|
|Cottage cheese (1/2 cup)||100|
|Ground beef (3 oz)||180|
|Tuna (3 oz)||110|
|Tofu (1/2 cup)||100|
|Black beans (1/2 cup)||110|
Looking at these comparisons, most protein powders provide a similar number of calories as equivalent servings of high-protein foods like chicken breast, ground beef or beans.
So while protein powders are concentrated sources of calories and protein, they are not unusually high in calories compared to whole foods. Protein powders have around 100–150 calories per serving, which is what you would expect for a high-protein food.
Are whey and casein protein high in calories?
Whey and casein proteins tend to be on the higher end of the calorie range for protein powders. Whey has around 120 calories per 30 gram serving, while casein has about 140 calories.
These milk-derived proteins are more calorie dense because they contain small amounts of carbohydrates like lactose, along with fat. Plant-based protein powders like pea and rice protein contain very little fat or carbs, so they are lower in calories.
But whey and casein are not unusually high in calories compared to other high-protein dairy foods:
|Whey protein (30g)||120|
|Casein protein (30g)||140|
|Milk (1 cup)||146|
|Plain yogurt (1 cup)||154|
|Cheddar cheese (1.5 oz)||171|
As you can see, whey and casein are fairly comparable to other dairy foods in calories and are not unusually high. The small amounts of carbs and fat increase the calories a bit but they are still reasonable sources of protein.
Do protein powders lead to fat gain?
The calories in protein powders can contribute to weight gain if consumed in large excess. However, protein powders are not likely to lead to fat gain when used appropriately for most people.
That’s because of the thermic effect of protein, which is the calories burned digesting and metabolizing protein. Protein has a thermic effect of 20–35%, compared to 5–15% for carbs and 0–3% for fats.
In other words, your body burns a substantial amount of the protein powder calories just breaking the protein down. This leaves less available calories for depositing as fat.
Protein also helps curb appetite, so adding protein powder to meals can help you feel fuller while consuming fewer overall calories. Multiple studies show that higher protein diets lead to decreased calorie intake and increased weight loss.
Furthermore, protein is critical for building and retaining lean muscle mass. As long as you are active, the extra protein from supplements helps maintain metabolic rate and prevents the loss of muscle that often occurs during weight loss.
While excessive calories from any source can contribute to fat gain, for most active individuals protein powders do not lead to significant fat gain or hinder fat loss. The thermic effect, appetite regulation and lean muscle retention provide beneficial effects on metabolism and body composition.
Do plant-based protein powders have fewer calories?
Most plant-based protein powders like pea, rice, hemp and soy provide 100–120 calories per serving. This is slightly fewer than the 120–150 calories in whey and casein protein.
The biggest reason is that plant proteins have little to no fat, while whey and casein contain 3-5 grams of fat per serving.
However, the difference in calories between animal- and plant-based protein powders is fairly small. And serving for serving, the amount of protein per calorie is similar between them.
So plant-based protein powders can be a good option if you want to keep calories a little lower. But the amount of protein you get per calorie is comparable to whey or casein.
Should you choose a low-calorie protein powder to lose weight?
When it comes to protein powders, a lower calorie option does not necessarily mean it’s the best choice for weight loss.
More important factors for fat loss include:
- Protein content: Make sure the powder provides sufficient high-quality protein (at least 20-30g per serving).
- Other ingredients: Avoid lots of added sugars, fillers or unnecessary ingredients.
- Nutrient profile: Pick a protein rich in nutrients like BCAAs, glutamine, etc.
Additionally, the thermic effect and metabolic advantages of higher protein intake apply across all types of protein powders.
So a slightly higher calorie protein powder that fits your budget, tastes good, mixes well and contains extra nutrients can be a very appropriate choice for weight loss.
Focus first on choosing a quality protein powder that contains the protein and nutrients you need. Don’t get too caught up in cutting calories, as 20-30 fewer calories won’t make a major difference in fat loss compared to the bigger picture.
Tips for choosing a protein powder
Here are some tips when shopping for a protein powder for weight loss or muscle gain:
- Aim for 20-30 grams protein per serving
- Look for minimal carbs, sugars and fat if cutting calories
- Consider added nutrients like BCAAs, glutamine, etc.
- Read the ingredient list and avoid fillers
- Find a powder that mixes and tastes well for you
- Compare cost per serving of different options
Focus first on protein content and quality ingredients. But a difference of 30-50 calories per serving is unlikely to impact your weight loss compared to your overall diet and exercise regime.
The bottom line
Most protein powders provide around 100-150 calories per serving. This is comparable to the calories found naturally in high-protein foods like meats, dairy and legumes.
So while protein powders are concentrated sources of calories and protein, they are not unusually high in calories compared to whole foods.
For most active individuals, protein powders do not lead to fat gain when consumed as part of a healthy diet. The protein helps retain and build lean muscle, while the thermic effect of protein burns some of those calories during digestion.
Plant-based protein powders are a little lower in calories than whey and casein. But the difference is fairly small and does not necessarily make them better for weight loss.
When choosing a protein powder, focus first on protein content, quality ingredients and how well it fits your needs and preferences. Avoid going overboard on cutting calories, as a 20-30 calorie difference per serving is negligible in the context of your total daily diet and physical activity.