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Weight Loss Protein Shakes: Do they really work and are they safe?

August 24, 2016

When trying to lose weight, many people turn to protein shakes and other herbal supplements to help cut those unwanted calories. Social media is full of numerous protein shake manufacturers claiming their products help decrease body fat or promote weight loss.

So, do these products work, and are they safe?

Paula Serafino-Cross, a licensed, registered dietitian at Baystate Medical Center, says not only are some not effective, certain shakes, especially those containing herbal supplements, may even be doing more harm than good.


There is some research that supports replacing meals with protein/meal replacement shakes can help with weight loss. “Many people find it easier to have their meals prepared and portion controlled to help them limit their calorie intake. If this method works for you, replace one to two meals a day with a protein shake,” says Paula.

However, protein shakes aren't a magic solution for weight loss. The problem with this method is what happens when you go back to food. It’s important to choose a diet that is sustainable. Replacing meals with shakes isn’t something you can do for the rest of your life. In order to have success with this method, it’s important to be vigilant after stopping the shakes and to make those corrections to your diet like practicing portion control.

Be sure that you are replacing meals and exercising when you’re using protein shakes. Protein still contains calories, so consuming too much can actually make losing weight more difficult, especially if you drink protein shakes in addition to your usual diet and you're not exercising.


When it comes to these types of products it’s really 'buyer beware'. Part of the problem with supplements is they’re not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because they’re considered food supplements and not drugs.

Back in 1994, there were laws written in favor of supplement manufacturers. With those laws in place, it now has to prove that the substance is actually harmful. “Unfortunately, most times the proof comes too late, because these products don’t go through rigorous drug testing by the FDA. For example, the supplement Ephedra wasn’t outlawed until someone died after taking it,” said Paula.

Quality control is a big issue, not only in the U.S., but in other countries around the world. There have also been issues with contamination where product testing websites have found steroids and other harmful ingredients that you wouldn’t expect inside a protein shake. This is why internet sales are another big issue. A lot of these products are for sale online from countries whose laws are laxer that the U.S.. If something looks or sounds too good to be true, it probably is. “Be wary of purchasing things off the internet, as you may not know where they came from or if you’re getting what they say you are,” said Paula.

Protein powders containing herbal supplements have come under fire.

According to the Journal of Hepatology, shakes containing herbal supplements have been linked to many documented cases nationally and internationally of severe liver damage and hepatitis (inflammation of the liver). The damage is said to be caused by the blend of the types of the herbs these shakes contain. These are the problems with these supplements; you never really know what’s in them.

There are a number of product testing websites that purchase an array of these products and test them in labs to determine the legitimacy of the products’ claims. They find out if the listed ingredients are what they say they are, and test for contaminants that may not be listed. These are great resources; however, be sure to check with a dietitian or you primary care physician before taking any medical herbs or supplements.


Having a protein shake once or twice a day to replace a meal or as a snack is OK,” said Paula. However, too much protein can be bad. Too much protein can lead to kidney and liver damage, especially when coupled with dehydration. Usually, people who have healthy functioning kidneys have no problem handling excess protein. However, over time it can lead to kidney issues – especially if they have prior kidney issues or hypertension.

Daily protein intake is based on your weight and overall health. The formula is about 1 – 1.5 grams per kilo. So a healthy women weighing 132lb (60 kilos) would require 60-90 grams of protein a day. We do know that if you are cutting calories your body does require a little more protein. “It’s also known that we do need a little more protein as we age,” said Paula.

The best thing to do if you have questions about your protein intake is to make an appointment with a registered dietitian or your primary care provider.


Unfortunately, many people assume that because these products are on the shelves that they’re safe enough to give to their children. However, it’s not recommended that children under the age of 16 take protein supplements at all, unless otherwise directed by their dietitian.

Children should rely on a diet of natural foods for their protein. Besides running into the risk of possible contamination, you eliminate the risk of taking too much and damaging the kidneys and liver.


Children aren’t the only ones who should rely on real food for a protein source. Relying too heavily on protein shakes to replace regular meals may cause you to miss out on the nutritional benefits of whole foods.

It’s not hard to get your daily recommended amount of protein from all natural sources. Try eating healthy foods that are high in protein – dairy, beans, fish, cottage cheese, and chicken. A small serving of chicken (about 4 ounces) has 28 grams of protein. As a high protein snack, cottage cheese has 12 -14 grams of protein, so it’s not hard to get the amount of protein you need from food.

Not only do you know what going into your body, but you get all of the benefits of the mineral and nutrients in whole foods like omega 3, antioxidants, and more.


In our culture, people are always looking for a quick fix. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to lose weight and keep it off; you have to work at it. People think they’ll drink these shakes and they will miraculously melt away the pounds. Realistically, that’s not the way it happens.

The key to losing weight is burning more calories than you consume. Choose healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean sources of protein coupled with at least one hour of physical activity a day.