Have you ever felt overwhelmed looking for protein supplements after weight loss surgery at the store or online? You’re not alone! The protein supplement industry is huge. According to Euromonitor International, a trends monitoring organization, consumers spend 16 billion dollars per year on protein products.
It’s nice to have options but ultimately you need to make a decision that’s best for you as a bariatric patient. Where to begin? Let’s take it step by step.
Protein matters when it comes to weight loss.
Protein is a nutrient that comes from your diet. It is made up of smaller units called amino acids. More on those later. When you think of protein, you might think of animal sources such as meat, milk, and eggs. Milk actually contains two types of protein: whey and casein. However, protein also comes from many plant sources such as brown rice, yellow peas, chia seeds, flax seeds, grains, hemp, and soybeans.
Protein contains calories that provide your body with energy but it also has several other important jobs. It helps you to feel fuller for longer, keeps blood sugar stable, and builds and maintains muscle. Protein supports all the muscles in the body – not just the obvious muscles we see in our arms, legs, and abdomen but also the muscles in our heart, digestive organs, and blood vessels.
When you lose weight, whether or not you have had bariatric surgery, you will also lose some muscle. It can’t be avoided. However, eating a diet with plenty of protein can help to minimize the amount of muscle that is lost.
What are Amino Acids?
Now back to those smaller units that make up protein. The human body needs 20 different amino acids. Nine of these are called ‘essential amino acids’ because they must come from the food you eat and you have to get them from your diet every day. Your body can make the other 11 amino acids. When many amino acids are linked together in a chain, they make a protein.
|Amino Acids (Essential amino acids bolded)|
Amino Acids Become a Protein
If you have been looking at protein supplements, you have probably heard of the amino acid called leucine. Leucine is an essential amino acid naturally found in many protein sources. Leucine is especially important for maintaining muscle mass while losing weight. Research shows that leucine helps to protect muscles even when people are very sedentary and not able to use their muscle. Having protein that includes leucine within 30 minutes after exercise stimulates the body to build muscle.
Not all proteins are created equally. We use the term ‘protein quality’ to specify how well the protein nourishes your body based on the amino acids it contains. A high-quality protein contains all of the essential amino acids and is called a ‘complete protein’. Examples of complete proteins are whey, casein, soy, and egg. A protein that is not complete is not bad; it just means that you need to include a variety of protein sources in your diet so you get all of the essential amino acids.
Whey protein is one of the most popular sources for protein supplements, but some people prefer plant-based protein sources, especially if they follow a vegan diet or have allergies to milk. Besides soy, other common plant sources in protein supplements are peas, brown rice, hemp, and chia seeds. The most nutritious plant-based protein supplements combine a variety of plant proteins to provide all of the essential amino acids. This makes the supplement a complete protein.
You might see collagen as a protein source. Collagen is an animal-based protein but it lacks tryptophan, one of the essential amino acids. For this reason, you may want to avoid a collagen-based protein supplement unless it has been fortified with an adequate amount of tryptophan.
Common Protein Sources
(Gelatin from animal bones)
Organic Versus Not Organic
The organic food movement is popular so you might see the word ‘organic’ advertised on your protein supplement. What does it mean? If you see the ‘USDA Organic’ symbol, the supplement is certified organic. That means it doesn’t contain hormones, antibiotics, most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, artificial sweeteners, colors, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A product that is not certified organic may contain any of these substances. Research hasn’t shown that organic food products are more nutritious than non-organic food products. However, people choose to buy organic products for other reasons, such as avoiding food additives and pesticides and supporting sustainable farming practices.
When it comes to nutrition content, there is a lot of variety among supplements. How much protein, sugar, and fat should be in each protein supplement? Unfortunately, there is no exact guideline.
The average adult needs about 46 to 56 grams of protein per day. However, if you are losing weight, having higher amounts of protein can be helpful for maintaining muscle mass. A protein supplement with 15 to 20 grams of protein can work well to replace a snack or meal.
Almost every supplement will contain some sugar. It’s best to avoid added sugars, such as table sugar (sucrose), fructose, honey, and agave nectar. These added sugars contain calories but they don’t have much benefit for your body. Milk contains a sugar called lactose; this is not an added sugar since it occurs naturally. Every cup of milk, or 8 ounces, contains 12 grams of lactose.
To avoid using added sugars, some companies use sugar substitutes, such as sucralose, aspartame, stevia, or sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols are the ingredients that end in the letters ‘ol’ such as maltitol, xylitol, sorbitol, and erythritol. Erythritol is a unique sugar alcohol; our bodies can digest it well so it is not likely to cause gas and bloating like other sugar alcohols. Sugar substitutes are safe to consume in moderate amounts. For people who want to avoid sugar substitutes, small amounts of added sugar may be an option.
You might see small amounts of fat, such as 5 grams or less, in protein supplements. The source of the fat is often milk, seeds, or oil. Your body needs some healthy fat so there is no need to be concerned unless you see trans fat. Trans fat increases your risk of heart disease so it should be avoided.
Ready-to-Drink Protein Beverages versus Protein Powders
You’ll find protein supplements in two forms: liquids (“ready-to-drink”) and powders. Each form has its own set of pros and cons. Ready-to-drink shakes are convenient; you can grab one out of the refrigerator and quickly be on your way. However, due to the convenience, they might cost a bit more than powders.
With protein powders, you do the mixing yourself. Typically there is no need for a blender; a shaker bottle works just fine. Some shaker bottles contain balls or a mesh insert to prevent clumps. One perk to powders is that you can decide whether you’d like a thinner shake (mix with water, coffee, or flavored waters) or a creamy shake (mix with milk). You can also travel with them on an airplane. Having variety with both ready-to-drink and powder supplements gives you the best of both worlds.
Protein is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. A supplement may be the best way to make sure you are meeting your daily protein needs. Whether you prefer animal-based or plant-based, ready-to-drink or powder, organic or conventional, there is a supplement for you! Take some time to explore your options and use this guide to navigate the world of protein“ supplements> after weight loss surgery.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Andromalos MS RD LDN CDE has been helping bariatric surgery patients achieve their health goals since 2009. She enjoys supporting patients through the life-changing journey of bariatric surgery and educating health professionals on the field of bariatric nutrition through speaking and writing engagements. Laura is a freelance nutrition expert for many companies, including Brigham“ and women hospital> and Orgain“ protein>. She holds a MS in Health Communication from Boston University, a BS in Nutritional Sciences from Cornell University, and completed her dietetic internship at Mayo Clinic Florida.