Can Protein Shakes Cause Belly Fat?

When you notice a few extra pounds settling around your waistline, it’s tempting to look for something to blame. But belly fat is a complex topic, and pointing fingers at the protein shakes in your diet isn’t likely to solve the issue. Since a single food like a shake is almost never the cause of stomach flab, it’s more helpful to understand what shakes are adding to your diet and how they or other factors may be contributing to your midsection gain.

Extra Calories, Extra Fat

Are protein shakes a new addition to your diet? If so, those added calories may be part of what’s causing the weight gain. Especially if you begin drinking shakes but leave the rest of your diet the same, you’re taking in more calories than you used to, and you’ll put on a few pounds if you don’t increase your physical activity level. If those extra calories are the culprit, they’re not limited to protein shakes -- you’d experience similar gain if you added a daily rice bowl or T-bone steak to your diet.

Shakes as Replacements

You may not think that protein-rich shakes can make you gain fat, especially if you’re drinking a shake made with low-fat or fat-free ingredients. However, it’s the calories that make the difference and not the nutritional composition. If your goal is to avoid belly fat and keep your weight down, use shakes as occasional meal replacements rather than meal supplements. According to a study published in 2007 in the journal “Metabolism,” subjects who drank high-protein meal replacement shakes made of either soy or casein lost more than 13 percent of their body weight after 16 weeks.

The Skinny on Protein

If you work out regularly and want to begin using protein shakes as meal replacements, don’t let a fear of weight gain stop you. Registered dietitian Deborah Kurzrock writes for the Sutter Heath program MyLifeStages that eating or drinking foods high in lean protein can increase satiety and help you cut your total calorie consumption. However, Kurzrock stresses that the only reliable ways to keep belly fat at bay are to eat healthfully and alternate regular cardio workouts with strength-training sessions.

Causes of Belly Fat

If protein shakes don’t cause belly fat, what does? A variety of factors are at play. Kurzrock writes that age, hormone levels and genetics are the main determinants. According to researchers at the Mayo Clinic, estrogen levels in women influence how fat is distributed throughout the body, which is a primary reason why so many women experience widening midsections after menopause. Dr. Natasha Turner, founder of Clear Medicine Wellness, also writes on that high stress levels can be a cause of belly fat. If you’re concerned about your body weight, speak with your doctor.