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Protein Shake Realities – Bariatric Edition

Let’s talk about those protein shakes that my clients guzzle down two weeks before their weight loss surgery and for a month after surgery.  What’s in them?  Are they a health food?  Should we keep them in our lives to ensure we get enough protein in our diets?  How much is too much?

I am not here to sell you anything.  I am here to share my opinions about protein shakes.  My clients love them (most of the time).  They are an easy way to get a meal in a can or a blender right?  You can buy them everywhere.  They have wonderful flavors (can you say banana-split) and they have important names (premier, impact, very well, lean body, core power, to name a few).
Let’s be clear, the bariatric pre-op diet consists of 3 of these shakes a day for two weeks (among other things).  The post-operative guidelines also include these shakes for the first month after surgery.  I start to wean my clients off of them after that point.  Instead of having a shake for breakfast, I recommend switching the shake for an egg.  Instead of having a shake for a snack, I recommend having a handful of nuts and seeds or some Greek yogurt.  
There is a time and a place for these shakes for my bariatric clients.  We use them as a tool and we use them for a very short period of time.  I teach my clients to NOT use these shakes as a crutch.  Nothing will ever be as healthy as real food.  Don’t be fooled by the names of these shakes or by the long list of ingredients they contain.
Is a protein shake a health food? 
I have personally never considered a protein shake as a “health food”.  This is something that is manufactured in a laboratory.  It has a list of ingredients that are hard to pronounce.  But surely if they are being touted by celebrities and by beautiful, thin, social media influencers, then they MUST be HEALTHY? 
PROTEIN POWDERS ARE PROCESSED FOOD – I put that in bold letters because I want you to see it big and clear.
It is impossible to extract pure protein from a portion of food without processing it.  We shouldn’t be trying to replace all the whole foods in our diet with these protein powders.  Sure, they are great when we are in a pinch and cannot get our hands on real food but we shouldn’t be replacing our meals with these artificial, processed items. Notice how I called them “items”.  They are not real food.
First of all, how much protein do we need exactly?  The importance of getting enough protein is clear.  But how much protein is enough versus too much?
I explain to my clients daily that the companies that sell these protein supplement products would love to make you and I believe that we are ALL deficient in protein and how we will all have debilitating muscle loss if we don’t guzzle down their products.  TRUE STORY.  They use scare tactics to get us to buy their products.
Now for the reality folks…. 
The RDA (recommended daily allowance) when it comes to protein is: 
For women 46 grams per day
For men 56 grams per day
Now here is the actual equation that we are taught in nutrition school to calculate your clients’ protein requirements:
Ideal weight, multiplied by .36
Example: 150 lbs x .36 = 54 grams of protein per day
(Of course, we need to take into consideration the following: age, gender, pregnancy and breastfeeding, and activity levels.  We are biochemical individuals and we do not all have the exact requirements.) 
See how I did that?  Easy Peasy Right? 
So if the average protein shake contains 25 grams of protein per serving and I drink 3 of those per day (before I eat anything real), I am getting 75 grams of protein!!!  Holy Protein Batman.
WHAT??  that’s all ???  YUP, those are the real numbers for protein recommended allowances.  I am not making this stuff up.
So what do 53 grams of protein food look like?  
It looks like an egg for breakfast (6 grams), a serving of Greek yogurt at lunch (18 grams), a handful of nuts for a snack (7 grams), one glass of milk (8 grams) and 2 ounces of chicken for supper (14 grams)  – TOTAL 53 grams of protein.
Did you see how I did that using real food?  How easy was that? Is this unrealistic?  There are so many simple ways to eat enough protein each day.  Why are we handing our hard-earned money over to these protein shake pushers?  
Why can’t we get our protein from whole, live, fresh, natural, good quality food?  There are so many ways to get protein without having to turn to powder as a supplement.
Now, what happens if I eat too much protein?  What happens to the excess protein in my body? Excess protein is going to be stored as FAT, and any extra amino acids are excreted (can you say “expensive urine”).
The problem we face is the protein supplement industry.  They have us convinced that their shakes are like magic unicorn dust.  They have us all believing that their products are going to build muscle, help us lose weight and at the same time they taste like a chocolate milkshake.  How can we argue with that logic? 
They have taught us something true though …. protein does boost satiety by filling us up.  It also helps to maintain muscle mass tissue, which burns more calories at rest than body fat.  This magic is true.  So they give us real facts for wanting to consume more protein and then hand us their product to fill the gap.  One big concern of mine is that many of these products are made with inflammatory protein sources and they are TEEMING with artificial additives and scary chemicals.
What is a smart consumer to do?  I say “eat real food and skip the shakes”, BUT if you are prepping for weight-loss surgery or one month post-surgery, here are the things to look for when purchasing a protein shake:
Read labels.  Choose a protein supplement which does not contain artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oils.  If you are lactose intolerant, choose a plant protein instead of a whey protein.  If you are unsure of the ingredients, do a bit of research.  Be one of those consumers who want to know where their food products come from.
If you are working with me as your surgery coordinator/ and bariatric nutritionist, I will transition you to shakes for the first part of your journey pre-op, and I will transition you again to shakes post-surgery.  The next phase, I will wean you off of the shakes and I will start to replace the shakes with real food.  
What’s my motto guys?  My motto is to eat “whole, live, fresh, natural, good quality FOOD”!  Supplemental protein has a role to play in the bariatric journey but it is a small role.  Let’s not give it a bigger part to play.  Let’s allow real food to take center stage.

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About the Author: Sheri Burke is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and Bariatric Surgery Coordinator at International Patient Facilitators in Tijuana and Cancun, Mexico. She has worked with bariatric surgery clients for over 10 years and especially enjoys providing nutritional guidance to pre and post bariatric clients.  In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two teens and cooking up a nutritional storm in the kitchen.

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