Apr 21, 2017
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10 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Use Whey Protein Supplements

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10 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Use Whey Protein Supplements

 

protein-powderYes, you read the title correctly… Contrary to what you may have been led to believe from reading about protein supplementation online or listening to the most jacked guy at your gym talk about muscle building, supplementation, and dieting, whey protein powder, which is composed of a collection of globular proteins isolated from the liquid material created as a by-product of cheese production, is not the ultimate health food. Actually, consuming supplements like whey protein concentrate and whey protein bars may do you more harm than good.

The dark side of protein supplementation

Whey protein supplements – in particular whey protein powders – are among the most popular supplements on the market today, largely because conventional wisdom suggests that a daily protein shake or two is a great addition to an otherwise healthy diet – especially for those who strength train on a regular basis.

It’s no longer just bodybuilders and fitness models that mix up a shake after their workout and include some strawberry-flavoured whey protein in their morning smoothie, but also housewives who’ll do everything to halt the physical decline that occurs as they get older and average Joes who are looking to gain some muscle for the beach season.

This situation didn’t arise because there’s strong scientific evidence to show that protein supplementation is healthy (more on that later) or that we are better off drinking a protein shake than eating a steak or omelette, but because clever marketing, industry-funded research, and “gym talk” have led us to believe that the protein-packed powders you can now buy at every health food store greatly enhance our chances of building a lean, fit, and healthy body.

I know that the statement that whey protein consumption is unhealthy is controversial, and that a lot of people will criticize this view and do everything they can to defend the chocolate-flavoured, fast-absorbing whey protein powder they have in their kitchen cupboard. Not necessarily because they think they are better off drinking a protein shake than eating real food, but because they don’t want to believe that a supplement that has been a regular part of their diet for a long time may have been doing them more harm than good. Also, I think a lot of people will do “anything” to avoid giving up the convenience of just mixing some protein powder with water instead of having to prepare a protein-filled meal.

When I first started strength training on a regular basis more than 10 years ago, I too was led to believe that I should include protein supplements in my diet, and for several years, I consumed one or two protein shakes a day. At the time, my intake of protein-rich, real food was lower than optimal, so naturally, protein supplementation helped enhance my muscle-building efforts. However, I also experienced some health issues during this time, some of which I now know were partly caused by whey protein consumption.

The purpose of this article is to highlight the potential adverse effects – which are rarely mentioned in discussions about protein supplementation – of consuming whey protein, and to provide you with the information you need to make a well-informed decision regarding whether you should include protein supplements in your diet or not.

I’m not opposed to the use of protein supplements because I think “high-protein diets” (>20% of total calories from protein) are dangerous. Actually, I think the vast majority of people would benefit from eating more protein. Furthermore, I acknowledge that drinking a protein shake is an easy and convenient way to boost one’s protein intake. My point isn’t that you should throw out your protein powder if you for some reason are absolutely dependent on supplementing in order to get enough high-quality protein into your body every day. Rather, my point is that you are best off getting all of your protein from real, minimally processed food.

Here are the top 10 reasons why I find this to be the case…

1. Whey protein powder is an evolutionarily novel, processed food product with an abnormal nutrient composition

nutrition-facts

The nutrient composition of whey protein powder is very different from that of whole foods such as salmon, eggs, and beef.

The evolutionary lens allows us to look past current dietary trends and dogma and establish what types of foods humans are best adapted to eat. While the 10.000 years that have passed since the Agricultural Revolution may seem like a very long time, it’s actually just a blink of an eye from an evolutionary perspective. As all of the readers of this blog know well, there has been inadequate time and selection pressure for the human body to adapt to many of the recent changes in the human diet.

If there’s one thing the scientific literature consistently shows, it’s that milk, wheat, fatty processed meats, and other foods that are relative newcomers to the human diet have certain characteristics that make them “inferior” (from a health standpoint) to the types of foods our preagricultural ancestors consumed.

This quote highlights some of the potential problems with milk and certain other dairy products:

Milk is an incredible amalgamation of nutrients, proteins and hormones that have only recently been discovered and appreciated. It certainly is not the pure white liquid, high in calcium, vitamin D and other vitamins and minerals portrayed by milk manufacturers and their lobbyists. You may not know it, but milk is essentially nothing more than filtered cow’s blood. As such, it contains almost all of the hormones, immunological factors, and body altering proteins that are found in pure cow blood. (1)

I’ve talked a lot about the negative health effects associated with the consumption of refined grains, milk, refined vegetable oils, and other foods that were introduced during the Neolithic and Industrial revolutions here on the blog, so this is not something I’m going to delve into here. However, I wanted to briefly discuss one of the main problems with the aforementioned evolutionarily novel foods, namely that they have a nutrient composition that is very different from that of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and other foods that were a part of the preagricultural hominin diet.

Of particular importance to this post: Some of the foods that are a part of contemporary human diets have a fat-, protein-, and/or carbohydrate-density that far exceeds that of “Paleo-approved foods”. Is this a problem? Yes, the scientific literature clearly shows that it is.

Let’s take GHEE, high-fat cream, sunflower oil, and other foods with a very high fat density for example. When compared to the types of foods our Paleolithic ancestors consumed, these foods have a poor micronutrient density and satiety index score and an extremely high calorie and fat density, among other things. Also, there’s solid evidence to show that a high intake of these foods can alter the gut microbiota, induce the translocation of bacterial endotoxins from the gut, and promote chronic low-grade inflammation (2, 3, 4, 5, 6). The story for evolutionarily novel foods with a very high concentration of carbohydrate (e.g., refined grains, refined sugar) is very similar (7).

What about foods with a very high concentration of protein? Perhaps needless to say, the protein density of whey protein powders far exceeds that of beef, cod, eggs,  and any other protein-rich, minimally processed food. I’ll argue that these whole foods, which typically contain about 15-25% protein by weight, are the types of protein-rich foods we’re best adapted to eat.

Mixing concentrated and isolated whey protein with whole food (e.g., as in a fruit smoothie) may ameliorate some of the negative health effects of consuming this protein-rich powder. However, as we know, a lot of people don’t consume whey protein this way. Rather, they just mix their protein powder with some water and then drink it.

The evolutionary template predicts that there are some adverse health effects associated with the consumption of whey protein supplements. As I will show in the coming steps, the scientific literature also suggests that this is the case.

2. Whey protein can destabilize the gut microbiota

bacteria-intestine

Some of the adverse health effects of whey protein consumption are probably mediated by the gut microbiota.

As I briefly mentioned in the last section, foods that either have a very high concentration of fat (e.g., high-fat cream, GHEE) or very high concentration of carbohydrate (e.g., refined grains) can alter the gut microbiota and induce the translocation of lipopolysaccharide (a bacterial endotoxin that binds to Toll-Like Receptor 4 and causes a state of chronic endotoxemia and chronic low-grade inflammation) from the gut.

Could a very concentrated source of protein, such as whey protein powder, have some of the same effects? At present, there aren’t any studies that have specifically looked at the impact whey protein has on the gut microbiota. However, as I will show below, there’s strong reason to suspect that whey protein consumption negatively affects gut health (a statement that may counteract what you may have been led to believe from reading about whey protein online).

One of the things I’ve noticed from talking to clients and people in general about whey protein supplementation is that a lot of people say they experience digestive issues such as bloating, gas, and/or loose stools from consuming whey protein shakes. This makes complete sense to me, as whey protein powder is a processed food item with a nutrient composition that is very different from that of natural, whole foods. Not only that, but as I mentioned in section 1, whey proteins are an evolutionarily novel part of the adult human diet.

Our primal ancestors didn’t drink milk (from any species) as adults. Milk contains a wide range of hormones, bio-active peptides, and other compounds that are specifically “designed” by natural selection to support the growth and development of an infant. Some of these substances have potent antibacterial action, which is one of the reasons why breastfed babies have a gut microbiota that is largely composed of a specific set of lactic acid bacteria (Breast milk selects for the growth of a specific set of bacteria).

This suggests that milk consumption (particularly concentrated sources of certain components found in milk, such as whey shakes) may be problematic for adult gut flora. Whey protein contains many antibacterial compounds (e.g., lactoferrin), which is likely one of the main reasons some people experience gastrointestinal upset from drinking whey shakes. This perturbation of the gut microbiota may occur primarily in the colon and/or perhaps in the upper part of the intestine, causing ripple effects throughout the gastrointestinal tract.

Dr. Art Ayers, a former professor at Harvard University with a Ph. D. in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, had this to say about whey shakes:

Adult gut flora probably adjusts to the milk components that reach the colon, so only large amounts of milk, such as whey shakes, will impact the gut flora.

Whey shakes, by the way, can disrupt the gut flora and facilitate weight gain or loss, since gut flora are involved in weight stability. (8)

I see milk and whey as feeding dairy probiotics (lactobacilli) and inhibiting the growth of everything else, i.e. adult gut microbiota. In the context of the Drs. Eades quick weight loss diet, I see the use of whey shakes as being different from other protein shakes. Protein shakes and whey shakes both lack prebiotic fiber to feed gut microbiota, but whey shakes also have proteins that are partially digested to produce antimicrobial peptides and other factors that disrupt adult gut flora. I think that the whey shakes work temporarily, because they destabilize the gut microbiota that are providing part of the metabolic set point that helps the body to resist weight change from excess or insufficient dietary calories. (9)

3. Whey protein consumption can lead to the onset or aggravation of acne vulgaris

lipopolysaccharide

Whey protein may perhaps increase the translocation of lipolysaccharide (shown in the picture) from the gut, which could lead to chronic inflammation and aggravation of acne vulgaris.

Acne vulgaris is a disease of civilization that is rare or nonexistent among hunter-gatherers and other traditional people minimally affected by modern lifestyle habits (10, 11).

Why does almost everyone in Western societies develop acne sometime during their life, while traditional people are spared from this sometimes debilitating skin disease? I believe – and the scientific literature is starting to nod in agreement – that unhealthy dietary habits, gut dysbiosis, and low-grade chronic inflammation are the main underlying causes of acne vulgaris.

Several smaller studies have shown that consumption of whey protein can promote acne formation (12, 13, 14, 15).

There are many possible explanations for this effect. Firstly, as mentioned, whey protein may destabilize the gut microbiota, thereby possibly triggering a cascade of inflammatory events (16). Secondly, some of the hormones and bio-active peptides present in whey protein may increase sebum production and/or proliferation of Propionibacterium acnes. Thirdly, a lot of protein powders contain metals and other ingredients that lack safety data, some of which may be associated with the development of acneiform lesions. Fourthly, milk derivatives, particularly those with a high milk serum protein content, induce a marked increase in insulin-like growth factor 1 levels, which leads to growth and division of cutaneous cells, sebum production, and estrogen production, among other things (17).

A 2011 study had this to say about the relationship between whey protein consumption, insulin, and acne:

Acne can be regarded as an indicator disease of exaggerated insulinotropic western nutrition. Especially milk and whey protein-based products contribute to elevations of postprandial insulin and basal insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I) plasma levels. It is the evolutional principle of mammalian milk to promote growth and support anabolic conditions for the neonate during the nursing period. Whey proteins are most potent inducers of glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide secreted by enteroendocrine K cells which in concert with hydrolyzed whey protein-derived essential amino acids stimulate insulin secretion of pancreatic β-cells. Increased insulin/IGF-I signaling activates the phosphoinositide-3 kinase/Akt pathway, thereby reducing the nuclear content of the transcription factor FoxO1, the key nutrigenomic regulator of acne target genes. Nuclear FoxO1 deficiency has been linked to all major factors of acne pathogenesis, i.e. androgen receptor transactivation, comedogenesis, increased sebaceous lipogenesis, and follicular inflammation. The elimination of the whey protein-based insulinotropic mechanisms of milk will be the most important future challenge for nutrition research. Both, restriction of milk consumption or generation of less insulinotropic milk will have an enormous impact on the prevention of epidemic western diseases like obesity, diabetes mellitus, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and acne. (15)

The fact that the consumption of whey protein can cause acne vulgaris strongly suggests to me that whey protein elicits some harmful effects on our general health and physiology. As mentioned, contrary to what a lot of people believe, the development of acne vulgaris is not just a natural part of growing up, but rather a manifestation of an evolutionary mismatch between the Western lifestyle and our ancient genetic make-up.

4. Whey protein is highly insulinogenic

insulinogenic-index

As shown in the picture, whey protein induces a greater insulin response than other dairy foods and white bread. Picture from http://weightology.net.

As highlighted in the quote above, whey protein-based products contribute to elevations of postprandial insulin and basal insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I) plasma levels. Although insulin sensitivity is heightened after a training session, there are no good studies (to my knowledge) showing that a post-workout whey protein shake is superior to a meal containing the same amount of protein from meat, eggs, and/or seafood.

A highly concentrated source of globular proteins isolated from the liquid material created after milk has been curdled and strained was clearly not a part of ancestral human diets. Rather, we evolved to eat foods that elicit a low-moderate insulin response (e.g., fruits and vegetables, which have a maximum carbohydrate density of approximately 23%), As highlighted in the research paper in the last section, there are several potential harmful health effects associated with the consumption of highly insulinotropic foods.

However, it’s important to note that at the present time, few, if any, good studies have been conducted that specifically look at the long-term health implications of consuming insulin-stimulating dairy products.

Here’s what Dr. Pedro Bastos, an expert on the role of dairy consumption in human health, had to say about the matter:

… we believe that whey protein can have some potential adverse effects, because it greatly elevates insulinemia – although it can be therapeutic for diabetics in the short term. We suspect that whey protein could be detrimental long term, as hyperinsulinemia can down-regulate the insulin receptor and lead to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance underlies the Metabolic Syndrome, and is implicated in various other diseases, such as Acne, Alzheimer, various cancers, Coronary Heart Disease, Myopia, PCOS, etc.).

But to be completely sure, we would need intervention studies with whey protein with a relatively long duration in people genetically prone to insulin resistance, or who are in fact insulin resistant. (18)

5. Some protein powders contain high levels of toxic heavy metals

protein-supplements

Due to poor regulation and control of the supplement industry, some protein powders contain heavy metals and other compounds that may harm your health.

This point is obviously not a concern to those who buy whey protein supplements of a well-renowned, trusted brand. However, as we know, many lifters and strength trainees don’t pay much attention to the potential safety concerns associated with the ingredients and heavy metals found in the supplements they buy. This is problematic, as the supplement industry is poorly controlled, and some protein powders contain metals and other ingredients that lack safety data.

In 2010, Consumer Reports tested 15 protein powders and drinks that are frequently used by both fitness enthusiasts and “regular folks” for their content of arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury. The study showed that of the 15 protein supplements tested, three contained very worrisome levels of heavy metals. Three daily servings of any of these three supplements could result in daily exposure to arsenic, cadmium, or lead exceeding the limits proposed by the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) (19).

6. Whey protein powders have an unbalanced nutrient composition and poor micronutrient profile when compared to meat, fish, and eggs

eggs

When compared to whey protein powder, eggs have a superior micronutrient profile and higher content of healthy fats, among other things.

One of the many reasons I recommend that people get their protein from meat, seafood, or eggs, as opposed to whey protein supplements, is that I consider these foods to have a superior nutrient profile. Protein-rich whole foods have a lower protein density than whey protein powders, but contrary to what some people think, this is probably a good thing, at least from a health standpoint (As pointed out throughout this article). Moreover, if you eat fish, grass-fed meat, and eggs, you’re getting important nutrient (e.g., essential fatty acids) that you don’t get from whey protein supplements.

7. Whey protein supplements contain peptides and hormones that may negatively impact human health

spilled-milk

Milk and milk-derived products contain several hormones and bioactive peptides, some of which may negatively affect our health.

Up until very recently (on an evolutionary timescale), no humans anywhere consumed whey protein – which is typically a mixture of beta-lactoglobulin (~65%), alpha-lactalbumin (~25%), bovine serum albumin (~8%), and immunoglobulins (20) – post infancy, and certainly not in the quantities you get from a protein shake. Rather, the proteins found in meat, fish, and eggs (i.e., the myofibrillar proteins actin and myosin) were the types of proteins that conditioned the human genome.

Differences related to the amino acid sequence and composition of the proteins we eat could be important in terms of health and longevity. Moreover, whey protein may contain some potentially problematic hormones.

This quote by Dr. Pedro Bastos highlights some of the potential problems with whey protein:

… Also, there is the matter of hormones in milk: estrogens, DHT precursors, Insulin, IGF-1 and the hormone Betacellulin (BTC), which Dr. Cordain has discussed in a previous edition of this newsletter.
These are some of the possible mechanisms for which there is repeated epidemiological evidence associating milk consumption with some cancers – especially Prostate Cancer. We know that these hormones are present in milk and – in the case of BTC [Betacellulin] – it is present in whey too. Nevertheless, the real content of all these hormones in commercial milk-derived products is an open question that deserves proper and urgent study.

So while we don’t know for sure, and since and we have alternatives, I would follow the old saying: do no harm!

Finally, if you have an auto-immune disease or allergy to Beta Lacto Globulin (protein that exists in bovine milk, but nonexistent in human milk) I would stay away from whey. Whey contains not only Beta Lacto Globulin, but also Bovine Serum Albumin. Some peptides from this protein have structural homology with peptides from our own tissues, and BSA has been implicated in Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Type 1 Diabetes.

In conclusion, I would follow the evolutionary template until all these issues are resolved. which states that recently introduced foods may have potential adverse effects to humans, especially long term. Non-human milk was only introduced in the human diet ~10,000 years ago. Therefore, given the potential health hazards of milk that science is revealing, I would use another protein source. (18)

8. You don’t need a post-workout protein shake

protein-shake

Contrary to what the latest edition of Flex Magazine may claim, drinking a post-workout protein shake won’t magically boost your muscle gains.

A lot of people use protein supplements primarily as a way to get some fast-absorbable protein into their body directly before and/or after a workout, so hence, the issue of whether or not consuming a post-workout protein shake will lead to improved recovery and enhanced hypertrophy is of importance to this article.

Besides learning that eating every other hour and completely destroying each muscle group once a week is the optimal way to go for muscle growth, new strength trainees usually hear about the “anabolic window” that opens up after a workout and the boost in protein synthesis and muscle growth that occurs if you consume fast-absorbable protein directly after your last set. It doesn’t matter whether you’re hungry or not, just getting it down is the priority.

How did these ideas about pre- and post-workout protein consumption get so ingrained in the fitness community? Bodybuilders selling and using supplements and ads in fitness magazines and websites have certainly had a significant impact, but that’s not all. Most of us have probably heard or read about the scientifically proven effects of consuming fast-absorbable protein or branched-chain amino acids within about 30 minutes after training, and on a superficial level it does seem to make sense that consuming protein in and around a training session could help you build more muscle and strength.

Getting enough protein into your body is clearly essential if you want to maximize muscle growth and strength gains, but does it really make a difference whether you get some of these essential building blocks into your body directly after training or not?

Studies on protein timing show mixed results (21, 22, 23, 24). It’s therefore easy for supplements manufacturer and people with a strong opinion on the matter to cherry pick a study that seems to support their position on protein consumption pre- and/or post-workout. However, if we take a closer look at most of these studies we find that they have several methodological shortcomings that limit their usefulness.

Perhaps the greatest issue with a lot of the studies on protein timing is that participants who consume protein directly before and/or after their workouts typically have a higher total protein intake than subjects who’re not. Since a higher protein intake is associated with increased hypertrophy (up to a certain point), this unmatched protein consumption in the treatment and control group will have a significant impact on the results.

Another problem is that most of the studies in this area have looked at the effects of a post-workout protein shake versus no intake of protein post-workout. However, if protein supplementation had been compared to the consumption of the same amount of protein from meat, it may be that meat-protein would have provided superior hypertropy-related effects.

A 2013 meta-analysis investigating the effects of protein timing on hypertrophy and muscle strength concluded the following: “In conclusion, current evidence does not appear to support the claim that immediate (≤ 1 hour) consumption of protein pre- and/or post-workout significantly enhances strength- or hypertrophic-related adaptations to resistance exercise. The results of this meta-analysis indicate that if a peri-workout anabolic window of opportunity does in fact exist, the window for protein consumption would appear to be greater than one-hour before and after a resistance training session …” (25).

Overall it’s safe to say that total protein intake is far more important than protein timing when it comes to muscle and strength gains. As long as you eat enough protein throughout the day to meet your requirements, it doesn’t seem to matter much whether some of this protein is consumed immediately before and/or after your workout or not. However, it’s important to note that these studies focus on protein intake in and around a training session, not the optimal frequency of protein-rich meals throughout the day.

There are two primary reasons why consuming fast-absorbable protein directly after a strength training session isn’t really a top priority for the average lifter (given that he consumes enough protein during the day to meet his requirements and doesn’t delay his first post-workout meal for too long). First of all, the scientific literature doesn’t really show that consuming protein directly after a workout enhances muscle growth or strength development. Second, if you’ve eaten a mixed meal 2-3 hours prior to training (like most serious lifters do), you’ve already supplied a generous dose of nutrients that are being broken down, absorbed, and metabolized both during and after your workout.

In summary, total protein intake matters a lot more than protein timing (in and around a workout). The “anabolic window” doesn’t close 30 minutes after a workout, and there’s no reason to force down protein shakes or food until you’re actually hungry.

9. Most protein supplements contain artificial ingredients that may promote sugar cravings, glucose intolerance, and/or fat gain

artificial-sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are – contrary to what some people believe – not harmless.

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog and/or kept up with the research on diet and health, non-caloric sweeteners, such as aspartame and sucralose, as well as many other artificial ingredients found in common food products, are not harmless.

Several studies and review papers have shown that artificial sweeteners may encourage sugar cravings and sugar dependence, interfere with learned responses that normally contribute to glucose and energy homeostasis, and contribute to weight gain (26, 27, 28, 29). Moreover, recent research shows that non-caloric artificial sweeteners can induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota (30, 31).

10. The bottom line: Nature knows best

nature-food

Perhaps we should just leave the production of food to nature…

The more I learn about nutrition, the more convinced I become that we’re best off getting our nutrients from real, whole foods, as opposed to supplements. Actually, I would go as far as to say that most dietary supplements do more harm than good. For example, multivitamin supplements, which most people consider to be completely harmless, may interfere with quorom sensing in gut biofilms, cause nutritional imbalances, and increase chronic disease morbidity and mortality (32, 33).

That’s not to say that all supplements are a waste of money or that no one benefits from dietary supplementation. Those people who rarely get out in the sun and/or don’t eat fatty fish on a regular basis may benefit from vitamin D and/or omega-3 supplementation. Another supplement that can provide benefits is probiotics.

Most of the probiotics on the market today aren’t particularly effective, but in the future, a next generation of probiotic supplements may be used in the treatment of a wide range of health disorders. Also, some groups of people (e.g., hospitalized patients, immunocompromised individuals, some elders) may for some reason not be able to adhere to a healthy diet and/or have specific nutrient needs that they have trouble meeting through diet alone.

This quote from a recent paper summarizes my perspective on this issue.

Our diet is composed of millions of substances that are part of a biological network. In fact, we eat “biological systems” like a banana, a fish or a piece of meat. There is a connection between the various nutrients in these systems. In other words, there is a balance and an interaction that is part of a living organism. This balance can be found in the reconstruction of our Paleolithic diet… (34)

What about the studies that seem to indicate that there are a wide range of health benefits associated with the consumption of whey protein?

If you’ve been reading about whey protein supplementation in a health & fitness magazine, listened to people talk at the gym, or read online articles on muscle-building and dieting, you may have gotten the impression that studies show that protein supplementation comes with a wide range of health benefits, and that there are few potentially harmful effects associated with the use of whey supplements. Moreover, if you’ve taken the time to look at some of the studies on the topic for yourself, you may have concluded that the weight of the evidence shows that whey protein supplementation is unequivocally beneficial.

It’s true that at first glance, most studies seem to indicate that this is the case. However, as I’ve repeatedly highlighted here on the blog, to really be able to gain any knowledge from the scientific literature, we can’t simply look at the conclusions of the studies on the topic we’re interested in. Rather, we have to look at the bigger picture, and we have to know how to interpret the findings correctly. Perhaps most importantly, we have to use the evolutionary template as our guide when we decipher scientific results.

This hits on one of the main problems in the health & fitness community today (and in our society at large for that matter). A lot of people don’t know how to interpret scientific findings, but simply look at the results and conclusions of a selection of studies and use that as their basis for their writing and opinions. I’ve made that mistake before myself – and I probably still do from time to time. However, I always try to remember to look at the bigger picture of things.

I obviously won’t be able to go into each and every research paper on whey protein supplementation in this post (Feel free to post in the comment section if there’s a study you want me to comment on). Rather, I thought I’d provide a summary of some of the general issues and limitations with the studies on whey protein:

  • The main problem is that most of the studies in this area are of short duration, only include one or a couple of endpoints, don’t account for the long-term effects of supplement use, and fail to pick up subclinical adverse effects.
  • Typically, intervention studies on protein supplementation compare the effects of whey protein consumption with the consumption of another protein supplement. Few, if any, good studies have looked at the health effects of consuming whey protein vs. consuming protein from meat, fish, and/or eggs. I strongly suspect that if these studies were to be done, they would show that protein from whole foods is “superior”, particularly in terms of chronic disease outcomes.
  • Studies showing beneficial effects of whey protein consumption often compare the use of a whey protein supplement with the use of a placebo supplement. Typically, the total daily protein intake is higher in the protein group than in the placebo group. Since we know that “high-protein diets” (>20% of total calories from protein) are superior to diets lower in protein when it comes to fat loss, preservation of lean muscle mass, etc., it’s no surprise that participants who use a whey protein supplement experience various beneficial effects that are not seen in the placebo group. What is important to note is that this doesn’t really tell us much about the benefits of whey protein per se. Rather, it tells us that there may be some positive effects associated with the consumption of diets that are relatively high in protein.
  • No long-term studies have investigated how whey protein impact the gut microbiota, hormone levels, and chronic disease risk over the long term.
  • Whey protein is sometimes being touted as a functional food, partly because it contains biological components, such as lactoferrin, beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, glycomacropeptide, and immunoglobulins, that demonstrate a range of immune-enhancing properties. As I’ve pointed out throughout this article, these compounds were not a part of ancestral human diets and may actually do the adult human body more harm than good.
  • Due to the high content of essential amino acids and the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine, and valine, whey protein has greater muscle anabolic value than certain other forms of protein. However, since there is little research comparing the effects of whey protein with protein from meat, fish, or eggs on muscle protein synthesis and hypertrophy, it’s difficult to say whether whey protein is the superior choice for individuals looking to gain muscle. Moreover, even if it was shown that whey protein offered superior hypertrophy-related effects, one could question whether these effects “make up” for the adverse health effects of consuming whey protein. Furthermore, since whey protein could destabilize the gut microbiota and induce gut leakiness, it may negatively impact athletic performance and recovery between workouts by increasing the inflammatory tone in the body.

This is not to say that no one should use whey protein supplements. As I will point out below, I do think some groups of people may benefit from using whey supplements.

Who may benefit from protein supplementation?

So far, you may have gotten the impression that everyone should stay away from protein supplements. If everyone was perfectly healthy and made healthy eating and preparation of food a priority in their life, this may have been true. However, as we know, this isn’t the case. Certain groups of people, such as the ones mentioned below, may benefit from using whey protein supplements.

  • Those who for some reason find it impossible to meet their protein needs through food. If the choice is between consuming inadequate amounts of protein and taking a protein supplement, using the supplement may be the best choice (“the lesser of two evils”). I want to point out though that even those people who don’t find or take the time to prepare protein-filled meals at home, don’t necessarily have to use protein powders, as there are certainly many protein-rich whole foods out there that either don’t require a lot of preparation time and/or can be bought pre-prepared at the grocery store. Also, it’s important to note that contrary to what you may have been led to believe from reading about protein intake in a bodybuilding and fitness magazine, you don’t need absurd amounts of protein to build muscle.
  • Those who have trouble eating solid food (e.g., hospitalized patients, elderly).
  • Those who for some reason can’t or won’t eat meat, eggs, and/or seafood.
  • Some chronic disease patients.

Takeaway

“Nature” is much better at designing healthy foods than man. Although great strides have been made over the last centuries in terms of measuring and mapping the various components of the food we eat, there is still a lot we don’t know about the interaction and connection between different nutrients. Whole foods contain a “natural” balance of nutrients, a balance that is lost when the food is broken down and one or more of the smaller constituents are removed.

A high-quality whey protein powder isn’t the worst thing you can include in your diet, and there’s little doubt that consuming whey protein supplements is a very convenient way of increasing one’s protein intake. However, if you can, you should stay away from supplements and get all of your protein from real food.

 

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