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.
Whey protein supplements – in particular whey protein powders – are among the most popular supplements on the market today, largely because conventional wisdom and poor research 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 the average gymrat 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 omelet, but because clever marketing, industry-funded research, and “gym talk” have led everybody 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.
Heck, some of the supplement industries even claim to build you pounds upon pounds of muscle on their packages.
I know that the statement of 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. 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.
About 10 years ago when I started strength training, I too was led to believe that I should include protein supplements in my diet, and man o man, did I spend money on it. I drank at least 2 protein shakes a day. My nutrition was poor, no supplementation of vitamins and minerals, I just relied on my awesome protein shake.
I’m not opposed to the use of protein supplements because I think “high-protein diets” are dangerous. Actually, I think the 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 4 reasons why choose to not join the majority as an athlete and a coach.
Although insulin sensitivity is elevated 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 create a low-moderate insulin response (like 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.
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.” (study)
- Some protein powders contain high levels of toxic heavy metals
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.
- Whey protein powders have an unbalanced nutrient composition and poor micronutrient profile when compared to meat, fish and eggs
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 (like essential fatty acids) that you don’t get from whey protein supplements.
- Whey protein supplements contain peptides and hormones that may negatively impact human 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 (wikipedia) – 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.” (paleodiet)
Some other points that are also important
- Several smaller studies have shown that consumption of whey protein can promote acne formation (study 1, study 2, study 3, study 4).
- Whey protein can destabilise gut microbiota. (more info here)
- Whey protein is a evolutionary novel, a processed food product with an abnormal nutrient composition.
- Most protein supplements contain artificial ingredients that my promote cravings, glucose intolerance, and/or fat gain
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 said here on this post, 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 the studies on a topic and use that as their basis for their writing and opinions. That’s not to say that I’ve never made that mistake before myself. 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:
- 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. However, it’s important to note 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.
- 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 there aren’t any health benefits associated with the consumption of whey protein or that no one will benefit from including whey protein in their diet. 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 crazy 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.
Pffew, took me a long time to write this article. I’ve been on this subject forever and many have criticized me for my opinion. Now that there is abundant evidence through researches which I highlighted in this article — I can say that I was always right.
Please share your thoughts or any study which you think I should read in the comments below. I’m still open minded and I’m open for discussion about this topic.
Please share if you also agree on this topic!