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Whey Protein: Health Food Or Harmful Byproduct That Promotes Weight Gain?

I recently received an email from a reader who wanted to ask me my opinion of whey protein. It seems that depending on who you ask whey protein is either helpful or harmful to your health.

Seeing how there’s an ever increasing amount of controversy about whey, I figured it’s time to give this subject some open minded analysis.

Let me preface this discussion by saying this article is NOT a sales pitch in disguise designed to get you to buy my own brand of protein powder. I’m also not coming at this post with an existing bias based on some personal belief that consuming animal products is morally or otherwise wrong.

Whatever your beliefs are regarding what you think is best to eat is cool with me. I’m not here to judge or criticize personal choice.

What I will do however is my best to cut through all the dogma and hype and simply look at whey protein as food source.

More after the jump…

When is a food healthy or not?

Let me set the table here by providing some insight on what I will admit is an existing framework for my personal belief systems. In all my twenty plus years of research and experimentation with nutrition science I’ve seen tons of contradictions.

For example, one study says saturated fat is bad for you, the next one says it’s not. You say well there must be a “truth” so who’s right and who’s wrong?

In this and a lot of cases when you step back, look at ALL the research, use your common sense, and put aside any zealotry for a second you’ll see that perhaps BOTH sides are right.

Huh? Yes, you heard me right. As with a lot of things it’s about the context. How much was being consumed, what was the rest of the diet like, what were activity levels like, etc, etc.

It’s not always a black and white issue as much as we want it to be.

However as we know it’s the ego that rears its ugly head and wants to be proven “right” so the debate continues on.

Here’s my foundation for starting beliefs on all matters of human nutrition…

All God given foods have the ability to serve a beneficial role in human health. The human body is magnificently designed by our Creator to adapt to fueling off of a wide variety of foods depending on what’s available.

Variety it seems holds the key to balance and as it is with most anything in nature, even beneficial substances can become toxic when consumed in excess.

The raw vegan crowd fervently declares that all animal products are “dead” and will only lead to acidosis and eventually chronic disease and early death.

But yet they can’t explain how numerous cultures have somehow managed to exist (and thrive mind you) with diets that weren’t exclusively raw fruits and vegetables.

Some in the “low-carb” crowd will want to convince you that potatoes and starches are to blame for our fatness.

But yet they can’t explain how people in cultures where potatoes or rice for example are the main food sources aren’t all obese.

See what I’m getting at?

Pick your side and everyone’s got an argument.

The one common denominator I’ve found in all the various examples of different foods being staples in the diet (depending on what was available to them) is the omission of processed and refined foods.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that ANY degree of refining with a natural food is necessarily a bad thing. Making whey protein from dairy could be an example of a “refined” natural food being healthy. That’s what we’re about to address.

It’s just that I think from a nutrition foundation standpoint we’re made to eat potatoes, not potato chips. The further we deviate from this as a whole with our diets, the more we can expect health to decline.

It’s not about trying to vilify any particular natural food.

Ok, I think that gives you an idea on where I begin from when objectively looking at nutrition matters.

On to our subject of whey protein. First off let’s be clear on something.

Not all whey proteins are created equal…

I’m not going to get into all the in-depth details on the various processes used to create whey protein in this post. Let’s just say there are good ways, bad ways, cheap ways, and expensive ways.

For the purpose of this discussion I’m going to refer to whey protein as being a high quality form that hasn’t been exposed to high heat processing or chemical extraction.

We should however briefly discuss the differences between whey concentrates and whey isolates.

Whey concentrates versus whey isolates

I don’t get too caught up in the debate over which is best, although I’ll say that whey isolates, which have been completely “isolated” from milk, are purer forms of protein. They are very high in branched chain amino acids and have the highest biological value of all proteins.

Whey concentrates on the other hand have minimal processing and therefore don’t contain as much pure protein content (there’s still milk byproducts and fats contained).

This by no means makes them “bad.” Whey concentrates still contain a decent amount of bio-available protein and some prefer them over isolates because of less refining.

If you have issues with lactose you’d want to look at whey isolates since most of the milk byproducts have been removed.

Personally I like clean and pure whey isolates that have been separated with cross-flow micro-filtration. This removes all the fat, lactose, and unwanted materials without subjecting it to high heat or chemicals. In essence, it leaves the protein unharmed and in it’s original state.

Compared to “ion exchanged” processing cross-flow micro-filtration creates isolates with more calcium and less sodium.

You’ll also see a lot of higher end whey protein products hyped up for being “hydrolyzed,” which is the most expensive form of processing. Let me just say I don’t believe they’re worth the extra money and to me hydrolyzed whey protein has more of a bitter taste.

I can break this all down in more detail in another post, let’s keep moving on.

Ok, suffice to say we’re on the same page with referring to whey protein that is of high quality. I’m not going to even look to assess the ultra processed, low grade whey protein powders like the containers you’d pick up at Wal-Mart or your local CVS.

You can pretty much be assured these protein powders have been made with less expensive forms of processing using high heat or chemicals. In essence, they are no where near as beneficial due to enzyme and nutrients being destroyed in processing.

As far as cheap, commercial grade whey proteins are concerned I’d say they’re not worth the money.

Quick tip: If you’re going to purchase whey protein look for products that have been enhanced with enzymes as this plays an essential role in assimilation. These include things like protease, amylase, lipase, maltase, etc. Of course you could also mix enzymes into your whey protein shakes. This is something that I’ll get into later on in another post.

Big picture, is whey protein healthy or not?

So starting with the assertion we’re dealing with high quality whey protein powder, are even the BEST formulations healthy or is it all like some would say an industrial waste by-product that leads to weight gain?

Here’s a little bit of dialogue I’ve picked up from YouTube video comments that contributes to  a lot of the confusion that people have.

“Could you do a video on whey protein being sold to bodybuilders to bulk up while simultaneously being sold for weight loss…three people I know told me in the last two weeks they are doing whey shakes as meal replacements to lose weight.”

Reply

“You know its a scam for sure. Whey protein is literally industrial waste products from the cheese making industry. Its full of IGF-1 so it will make one bigger for sure. Problem is IGF-1 is something we need very little of and our bodies naturally produce it. IGF-1 is like gasoline for cancer cells.

The same consumer that buys whey protein is generally the same consumer that buys steroids, alcohol, drugs etc. They don’t give a zip about their health so are lost causes generally.” (YouTube video comments)

Ok, we can sort of pick out there’s some bias here based on that last statement. Let’s move on.

How about this context from an email that one of my reader’s received. He sent it to me as reference to his question on whether or not to stop taking whey.

Turns out it actually was a sales pitch for some other form of protein powder. Doesn’t mean ALL the information is factually incorrect, but will the average person be able to distinguish between fact and fear based marketing tactics?

Whey protein, even the “high quality” stuff that you’d pay an arm and a leg to obtain from your local Vitamin Shoppe or GNC, could very likely be stalling your fat loss progress and, even WORSE, causing you to GAIN fat weight.

And if that wasn’t enough, here are the absolute WORST times to consume whey protein:

1. During the day

2. In the evening

Scratching your head? Don’t: you understood it perfectly. Whey protein simply isn’t a great protein to consume at any time of day, and for specific reasons.

1. Whey Protein Absorption

A review on the rate of protein absorption published in 2006 in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism reported that whey protein isolate absorbs at a rate of about 8g/hour. This is in large part due to the fact that whey is not broken down into small enough peptides by our body’s natural enzymes in time to be absorbed.

Couple that with the fact that the window of opportunity for whey protein to be absorbed is 1.5 hours, your body at maximum will be able to absorb 12 grams of whey protein from a single serving. Kind of makes those 40g whey protein shakes seem foolish, doesn’t it? Well, that’s because they are.

Simply put, whey protein passes through the system far too rapidly to be adequately absorbed, leaving the majority of your protein shake wasted… literally.

2. Insulin Release Associated With Whey

Which of the two items below cause a greater spike in insulin? a) White Bread b) Whey Protein Well, as you can probably guess, if you chose the horrendous, high glycemic, void-of-all-nutrition white bread, you’d be 100%…WRONG.

That’s right, a 2012 study published in Nutrition & Metabolism identified that the specific amino acids in whey protein stimulate beta cells to secrete more insulin than a similar amount of carbohydrate from white bread. In the presence of insulin, fat burning essentially stops. Go to source.

Oh my goodness! You read this and think that whey protein is (A) a waste since it won’t get assimilated and (B) it’s going to make you fat since it stimulates insulin production.

Ok, take a deep breath and relax. Let’s dig into this and look at what we’re dealing with.

I’ll try to address each issue.

For starters whey protein is NOT some poison that’s a harmful substance to the human body.

As much as some would like you to believe this it’s just not true. It’s a food source, period.

Yes, whey protein is derived as a by-product of both milk and cheese. That’s where it starts and depending on the type of processing used and the quality of the milk to begin with (rBGH or no rBGH for example), the quality of the whey protein will reflect it.

But make no mistakes about it….Whey protein is a COMPLETE protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids that the human body requires for proper repair and function. It is antioxidant in nature and also a highly biologically available protein, meaning that the body can easily assimilate and utilize it.

In short, it is a fast acting, dairy derived protein that is easily absorbed and readily utilized by the body.

Does whey protein contain harmful hormones?

Ok let’s address all the fear about whey protein being full of IGF-1 (insulin growth factor hormone). While various forms of whey protein (concentrates or isolates) will have different levels of IGF-1, it’s all in very small amounts.

There’s no need to be concerned about prostate cancer as people who rant off about IGF-1 aren’t telling you the whole story.

It’s not some bad guy hormone with amounts found in whey protein which are going to make you automatically “get big” or lead to cancer. Reality is IGF-1 is intimately connected with the immune system and may work to boost your health, not diminish it.

Once again we’ve got to put things in context with how much is being consumed.

Bottom line, relax your whey protein isn’t chocked full of hormones.

What about this whole assimilation issue?

While I’m really in to this stuff, I won’t bore you with all the details in this post. If you were confused reading all that math about how much gets assimilated when, it’s understandable.

Let me just say this. Yes, it’s true that whey protein has a rate of absorption and window for utilization in the gastrointestinal tract. Of course this depends on whether or not it’s taken on an empty stomach, with food, or combined with other slow release proteins.

What does all that mean for the person who wants to drop some extra pounds and maintain lean muscle? What do you need to know?

Basically, yes you’d be wasting some dough if you’re downing whey protein shakes every two hours like some bodybuilder who thinks they need a constant flow of protein.

Whey protein can play a valuable role in the diet and depending on your goals and unique needs, you’ll want to consider when to use it and when to use solid foods. More on that in a minute.

What about whey protein promoting an insulin release?

Yes, it’s absolutely true that amino acids can stimulate the pancreas to release insulin (it’s not just carbs like some people think). Ok, and so what? Does this mean you’re not going to burn fat the rest of the day? Of course not!

Even a subject like insulin release can be contorted when you try and view things in isolation. The human body is a complex machine folks, you can’t pull out pieces here and there and draw conclusions. Like the assertion that insulin is “bad.”

The fact that whey protein stimulates insulin release isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Insulin helps to get the amino acids to the muscle cells and liver. It’s not some terrible hormone who’s job is to simply make you fat.

So when does insulin become a problem in the context of whey consumption?

If you’re overweight and dealing with insulin resistance and you’re frequently downing whey protein shakes with a bunch of carbs like some bodybuilder may recommend.

BAD IDEA!

It’s not always wise to get your individual specific nutrition advice from some dude at the gym.

Driving up insulin and having a bunch of blood sugar to go along with it isn’t going to help improve your insulin sensitivity or stimulate fat loss when you’re already flooded with both (insulin and blood sugar).

The mere fact there was an insulin response is NOT and I repeat NOT a problem by itself. Whey protein is not going to make you fat, especially when taken on an empty stomach or prior to meals.

There’s compelling evidence that whey protein can actually assist with fat loss. Consider the following:

Nutrition & Metabolism, 2008. A whey protein supplement increase fat loss and spares lean muscle in obese subjects: a randomised human clinical study. Joy L Frestedt; John L Zenk; Michael A Kuskowski; Loren S Ward and Eric D Bastian

Bottom line is some people will want you to think that insulin is some evil hormone, it’s not. We just screw things up by getting things out of balance with crappy diets and then want to blame the hormones.

Let me cut to the chase here…

If you’re already lean and have good insulin sensitivity, there’s less downside for consuming carbs with whey.

However, if you’re overweight and have poor insulin sensitivity, I’d recommend leaving the carbs out of the shake, especially post-workout. Mix up the whey protein with water and drink.

For best results, pretty much in all cases, you’ll want to consume a SOLID meal an hour or so post workout so you can have some slow release proteins and other substrates to provide a steady source of fuel and amino acids to the muscles for recovery.

How much whey protein should I use?

This is an area that ends up getting a lot of confusion. Let me cut right to the chase as we could get into a whole discussion on assimilation rates of different protein powders and animal proteins.

There’s not much of a need for the average individual to consume more than 20-25 grams of whey protein at one time. In fact, downing these 45-50 gram plus whey protein shakes can be counterproductive.

Whey protein has a fast assimilation to begin with, add in the fact it’s liquid when consumed with water and the process of getting through the digestive tract is pretty quick. Let’s just say you wouldn’t be able to assimilate all 45-50 grams when downed in a single shake with water on an empty stomach.

Bottom line, a little bit of whey (approximately 20-25 grams) is more than suffice when consuming with water or adding to a meal.

What are the best times to consume whey protein?

This is another one of those it sort of depends question, but here are some thoughts.

One of the best times in my opinion is first thing in the morning.

A scoop or two of whey protein with water on an empty stomach can have a detoxifying effect while also helping to speed up metabolism.

Doing whey protein like this first thing in the morning may even help to stimulate your appetite and make it easier for those who don’t normally eat breakfast to consume some solid food shortly thereafter.

Number two would be prior to and/or after a resistance training workout.

The pre-workout drink isn’t essential for everyone, but anyone who’s training really hard and has goals of increasing lean muscle can benefit.

The post-workout choice of whey protein and water as the FIRST consumption of protein for recovery is an excellent choice. You’ll either want to consume slower assimilation proteins (egg, casein, milk proteins) next or have a solid meal.

Personally, these are the main times I use whey protein powder.

For the mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks I prefer a meal-replacement shake with a “protein blend” or other powders with a mix of whey, casein, and milk proteins. The idea is I’m looking for slow release proteins.

However, I’m also not looking to lose weight and consume quite a bit of calories during the day.

Whey protein use while dieting and looking to lose weight

From a weight loss perspective, there is a case to be made for an overweight individual consuming a whey protein shake with water in-between meals on an empty stomach.

This can help to keep the metabolism revved up and provide amino acids for possible energy production in the absence of carbohydrates.

Once again, it’s about the unique situation. Whey protein consumption while dieting under caloric restriction is going to vary from whey protein consumption primarily for muscle building.

While dieting, the body tends to use more amino acids to produce energy, both the branched chain amino acids and alanine are used in the liver to produce glucose. This can be a beneficial thing when reducing carbohydrates to enhance fat loss and improve blood sugar balances.

Yes, there’s a reason that increased protein and decreased carbohydrates can help some individuals lose body fat while preserving lean muscle tissue. Short term use of higher protein diets have merit from a fat loss perspective as the metabolic impacts are real.

Conditioning your body to use fats and amino acids for fuel instead of sugars from carbohydrates all the time has legitimacy. Again, each person is going to be different, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that using protein for energy production on occasion is necessarily a “bad thing.”

Be cautious of high calorie and sugar fruit smoothies…

Let’s just say I’m not big on someone who’s overweight and possibly dealing with insulin resistance issues, downing whey protein shakes blended with two bananas and a scoop of peanut butter for example.

If you’re looking to lose weight be wary of doing these big fruit smoothies with heaps of whey protein powder. Just because fruit and whey can be beneficial doesn’t mean that a shake with 50+ grams of carbs and 400-500 calories is going to help you lose weight.

Yes, I can see how whey protein when not used properly could actually make you increase fat stores, but it’s all in how it’s being consumed.

If you’re going to have a “smoothie” for breakfast and want to include whey protein, I’d recommend low glycemic fruits like berries (in small amounts) and no more than 20-25 grams of whey protein.

Blend with water (not juice) and add in some natural yogurt or perhaps flaxseed meal, chia seeds, coconut oil or flakes, etc, if desired.

Some healthy fat and fiber are always nice additions to whey shakes, but I’d look to keep the sugar content low.

Another example I use on occasion for breakfast is blending in a scoop of vanilla whey protein powder in natural yogurt with added probiotics, then including a cup of blueberries. This is just an option as sometimes I don’t want to have eggs for breakfast.

Best not to rely on whey protein alone for your complete needs…

I can’t reiterate enough that a mix of slow and fast release proteins is probably best for most individuals. There are times when fast assimilation proteins like whey make sense, but you would want a mix of slow release proteins coming at some of your main meals.

Could whey protein be ideal for older adults?

On a related note there is emerging research that older individuals respond very differently to protein than younger adults. Their muscles appear to become more sensitive to proteins which spike blood amino acid levels quickly.

While I’ll look to fully cover this subject in a future post, just know that signs indicate whey protein may be an ideal choice for middle age and older adults.

The bottom line, wrapping this up…

Ok, I’ve managed to turn this discussion into something that’s starting to resemble a book. Maybe that’s something to consider down the line as there’s a lot more I could say here.

The final verdict in my opinion is that whey protein is a high quality food source for protein, period.

Like anything else individual preferences will determine when and how to best use it.

Just don’t buy into the hype that whey protein is harmful, is going to make you fat, and the like.

Consider the source when you hear things like this. Does the person have a preexisting bias of some sort? Is the intent to convince you to buy some other form of protein powder?

I tend to hold the position that all high quality protein powders (plant, whey, casein, or egg based) can play a beneficial role in the diet when used wisely. They just work differently from an assimilation standpoint (being fast or slow) and therefore could be used strategically.

High quality whey protein being incorporated into an otherwise healthy and balanced diet with natural, whole foods has a place.

Bottom line is I use whey protein and recommend it to my personal training clients. The “how” and “when” is simply a matter of individual needs and goals.

Are there whey protein powders that I’m currently using and recommending to clients?

There are quite a few good sources of higher quality whey proteins out there and I don’t pretend to know them all, but here’s a couple I’m currently using.

From the more popular “commercially produced” whey proteins, I recommend 100% Whey Gold Standard from Optimum Nutrition. The taste is good, it’s affordable (around $30 for a 2 lb container), and is a pretty decent product.

Click here to learn more or to purchase from Amazon.com.

But I’ll be straight up honest, if you’re looking for a REALLY good whey protein that comes from the most natural and cleanest dairy sources with minimal processing, it’s going to obviously cost you a little more.

An example of a top shelf whey protein powder would be EZ-PRO made by Natural Choice Products.

A friend of mine turned me on to Natural Choice Products a few months ago and I must say I absolutely LOVE their products. I’ve been taking EZ-PRO whey for the past month or so along with their probiotics.

The whey is enhanced with essential fatty acids and enzymes which I really like. Let’s just say I’ve been so impressed overall that I’ve contacted them to become a distributor.

Click here to learn more about NCP products or to order.

Yes, in full disclosure these are affiliate links and I could possibly earn a small commission if you ordered from me. But seriously, I’m by no means trying to turn this into a sales pitch and you don’t have to buy any products from me.

I just figured I’d share with you what I’m currently using and recommending.

That’s kind of how I go about it. When I find things I like (after using them and doing some research) I may recommend them and sometimes look to become an affiliate. I don’t have my own brand of supplements so I’m very open minded and unbiased in this regard.

I just try to advise against the really crappy products when I come across them. If you see me recommend a product line it’s because I use it myself.

As I learn more and new information is presented, recommendations may change or other products added to the list over time. It’s all a learning process.

Hopefully you’ve picked up a thing or two in this post and found it to be helpful.

As always if I can be of assistance in any way please don’t hesitate to let me know.

Shane Doll is a certified personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Fitness Training Studios. If you’re looking for a personal trainer in Charleston, you can receive a no-obligations personal training trial and consultation without risking a dime. Over 1000 Charleston area residents have transformed their bodies following our unique burst training workouts and simplified nutrition programs. Experience the Shaping Concepts difference today.

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Category: Supplements.