Is Whey Protein Healthy? Probably Not!

Article provided by Switch4Good


What is whey protein?

Whey, a protein complex derived from cow’s milk, is the liquid byproduct of the cheesemaking process.


Next, the liquid whey is filtered and purified through various processes to remove carbohydrates (like lactose) and fat and make a whey concentrate.


Finally, the concentrate is spray dried with both hot and cold air to render a powder that’s about 90-95% protein. This is the base for whey-based protein powders, shakes, and bars.



Does whey protein have side effects?

One of the difficulties in studying nutrition is that our bodies are complex and respond to foods differently. That’s why it’s often better to study whole foods and entire dietary patterns instead of their individual components.


However, the authors of a recent systematic review3 (an analysis of numerous studies) found a number of concerning findings regarding whey proteins impact upon health, particularly when consumed in higher-than-normal doses (40 grams/day or more of whey).



Increased whey protein consumption can lead to:

  • Increased expression of acne
    • This is closely related to the American Academy of Dermatology’s delineation of the connection between all forms of dairy milk and acne4.
  • Liver injury
  • Increased oxidative stress
  • Kidney problems
  • Inflammation
  • Bloating
  • Expression of anger


Continue reading for more details about their findings. There has been a plethora of research conducted comparing animal protein to plant protein, and we can build a fairly complete picture on its impacts on various aspects of human health.



Whey protein consumption effects on kidneys

How can whey protein impact your kidneys? According to the authors, consuming whey protein, even during a short-period only, has proven to incur the following effects: increased plasma urinary volume, and urinary calcium excretion while the pH of urinary citrate decreases.


Separately, Dietary Acid Load (the balance of acid-inducing foods and base-inducing foods) can have a significant impact on kidney health14. Animal protein rich foods, like whey protein, are considered acid inducing and increased DAL was associated with kidney damage among U.S. adults. On the other hand, plant protein sources are comparatively less acid forming due to their lower sulfur containing amino acids.


Bottom line for kidney health: Quality of the protein matters (plant vs animal)! Plant-based protein can be kidney protective due to its anti-inflammatory and alkaline producing properties. 


Risk of liver injury for sedentary individuals using whey

In the systematic review, whey’s impact on the liver’s health was generally limited to individuals living sedentary lives.


Researchers found that when not exercising, the stress from excessive proteins (not being utilized for muscle synthesis) and subsequent processing was interrelated with markers of liver injury. Over time, sedentary participants showed signs of early liver injury.


The relationship between diet and various forms of liver disease has only recently gained attention. One in particular, fatty liver disease (FLD) utilizes a formula called the fatty liver index (FLI) to diagnose disease. It affects millions of Americans annually and a 2018 study demonstrated higher intakes of animal protein to be associated with a higher Fatty Liver Index (FLI) while vegetable protein was the opposite relationship.


Bottom line for liver health: We need more data to determine whey’s impact, if there is any, on liver health. But sedentary people in particular should be mindful about the type and amount of protein they’re consuming.



Whey and inflammation

Chronic low-grade inflammation has been linked to a number of chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 Diabetes.


However, when comparing whey protein isolate and plant-based protein isolates, the data is more mixed. The authors of a recent meta-analysis found increases in CRP (inflammatory biomarker) when comparing animal protein to control and the opposite relationship with plant-proteins. But these relationships could not be confidently endorsed by the authors.


A more recent meta-analysis found that both soy protein and whey protein elicit anti-inflammatory effects15.


Inflammation in the body can inhibit the repair of muscle fibers broken down during exercise, potentially causing muscle atrophy, prolonging the healing process post-injury, and causing extreme pain or discomfort in affected areas. Optimizing these factors through a diet emphasizing fruits and vegetables will likely be more useful than one component of your diet!




Are whey protein shakes good for athletes?

True athleticism isn’t about being stronger or faster—it’s about longevity. One major component of longevity is avoiding inflammation.


Many professional athletes have discovered that a dairy-free diet is a key to enhancing their performance and maintaining their peak for years past their expected retirement age. These leaders are moving the needle toward plant-based fuel in sports, but the misconception surrounding dairy and performance nutrition still lingers.


While whey protein supplements are still commonly used by athletes and trainers, recent developments in plant-based powders along with substantial evidence regarding animal protein’s potentially harmful effects is beginning to undermine whey protein’s status as the “paragon of health supplements.”




The Broader Picture: Plant Proteins vs Animal Protein

Would it surprise you that our bodies respond differently to protein depending on its source?


A landmark 2016 Harvard Study with 130,000+ participants found that replacing animal protein with plant protein was associated with a lower risk of dying prematurely (mortality)5. Another large trial found replacing just 3% of animal protein with plant protein sources resulted in a 10% decrease in mortality6.


Why is this the case?

Well we aren’t entirely sure… but there are some clues. One prevailing theory points to the amplification of cancer-promoting serum IGF-1 (growth hormone) levels after consuming animal protein. This concern though does not apply to plant proteins and multiple studies have found an inverse relationship regarding IGF-1 levels and plant protein intake7,8. Additionally, plant proteins are often lower in branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) which has been linked to improvements in metabolic health9


Additional potential benefits of plant proteins compared to animal proteins include:

  • Reduced risk of cardiovascular mortality and development of Type 2 Diabetes10
    • This includes lowering of blood lipids across the board.
  • Blood pressure lowering11
  • Improvements in insulin resistance and BMI12
  • Lower levels of pro-inflammatory markers13


No Such Thing As An Incomplete Protein:

Plant-based protein powders have become increasingly popular among consumers. However, misconceptions still surround the efficacy of plant protein such as the incorrect labeling of plant protein as an “incomplete protein” due to its composition of amino acids. But, it has been decades since this has been disproven (1994 to be exact1) and dozens of studies since then have supported this assertion. You might have heard this alternatively called “protein combining.”


All plant foods contain all 20 amino acids (including the 9 essential amino acids) but certain plants may be relatively lower in some of these amino acids2. As a result, our body maintains a readily available supply of pool of amino acids to mix and match and create the necessary proteins for our bodies.


What you should know: Any concern regarding amino acid deficiency (or incomplete proteins) in plant predominant diets is unsupported at best.


Which protein powder is safe to use?

Plant-based protein powders are dairy-free, meaning they contain no protein from whey or other dairy byproducts, making them a comparable and safe protein powder option for your health and athletic performance.


The good news is that there are many options for dairy-free proteins that are widely available. Multiple trials16-18 comparing individuals utilizing plant-based protein or whey protein have found no significant differences in strength, performance, or body composition.


In conjunction with a healthy diet, plant-based protein powders can be a wonderful addition to a daily routine.




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  4. Can the right diet get rid of acne?
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