Wheying the Benefits: The Pros & Cons of Whey Protein

sarah cuff Supplements 16 Comments

When I was 25 I decided to go vegan. Yep… No meat, no dairy, no eggs… And no whey protein powder. I built my wedding day bikini body on that diet.

When I was 25 and a half, my coach at the time figured I needed more protein. Knowing I was vegan, he figured the easiest way to slide anything in would be through whey protein – the lease recognizable form of an animal product. I obliged… Rolled down the slippery slope… And within months was eating a bodybuilders diet instead. But that’s another story.

Of course now I’m well aware there are many ways to ensure one gets enough protein on a veggie diet (and these days there are even great plant-based protein powders, unlike 12 years ago). Over the years I’ve experimented with many types of diets – always trying to conclude which is best for health and performance.

I’ve landed on the fact that a whole foods based, plant-strong and anti-inflammatory diet is without question required for optimal health and performance. Problem is, whey protein doesn’t fit in anywhere along the spectrum of my ‘whole foods’ definition of an optimal diet. It’s quite simply just not a whole food. It’s a supplement.

whey_protein_powder

I recommend whey only strategically on a case by case basis and personally at times I’ve gone without any supplements entirely, including whey or any other protein supplement. I’m currently in a heavy training period and use less than half a scoop maybe once per day. Like any supplement, it has its time and place.

How do you know if you should use whey protein? In order to make an informed decision, let’s look at the pros and cons.

PROS

  1. Whey is a complete and convenient high-quality protein. It offers all nine essential amino acids required to build hormones, neurotransmitters and antibodies, as well as strong muscles and bones. Plus, it is quickly absorbed by the body – making it ideal for post-run when your body doesn’t want to work to digest food.
  2. Whey enhances recovery. Studies consistently show protein enhances carbohydrate uptake, meaning your glycogen stores will be re-filled more quickly. A post-run carb-rich shake is good; a carb-rich one that includes some protein is better. Additionally, the protein will aide in post-run muscle repair.
  3. Whey has been shown to powerfully support your immune system. Whey is one of the richest sources for the building blocks of glutathione, one of the strongest antioxidants in the body that must be made by the body. More powerful antioxidants mean a more powerful immune system. Additionally, whey contains proteins such as beta-lactoglobulin that have been shown to positively affect the immune system. It also contains glutamine, which also assists the immune system.

CONS

  1. Whey protein is a processed, packaged product. It’s a byproduct of the dairy industry, removed after cheese is processed. Processing includes removing the fat and carbohydrates from the protein. If it’s processed with heat, the proteins can be denatured (not good). For this reason, you want to ensure if you buy protein powder that it has been processed using low temperature, filtration-based processing techniques.
  2. Most whey protein is simply a vehicle for sugars, sweeteners, flavourings and/or colourings. Ninety-nine percent (that’s purely a guesstimate) of whey powders contain additives that are designed to make it more palatable. This is completely unnecessary – plain, unflavoured whey protein tastes like nothing more than weak milk and can be added to natural ingredients (bananas, berries, juices) in order to enjoy it. Your protein powder ingredient list should be nothing more than whey protein isolate and an enzyme blend.
  3. It’s easy to overdose… I think it’s that ‘more is better’ mentality. For the most part, those who do not work out don’t need to be supplementing with protein powder. Athletes may wish to take it pre- and/or post-workout. Maybe a full scoop, maybe not. It depends entirely on how much protein you require daily and where else you’re getting it. Generally I recommend about half to one scoop daily for those who stand to benefit from supplementation.
  4. Whey’s benefits don’t apply if you’re lactose intolerant or have a milk protein allergy. Many people are lactose intolerant and whey, being a by-product of milk, contains lactose. However, if you purchase pure whey isolate (as opposed to whey concentrate), the lactose has been removed so you should be able to safely consume whey isolate. If you have a milk protein allergy (milk is 80% casein and 20% whey), you’ll want to avoid whey protein unless you know for sure it is only the casein you’re allergic to. In order to avoid the lactose, you’d want to purchase only protein isolate (not concentrate).

If you choose to include whey protein into your post-run or post-workout recovery routine, I recommend you choose the right one – a whey protein that is from grass fed dairy (with no added hormones [rBGH], steroids or antibiotics), non-hydrolyzed, non-denatured and has no sugars or artificial sweeteners or flavourings.

Do you use whey protein? Do you have a favourite brand, a favourite way to use it? Let me know in the comments below!

To deliciously healthy food and stronger faster running… Cheers,

sarah

Sarah Cuff, R.H.N.
Holistic Sports Nutritionist
Founder Eat 2 Run Sports Nutrition
CSNN Sports Nutrition Instructor
Better Bodies Club Nutritionist

Comments 16

  1. I use species nutrition’s isolate product. I am an older runner who also does resistance training, and it has really helped me build/retain lean muscle mass (I have a runners body, not a lifters). Their website explains their cold walter filtration process. One of my daughter in law’s good friends at UBC is a big fan of yours. I actually live in NY.

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      Author

      Hi Reuben… Great to hear it’s helped you with lean muscle mass! I don’t know Species brand personally, but it does look like they process it properly 🙂 However, I’m not sure they make an unflavoured, no-sweetener added version? Thanks for the note!

  2. I don’t have much knowledge about supplements. To my ignorance, I thought protein powers could cause problems with the kidney or sperm count. I now know what to look out for when considering whey protein. I’m not fond of supplements because I prefer natural whole foods. It’s comforting to know that I don’t have to become a protein shake addict to put on mass… or do I. lol.

    Thanks Sarah

  3. I would love to know your thoughts on Arbonne Essentials Protein Powder. It is vegan protein comprised of yellow pea, brown rice and cranberry. It’s also non-GMO, formulated without gluten, does not contain any cholesterol, saturated or trans fats. It also does not contain any soy, artificial sweeteners, flavors or dyes.

    I’ve been using it and love it. It tastes far better than whey in my opinion, and it doesn’t cause any digestion problems. Anyway, I’ve seen great results with it, and I feel better knowing that it doesn’t contain any animal products or by-products. I am not a vegetarian or vegan, but when it comes to my protein shake, I prefer the non-animal route.

    Thanks!

  4. Hi Sarah,

    I have a protein shake every morning and use the “New Zealand Whey Isolate” you have pictured above, vanilla flavour. I don’t work out but keep active. I always add blueberries, raspberries, a little resveratrol liquid and a super green food powder (Go Greens). I started because my protein levels were low. Now my protein levels are a little on the high side. I’m thinking drinking a Whey Protein shake every morning is not a good thing but should be taken in moderation. Would love your thoughts?? Thanks you.

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      Author

      Hi Dianne… Sounds like a yummy start to your morning everyday! It’s true, it’s pretty easy to fully meet our protein needs through whole foods alone when not exercising intensely, lifting lots of heavy weights or looking to loose weight. So seeing as you’re finding that indeed you’re total protein for the day is more than you require, I’d absolutely cut the protein powder out – I only utilize protein powder in nutrition plans when I just cannot meet a clients macro targets without it or it’s being added to a post-run recovery shake to achieve the ideal 4:1 carb to protein ratio. You might still have a breakfast shake, but just leave the protein powder out. So, your liquid base + fruit including berries + leafy greens or greens powder + a healthy fat such as almond butter or avocado and/or hemp hearts – and you’re good to go! -sarah

  5. Hi, Sarah! Great to meet you today at the women in flight clinic! Quick question: what are your thoughts about the Vega One protein powder?

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      Author

      So great to meet you too Pawan, what a wonderful group you’re a part of! As it happens, the brand you mention isn’t one I recommend to clients, although I’ve had clients who currently were using it and nothing wrong with finishing it up before switching to ones I do recommend. Being this post is on whey I don’t talk about plant-based powders, but I did write a post relatively recently on them here: https://eat2run.com/2017/09/12/choose-right-protein-powder-part-2-plant-based/ – which hopefully is helpful in determining what to look for in a plant-based protein powder. All the best to you in your running!

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      Author

      Good question, glad you asked! It was once thought that too much protein (in excess of 2 grams per kg of body weight) might cause liver or kidney damage. However this has not been demonstrated in healthy people, so it remains only a theoretical possibility. Of course people with liver and kidney problems should adhere to a low-protein diet. However, fears that too much protein leads to dehydration or excretion of calcium or excessive stress on the kidneys has not held true in studies.

      So no, whey protein has not been shown to be harmful to your kidneys!

      In fact whey protein is one of the easiest proteins for the body to digest and many studies have demonstrated how it can help enhance immune function, boost levels of glutathione, and promote muscle protein synthesis. The latter resulting in greater increases in muscle mass and muscle strength over as little as 6 weeks compared to a placebo. That said, any source of adequate protein will achieve muscle synthesis and strength. Whey can just make it easier to get enough to meet an athletes requirements of 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kg bodyweight per day!

  6. HI Sarah!
    I came across this article trying to learn a little bit more about Whey protein.
    Im planning on getting more active this year, actually i enrolled to a very cool gym in my city today 🙂
    my plan is to hit the gym 3 to 4 times a week, not more than 1-1.5 hours each day.
    I eat well, lots of veggies and fruits, but not lots of meat or big amounts of protein (i think)
    Would it be ok if i drink the protein shake just after i did my work out? (3-4 times a week) and only on that ocassion? or is it something i need to do every day? I will workout in the early morning, have some nuts before i leave the house and get the shake afterwards as my breakfast…
    what do you say?
    thanks a lot in advance. Greeting from Uruguay!

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      Author

      Hi Lucia! That’s so awesome you’re becoming more active this year – good for you! Very exciting – hope you enjoy your new gym. That’s great you eat well already. I think having a shake with a scoop of protein powder in it after each of your workouts is a great starting place. So yes, totally okay! Start there. I doubt you need to jump into supplementing with whey or any other protein powder every single day… Having your protein recovery shake post-workout as your breakfast sounds exactly what I’d recommend to you if I were working with you. Good luck! Cheers, Sarah

  7. Hi, i’m manmeet, male-27 and 159 pound…i have been working out in my office gym for almost 3 years from now and i’m employed. Before i was employed i was totally into working out but now when i’m working out on daily basis i gain a little bit then i loses a little bit. As a result i’m unable to gain. My diet plan-In morning, i eat 1bowl of oats and two breads with peanut butter and some milk, after 3 hours an omlete with brown bread and some oats as well, after 3 hours i take lunch, after 3 hours i take 5 white eggs (white part only) and 1 glass banana shake, after 3 hours i take dinner, then after 3 hours i take kellogs cereal with milk. My main question is sometimes it is difficult to manage my diet and i have been without any protein powder or any supplement.

    How do i start gaining ??

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