Is it a Good Idea to Supplement with Whey Protein?

Whey protein is a popular protein supplement, but are there potential drawbacks to consuming this cheese byproduct regularly?  

If you run into someone who’s at the gym trying to put on more muscle, you’re likely to find whey protein in their shaker bottle. It’s true that protein and calories are necessary to build muscle, but is regularly slinging back a cheese byproduct compatible with health? While it may be more convenient than grilling some chicken, it is certainly a highly processed product. Let’s dive deep into the world of whey protein to help you determine if it’s a solid supplement choice  

Whey protein is a type of protein derived from milk. It’s the liquid portion that separates from the curd during the cheese-making process. Once separated, whey is processed to remove the water, lactose, and other impurities, leaving behind a concentrated form of protein that is typically sold in powder form.  

  • The first step in the production of whey protein is the collection of raw milk, which is then pasteurized to eliminate harmful bacteria.  
  • After pasteurization, rennet or an acid is added to the milk to cause the separation of the curd and whey. The curds are used to make cheese, while whey is a byproduct. 
  • The whey is then collected and transported to a processing facility, where it undergoes filtration to remove any remaining curd particles, fat, and other impurities.  
  • The resulting liquid is then spray-dried, a process that involves spraying the liquid into a hot chamber to remove the remaining water and create a dry, powdery substance.  
  • Finally, the whey protein powder is packaged. Some manufacturers may also add flavorings, sweeteners, or other additives to enhance the taste or nutritional profile of the powder.  

Whey protein is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids that the body cannot produce on its own. In addition to protein, whey also contains other nutrients such as calcium, potassium, and magnesium, as well as immunoglobulins and lactoferrin (iron binding milk protein). There are three different types of whey protein: 

  1. Whey Protein Concentrate: This is the most common type. It contains around 70-80% protein by weight, along with small amounts of fat and carbohydrates. 
  2. Whey Protein Isolate: This type undergoes additional processing to remove almost all the fat and lactose, resulting in a protein powder that is over 90% protein by weight. This form is best for those with lactose intolerance. 
  3. Whey Protein Hydrolysate: This type is partially hydrolyzed, or broken down, into smaller peptides. This can make it easier to digest and absorb than other types of whey protein. 

Whey protein has been shown to aid in muscle growth and recovery because it is rich in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) that help stimulate muscle protein synthesis. It has been shown to help people lose weight by reducing appetite and promoting feelings of fullness. It can also help prevent the loss of muscle mass that often occurs during weight loss. Whey protein contains immunoglobulins and lactoferrin, which are compounds that can help improve immune function and potentially protect against infection. Studies have shown that consuming whey protein can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels while increasing HDL (good) cholesterol levels. 

  • A 2013 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that whey protein supplementation during resistance training significantly increased lean body mass and strength in healthy adults (Volek et al., 2013). 
  • Another study published in Obesity in 2010 reported that daily supplementation with whey protein for 12 weeks significantly reduced blood pressure and improved vascular function in overweight individuals (Pal and Ellis, 2010). 
  • A review published in Alternative Medicine Review in 2004 suggested that whey protein may have therapeutic applications in the prevention and treatment of various health conditions, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, and osteoporosis (Marshall, 2004). 
  • In a 2010 study published in Clinical Nutrition, overweight women who consumed whey protein for 12 weeks experienced a significant decrease in fats in their liver cells, which are associated with an increased risk of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (Morenga et al., 2010). 

While it appears that whey consumption has many benefits, it also presents some risks. Studies suggest that there may be potential drawbacks or risks associated with whey protein supplementation, particularly at high doses or in individuals with certain health conditions. 

  • A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2017 reported that high doses of whey protein supplementation (more than 40 grams per day) may lead to digestive symptoms such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea in some individuals (Jäger et al., 2017). 
  • Another study published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2013 reported that long-term whey protein supplementation may increase the risk of kidney damage in individuals with pre-existing kidney disease (Devries and Phillips, 2013). 
  • A study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2006 found that whey protein supplementation may increase the risk of acne in some individuals, possibly due to the hormonal effects of the protein (Adebamowo et al., 2006). 
  • In a review published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2017, the authors noted that some whey protein supplements may contain contaminants such as heavy metals or pesticides, which can pose health risks when consumed in large quantities over a long period of time (Westerterp-Plantenga et al., 2017). 

Is there a way to be sure that the particular whey protein product you are buying is safe?   In the United States, dietary supplements, including whey protein supplements, are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA does not pre-approve dietary supplements before they are sold to consumers, but it does require that manufacturers ensure the safety and labeling accuracy of their products. Specifically, the FDA requires that manufacturers ensure that their products are unadulterated (i.e., contaminated or misbranded), and that their labels accurately reflect the ingredients and dosages of the product. Manufacturers are also required to report any serious adverse events associated with their products to the FDA. 

However, the FDA’s regulatory oversight of dietary supplements is generally considered to be less rigorous than its oversight of prescription drugs. For example, the FDA does not conduct pre-market safety or efficacy testing of dietary supplements, and it does not have the authority to order recalls of dietary supplements, except in cases where a supplement has been found to be adulterated or misbranded. 

As a result, it is important for consumers to be aware of the potential risks associated with dietary supplements. Consumers should also look for supplements that have been independently verified by third-party organizations, such as the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), to ensure that they contain the ingredients and dosages listed on the label and are free from contaminants. 

Whey protein is far removed from real food and is categorized as a supplement to a whole food diet, not a substitute for it. If the research has convinced you to incorporate whey into your diet, do yourself a favor before willy-nilly grabbing a jug of powder off the shelf and investigate the quality. Be sure to choose a high-quality brand that tests for purity and quality and consult with your healthcare provider before starting any new supplement regimen. By choosing a whey protein with fewer additives and using it in combination with a healthy diet and regular exercise, you can support healthy muscle growth.  

References:

  1. Volek JS, Volk BM, Gómez AL, et al. Whey protein supplementation during resistance training augments lean body mass. J Am Coll Nutr. 2013;32(2):122-35. 
  2. Pal S, Ellis V. The chronic effects of whey proteins on blood pressure, vascular function, and inflammatory markers in overweight individuals. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010;18(7):1354-9. 
  3. Marshall K. Therapeutic applications of whey protein. Altern Med Rev. 2004;9(2):136-56. 
  4. Morenga LT, Williams S, Brown R, et al. Effects of a whey protein supplementation on intrahepatocellular lipids in obese female patients. Clin Nutr. 2010;29(4):554-7. 
  5. Krajcovicova-Kudlackova M, Babinska K, Valachovicova M. Health benefits and risks of plant proteins. Bratisl Lek Listy. 2005;106(6-7):231-4. 

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