Plant based protein powder vs. whey. It’s a topic of much debate. In this article, I’ll break down the science and show you some possible whey protein dangers and side effects you probably didn’t know about.
First, a quick story …
When I was a young buck I liked to lift weights (still do). After every workout, I gulped down a whey protein shake … that overly sweet, chemical-tasting concoction that’s supposedly the best way to gain muscle fast.
Aside from the taste, my “healthy” whey protein shakes made me super bloated and wreaked havoc on my digestive system, as I would later find out. By my mid-thirties, my gut was a complete mess. I saw countless doctors, including several GI specialists, and spent some time in the hospital trying to figure out what was wrong with me.
In addition to discovering I had an autoimmune condition called reactive arthritis caused by a food borne pathogen (salmonella), I learned I was one of the 65% of people who can’t digest dairy properly. Yet I was exposing my gut to whey and casein protein powders on a daily basis for years!
Now, as someone who studies food science and reads clinical studies in his free time, I know this story is anecdotal. It’s just one example that doesn’t lend much credibility to the plant vs whey protein argument. However, once I started digging into the science, I found there were other whey protein side effects I was clueless about.
Whey may work just fine for you. If it does, you can stop reading and move on.
Because we’ll separate the facts from the myths about whey vs plant-based protein powder. In this article, you’ll learn:
- What whey protein is and how it’s made.
- The potential dangers, side effects, and myths of whey and plant proteins.
- The criteria I recommend when choosing protein powders.
Click on each button below to navigate to each section.
What Is Whey Protein?
Milk contains two types of protein: casein and whey. Whey is found in the watery portion of milk. When cheese is produced, the fatty parts of the milk coagulate and the whey is separated from it as a by-product.
Is Whey Protein Vegan?
No, whey comes from cows so it’s therefore not vegan.
Whey Protein Benefits
Whey is a well-absorbed source of protein that’s very useful for hitting targeted daily protein goals.
Its benefits include muscle gain (in conjunction with resistance training), limiting muscle loss during low-calorie diets, and modestly limiting fat gain during periods of excessive calorie intake.
These effects aren’t exclusive to whey protein but it will likely be more effective than most other protein sources per gram.
Whey Protein Side Effects, Dangers, and Risks
Harvard Medical School says that one of the possible side effects of dairy-based proteins like whey is digestive distress.
People with dairy allergies or trouble digesting lactose can experience gastrointestinal discomfort if they use a milk-based protein powder.
A https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32702243/ 2020 review published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism said:
Chronic and without professional guidance use of whey protein supplementation may cause some adverse effects specially on kidney and liver function.
Another study found that long-term high protein diets, particularly those high in meat and dairy protein, led to increased incidences of:
- Bone and calcium homeostasis disorders.
- Renal function and liver disorders.
- Coronary artery disease.
Obviously whey protein should be avoided 100% of the time in people with known allergy or sensitivity to milk or milk products. Allergic reactions (including diarrhea, failure to thrive, infant colic, rash, and vomiting) have been reported with exposure to whey.
According to the Mayo Clinic, whey protein may interact negatively with certain drugs, including:
- Albendazole (Albenza). Avoid using whey protein if you are taking this parasite-killing drug. The supplement might delay or hinder the drug’s effects.
- Alendronate (Fosamax). Use of whey protein with this drug used to prevent or treat osteoporosis might decrease absorption of the drug.
- Certain antibiotics. Use of whey protein with quinolone or tetracycline antibiotics might decrease your absorption of the drug.
Whey Protein Myths
Myth #1: Whey is a health food
Whey is a waste product of cheese-making. It was discarded for hundreds of years until some greedy corporations realized they could profit from it.
In its natural form, whey from pasture-raised cows may have some health benefits for people who can tolerate it.
However, most dairy products in your average grocery store, whey included, are anything but natural.
Most whey protein you buy comes from malnourished, stressed, diseased animals from factory farms. If this isn’t reason enough to scrap your whey protein shake, this fun tidbit might: food companies process whey so it’s cheaper and easier to make using a high-heat, acid-flushed, chemical process. Then, they add artificial ingredients, fillers, and unhealthy sweeteners to cover up the acidic, chemical taste.
Myth #2: Whey is more “bioavailable”
“Bioavailability” is a scientific term used to describe the extent to which a substance is absorbed in your body.
Problem is, the standard measures don’t hold up too well to scientific scrutiny when it comes to measuring protein powders. A few examples:
- Biological Value (BV), which measures how efficiently your body uses protein, doesn’t take into account several key factors that influence digestion and interaction with other foods.
- Protein Efficiency Ratio Value (PER), which measures the effectiveness of protein based on animal growth, has only been demonstrated in animal studies—which means it doesn’t necessarily correlate to humans.
- Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAA) is a measure created by the World Health Organization (WHO) to more accurately measure protein digestibility in malnourished people. Most plant proteins have PDCAA scores far below whey’s perfect 1.0. But some can be combined to create amino acid digestibility scores just as good as whey.
Long story short:[bctt tweet=”Most of the evidence about bioavailability of protein powders is anecdotal.” username=”nutritionguy”]
This means scientists don’t actually have large scale, peer-reviewed clinical data that “bioavailability” has any actual impact on your body.
There is NOT a significant body of evidence to support whey protein as being more effective than other protein sources.
Myth #3: Whey is a more “complete” protein
You may have heard that plant proteins are “incomplete” and can only become “complete” when you combine them with other proteins. According to Drs. Andrew Weil and Michael Bluejay, research has shown this commonly-held belief is 100% inaccurate![bctt tweet=”Research shows whey protein offers NO BENEFITS over other protein sources.” username=”nutritionguy”]
Myth #4: Whey protein is best for weight loss and muscle gain
Not true. Examine.com offers up this conclusion based on clinical studies:
Plant Protein Dangers
So plant protein powders like rice, hemp, pea, and soy must be better for you, right?
Some are actually worse.
- Many of the supposedly-healthy plant proteins used in foods today are processed using hexane, an explosive chemical neurotoxin that can damage your central nervous system. Using hexane is an efficient and highly profitable way for food manufacturers to remove oil from plants.
- Vegan protein powders that aren’t made with organic ingredients are likely to contain potentially harmful pesticides and herbicides. Since most of these plant proteins come from countries where pesticide use is not enforced, your healthy protein shake is more likely to be a chemical cocktail.
- Most vegan, gluten, and dairy free protein powders are made using high temperature processing methods, which destroys the healthy nutrients in the plant and makes it harder for your body to digest.
- Plant protein powders are higher in heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and arsenic than dairy-based proteins.
The Final Verdict: Plant Based Protein Vs. Whey
Here’s my advice based on my extensive research and personal use:
Whey protein’s potential side effects may outweigh its benefits if you’re lactose intolerant.
And since an estimated 65% of people are lactose intolerant, it stands to reason that many of those should probably not be consuming dairy-based proteins like whey.
Choose organic plant-based protein powders that:
1) Only have ingredients you recognize as real food that are grown in the U.S, Canada, and Europe.
2) Are low in sugar, and
3) Use an all-natural, low heat, enzyme-based method to separate their protein from the plant.
When in doubt, ask the manufacturer how their proteins are made, where they come from, and if their ingredients are organic. If they won’t tell you this information, it’s time to pick another protein powder.