“Protein shakes are REALLY bad! It takes 3 years to digest one scoop of protein shake.” That was one of the pearls of wisdom dropped by Ayushmann Khurrana on The Ranveer Show, leaving every person of science dumbstruck. Even though it’s 4 years since these memorable words, and apparently, he has corrected his statement since then, it is not something you can digest and forget easily.
I don’t blame him entirely for making such a statement though. A large percentage of well-educated Indians, including medical doctors believe that whey protein or protein supplements are dangerous for health and that its consumption can damage the liver and kidneys. Let’s get deeper into what exactly is whey protein and debunk some myths about this supplement.
Understanding Whey Protein
If you make paneer or drain dahi to make hung yogurt, the liquid left behind is called whey. Whey protein, a naturally occurring ingredient, is a high-quality source of protein that is easy to digest and absorb by the body. The amino acids in whey protein promote muscle growth, generating new tissue, and facilitating the repair of damaged tissues in the body, positively impacting our health as well as appearance including skin and hair.
Protein is a fundamental nutrient crucial for the body, made up of building blocks called amino acid and it is best had as a part of a balanced diet. Vegans and vegetarians need to consciously seek out protein-rich options in their diet to ensure that they don’t fall short of adequate protein in their everyday diet. Professional athletes or people who work out to build muscle or burn a lot of calories every day need to take in added calories and protein which may be difficult to meet via diet alone, which is where protein supplements like whey come in great use.
Whey protein is called a ‘supplement’ for a reason. You don’t substitute your meals with it but have it as an add-on or a stand-by when you don’t meet your protein macros on certain days, when you may not have the time to cook or sit down for a meal, or as a recovery after a workout.
Why Have Whey Protein?
Apart from easily helping to meet the daily protein requirement, the benefits of whey protein include positively impacting internal health as well as skin and hair. Whey protein repairs and strengthens muscles, slows down the signs of aging, and helps with weight management.
Choosing A Whey Protein Supplement
If you are confused about which brand to choose and why there is a marked difference in price range- here’s a ready reckoner on the types of whey protein, each with distinct characteristics catering to different preferences and dietary needs.
Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC) contains around 70-80% protein by weight and retains some fats, carbohydrates, and lactose due to less processing. It is a more economical option compared to others but may not be suitable for those with lactose intolerance.
Whey Protein Isolate (WPI) has a higher protein content, typically around 90% or more, achieved by removing fats, carbohydrates, and most of the lactose. It’s a good choice for those wanting to maximise protein intake while minimising other macronutrients. WPI is costlier compared to WPC due to its higher protein concentration and additional processing.
Whey Protein Hydrolysate (WPH) undergoes partial hydrolysis, breaking down proteins into smaller units. This partial pre-digestion makes it easier to absorb, with a protein content similar to isolates. WPH is often the most expensive option due to the additional processing involved, making it popular among those seeking rapid protein absorption, especially for post-workout recovery, digested within 1-2 hours of consumption, a far cry from the 3-year number confidently issued by the actor!
The type of whey protein you choose depends on your dietary goals, preferences, and considerations such as lactose tolerance and budget constraints. The best way to have whey protein is to mix it in water or milk and have it after a workout. It can also be had on days you don’t have a workout, to reach your protein goals for the day (a minimum of 1g/kg of body weight). Remember to drink plenty of water when you have whey protein supplements as it can lead to dehydration.
Men, women, and teenagers who are into sports or work out in the gym can have whey protein. Pay special attention that teenage kids have a balanced diet and they are not relying solely on whey protein for their nutritional needs. When in doubt, talk to a doctor or nutritionist to decide on the quantity that can be consumed safely depending on the age, physical activity, and overall health conditions.
Should You Fear Whey Protein?
For a country that is 80% protein deficient, it is important to counteract the irrational fear of whey protein or increasing protein intake in the diet using scientific studies. A whole alternate small-scale industry on social media thrives on making laddoos and powders as alternatives for whey protein because the latter is ‘dangerous’.
There is a rampant belief that high protein intake causes liver and kidney damage. This has been proven to be untrue by several studies. A 2016 study in The Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism observed athletes consuming a very high protein diet for a year (3.3g/kg of body weight) with no adverse effects on kidney and liver functions, lipid profile, or fat percentage. However, individuals with pre-existing kidney conditions must first consult a kidney specialist before making any changes to their diet.
Things To Watch Out For
That said, adding whey protein to your diet may come with some side effects.
Mild side effects include gas, and bloating all mostly due to lactose intolerance, which can be overcome by using isolates instead of concentrates. Consuming counterfeit supplements or those laced with heavy metals, anabolic steroids or botanicals like ashwagandha, green tea extracts or other herbal blends can cause severe harm and even acute liver failure leading to death. Bad-quality protein powders may contain dangerous heavy metals, such as lead, arsenic, and mercury.
Dr Abby Philips, a hepatologist from Kochi has shared extensively on social media about the safety of whey protein, even in advanced liver failure. He writes that it is the adulterations and herbal blends in the whey protein that cause liver injury and never the whey.
This makes it vital to buy protein supplements directly from the brand website due to the lack of quality control, the prevalence of counterfeit products, and the fact that anyone can be a seller on general e-commerce platforms. Ordering these products from general e-commerce websites/apps is unreliable and could prove to be dangerous for health.
Look out for the added sugar on the label which may cause an increase in blood sugar, insulin resistance, and weight gain.
In conclusion, whey protein, when used responsibly and per dietary needs, can be a valuable addition to a healthy lifestyle. However, awareness, moderation, and sourcing from reliable sources are paramount to reap the benefits without compromising health.