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What Cautions are there With Whey Protein?

What Cautions are there With Whey Protein?

Exercising and increasing fitness and well-being are a “whey” of life for millions, and there is no shortage of protein supplements to help fortify your active lifestyle. 

While protein can be obtained from food such as chicken and lean meats, as well as tree nuts. 

But that’s usually not enough for elite athletes and bodybuilders – as well as “regular” fit and active individuals who play sport for fun and good health.

Weight-lifting fans and bodybuilders spend beaucoup bucks on whey protein powders expressly formulated for big muscle gains. Some examples include GNC AMP Wheybolic, Optimum Nutrition Platinum Hydrowhey, and Cellucor Whey Protein Isolate & Concentrate Blend Powder, among others.  

Protein is a necessary macronutrient for life but is also a key component when engaging in an active lifestyle where exercise is prominent. Although the human body self-produces 12 amino acids, there are nine essential amino acids that must come exogenously (from dietary protein consumption). For decades, whey protein was the supplement of choice. The amino acids that comprise protein (aminos are frequently called building blocks of protein) help the body repair muscles, as well as assist in building bones, cell maintenance and performance and a host of other biological processes.

Another positive aspect of sufficient protein in your diet is improved metabolic function – calorie burning, even at rest. One study found that people who consumed more calories than necessary and followed a normal or high-protein diet had a higher resting metabolic rate) than those who followed a low-protein diet.

Whey protein is one of two proteins in cow’s milk (the other protein, also used in supplements, is casein). Whey protein is the water-soluble part of the milk. Of the whey protein sports nutrition powders commonly found on the market, whey protein isolate is the most pure form, containing 90% or more of protein with little to no fat. The other two are whey protein concentrate, with low levels of fats and carbs, and whey protein hydrolysate, a “predigested” form, meaning its has already undergone partial hydrolysis for better absorption.  Whey isolate is preferred over casein for its ability to encourage greater gains in strength, lean body mass and a decrease in fat mass, according to one study of 13 male participants engaged in a 10-week resistance training program. 

According to authors of one review, epidemiological research shows that the consumption of milk and dairy products “is inversely associated with a lower risk of metabolic disorders and cardiovascular diseases. In particular, whey protein seems to induce these effects because of bioactive compounds such as lactoferrin, immunoglobulins, glutamine and lactalbumin. In addition, it is an excellent source of branch chained amino acids” (leucine, isoleucine and valine). 

But as with anything that seems so perfect, whey protein isn’t. For many individuals, too much whey can bring about side effects and even impair long-term health. 

Digestion:  For many, ingesting whey protein powders or shakes can cause annoying gut symptoms, such as bloating and gas – that feeling as though your tummy is distended and percolating. It can be even more pronounced, causing stomach cramping and diarrhea. This is a sign of lactose intolerance—when the person has insufficient levels of the enzyme lactase. Did you know that there are different types of lactose intolerance: hypolactasia, which is insufficient levels, and alactasia, a complete absence of lactase. If this is the case with you, it is recommended to switch to an alternative protein powder – such as pea or other plant-based proteins.

Allergies:  There are some people who are allergic to bovine milk (cow’s milk allergy or CMA), and adult CMA is severe, but not so much in children in whom it is more common until they get older. Symptoms include hives, wheezing, itching, swelling of lips, tongue or throat, coughing, and gastrointestinal discomforts.

Dysbiosis:  Regular, habitual consumption of whey protein may cause dysbiosis, the imbalance of good versus bad bacteria in the gut (microbiota). According to one source, a 2018 study involving athletes who supplemented regularly with whey protein showed a decrease in their beneficial bacteria and an elevation in harmful bacteria. This dysbiosis, they said, can cause severe chronic bloating, constipation, and other gastrointestinal distress.

Acne: Have you noticed that many bodybuilders tend to have acne breakouts? It is likely the result of their high consumption of whey protein powders. This is speculated to be a result of elevations of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), which is a growth-promoting hormone linked to the increase of estrogen factors that encourage acne. Whey protein also increases insulin, which also encourages acne breakouts through stimulating production of sebum. Further, whey protein spurs acne breakouts by increasing production of androgens which are known to overstimulate sebum glands, creating excess oil that clogs up pores. One two-month study that followed 30 participants who were routine consumers of whey protein found that the acne onset was correlated with the progressive use of whey protein. A published case report of five teen male athletes who consumed whey protein found that four who stopped taking whey protein showed fully healed acne but it flared up after they began to consume whey protein again.

With Medications:  Consuming whey protein during the course of some medications may impair the efficacy of those pharmaceuticals. For example, according to one source

  • Alendronate (Fosamax®) – Post-menopausal active women who are consuming whey protein supplements at the same time as this osteoporosis drug, can impede the absorption of the drug. 
  • Some antibiotics – Those antibiotics in the tetracycline or quinolone categories may impair the antibiotic’s efficacy in wiping out the intended infectious bacteria.


And, if consumed with creatine, this combination may increase risk of cholestatic liver injury. One case report described a young, healthy male who developed jaundice that was attributable to his consumption of creatine for nine months and four weeks of whey protein consumption on top of that prior to symptom development.



While whey protein powders remain dominant in use, plant-protein powders are gaining devoted followers, and for good reasons. First, plant proteins (pea, hemp, brown rice, flax and more) have fiber, which aids in digestion and helps manage healthy cholesterol levels. And because they are made of plants, these protein powders lack antibiotics and growth hormones that are part of conventional whey and casein proteins.

If you find that you feel the most common GI symptoms after starting whey, try adding any plant-protein to your protein powder regimen. Then, if desirable, cease consuming whey altogether and enjoy the benefits of the numerous plant-based protein powders on the market. 

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