Whey Protein is one of the most popular and fastest growing ingredients in the nutritional and health supplement industry and is a component of over half of all supplements on the market. The global value of whey powder, whey protein and whey protein fractions currently exceeds US $7 billion and is still growing. But besides it’s impressive financial profile, whey protein is one of the best supplements around; which explains its growing status. With more and more people using whey protein or supplements featuring whey protein, one question that arises is whether or not supplementing and consuming whey protein has any negative side effects. This article looks at the many benefits of whey protein and addresses common concerns regarding whey protein supplementation and whether they are warranted.
Whey Protein Benefits
While whey protein features in a wide variety of supplements, perhaps its best known use is in sporting and training supplements such as protein powders and recovery supplements. Supplementing with whey protein helps to:
- Help support muscle protein synthesis or muscle growth
- Decrease muscle protein breakdown
- Support improved and favourable body composition as well as weight loss efforts
- Increase satiety and fullness
- Protect against negative impacts of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, heart disease as well as cancer.
As you can see, it’s not just trainers and bodybuilders who stand to benefit from supplementing with whey protein and whey protein products; the average person can also benefit from utilising whey protein every so often as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Whey Protein & Weight Loss
Before we go into more detail regarding the proposed side effects of whey protein, we should address one of the most understated roles of whey protein supplementation; it’s ability to support fat and weight loss efforts. Diets higher in protein tend to result in better body composition with more lean muscle and less fat mass as well as positive influences to waist circumference – one of the leading factors associated with development of lifestyle diseases later on1.
For most people, an average increase of between 25-30g of protein per day is beneficial in helping to support improved body composition during a weight loss period with even higher figures proposed to be of even greater advantage. This minimal amount generally equates to the amount of protein in one protein shake. However, not all proteins are created equal and studies have shown that whey protein may be able to facilitate a bigger change in positive effects2. So regardless of whether your goal is to gain muscle or lose weight and fat, whey protein is ideal in either situation.
Whey Protein Negative Side Effects
Over the years, many suggested negative side effects have surfaced regarding whey protein supplementation, some of which are more outlandish than others. Here we list some of the most common ones and see which side effect has basis and which is just pure conjecture.
Whey Protein Side Effects on the Kidneys
Perhaps the biggest concern regarding whey protein and indeed any protein supplementation is its potential side effects on the kidney. Higher protein diets are reflected in the body by an increase in nitrogen status, which needs to be excreted. The primary organ which is responsible for nitrogen excretion is the kidneys and there have been concerns that higher protein intakes may overstress the kidneys. However, studies have shown that as long as your kidney function is fine, protein intakes of up to 2.8g/kg of bodyweight had no negative effects on the kidneys3. However, if your kidney function is already on the decline, then it’s best to stick to normal levels of protein. For those who aren’t, feel free to have another protein shake.
Whey Protein Side Effects – Liver
There have also been suggestions that higher protein diets may have detrimental effects on the liver due again to the stress of metabolising high protein diets. However, there is no real evidence to suggest this is the case and in fact, higher protein intakes are seen as protective in instances of liver disease4.
Whey Protein Side Effects – Acne
A common complaint of younger users of whey protein and other protein supplements is the increased development of acne. Unfortunately, there is some basis to this side effect as studies have shown that increased milk and dairy product intake can enhance insulin/insulin like growth factor 1 signalling and acne development5. While more studies are needed to show causation, if you do start to develop some acne whilst using protein, make sure you maintain good facial hygiene by washing your face twice a day and avoiding touching your face excessively or popping pimples.
Whey Protein Side Effects - Anger
While there are some anecdotal reports of increased feelings and instances of anger whilst on whey protein supplements, there has been no research that has shown whey protein consumption or any protein supplement consumption results in increased anger or aggression. Rather, it may be due to fluctuating and often increasing levels of testosterone thanks to training and working out which may elicit changes in mood including more frequent angry feelings. There is also some research suggesting food and mood increases, however, nothing related to whey intake.
Whey Protein Side Effects – Hair Loss
Another surprisingly common concern is the effects of whey protein supplementation and the risk of hair loss. However, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that consuming whey protein or any type of protein supplementation results in or is correlated with hair loss and baldness.
Whey Protein Side Effects – Bone
Increased protein diets have also long been linked with bone health. Originally it was thought that higher protein diets led to decreased bone health and calcium excretion due to the increased metabolic acid load that it placed on the body. As bones are essentially reservoirs for alkali, calcium stores are often liberated from bone in order to buffer the acidic environment from high protein diets. However, these views were based more on theory than research. In fact, more recent studies6 have shown that higher protein diets positively affect bone health thanks to a variety of mechanisms including supporting calcium absorption, stimulation of the secretion of insulin-like growth factor-1, and enhancement of lean body mass. So besides drinking milk and eating dairy for bone health, it might be a good idea to have a protein shake as well.
Whey Protein Common Side Effects
While there are a range of other very commonly stated side effects of whey protein intake including increased gas and bloating (which can be a legitimate side effect) and dizziness (less legitimate), the above list is by far the most common concerns with whey protein supplements and high protein diets in general. Overall though, the benefits of whey protein supplementation far outweigh any negatives and that’s a fact.
2. Baer DJ, Stote KS, Paul DR, Harris GK, Rumpler WV, Clevidence BA. ‘Whey protein but not soy protein supplementation alters body weight and composition in free-living overweight and obese adults.’ J Nutr. 2011 Aug;141(8):1489-94. doi: 10.3945/jn.111.139840. Epub 2011 Jun 15.
3. Poortmans, J.R. and Dellalieux O. (2000) Do regular high protein diets have potential health risks on kidney function in athletes? International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism 10, 28-38.
4. Hoffman, JR and MJ Falvo, 'PROTEIN–WHICH IS BEST?' (2004) 3(3) Journal of Sports Science and Medicine 118
5. Simonart T. ‘Acne and whey protein supplementation among bodybuilders.’ Dermatology. 2012;225(3):256-8. doi: 10.1159/000345102. Epub 2012 Dec 13.
6. Kerstetter JE, Kenny AM, Insogna KL. ‘Dietary protein and skeletal health: a review of recent human research.’ Curr Opin Lipidol. 2011 Feb;22(1):16-20. doi: 10.1097/MOL.0b013e3283419441.