Dear Dr. Cordain,
Could you please provide some details on the benefits/detriments of whey protein supplementation? I am a weight trainer/powerlifter and supplement with whey protein, which is currently touted as the best/most health-conscious choice there is. I have read in your newsletter about the inflammatory aspects of dairy products – is whey protein included in this? Is it better or worse than other dairy products?
Many people interested in the Paleo Diet who are also into strength training and fitness would be interested in your thoughts on this. Any pointers re: inflammation and supplementation of protein would be very well received. Thank you, in advance.
Dr. Cordain’s Response:
Unfortunately, at this point, most of the research has focused on the beneficial effects of whey. It basically revolves around whey’s high BCAA content, its use as a post-workout recovery drink ingredient, and its capacity – due to cysteine – to increase Glutathione, a powerful endogenous antioxidant enzyme.
Nevertheless, we believe that whey protein can have some potential adverse effects, because it greatly elevates insulinemia – although it can be therapeutic for diabetics in the short term. We suspect that whey protein could be detrimental long term, as hyperinsulinemia can down-regulate the insulin receptor and lead to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance underlies the Metabolic Syndrome, and is implicated in various other diseases, such as Acne, Alzheimer, various cancers, Coronary Heart Disease, Myopia, PCOS, etc.).
But to be completely sure, we would need intervention studies with whey protein with a relatively long duration in people genetically prone to insulin resistance, or who are in fact insulin resistant.
Also, there is the matter of hormones in milk: estrogens, DHT precursors, Insulin, IGF-1 and the hormone Betacellulin (BTC), which Dr. Cordain has discussed in a previous edition of this newsletter. These are some of the possible mechanisms for which there is repeated epidemiological evidence associating milk consumption with some cancers – especially Prostate Cancer.
We know that these hormones are present in milk and – in the case of BTC – it is present in whey too. Nevertheless, the real content of all these hormones in commercial milk-derived products is an open question that deserves proper and urgent study. So while we don’t know for sure, and since and we have alternatives, I would follow the old saying: do no harm!
Finally, if you have an auto-immune disease or allergy to Beta Lacto Globulin (protein that exists in bovine milk, but nonexistent in human milk) I would stay away from whey. Whey contains not only Beta Lacto Globulin, but also Bovine Serum Albumin. Some peptides from this protein have structural homology with peptides from our own tissues, and BSA has been implicated in Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Type 1 Diabetes.
In conclusion, I would follow the evolutionary template until all these issues are resolved. which states that recently introduced foods may have potential adverse effects to humans, especially long term. Non-human milk was only introduced in the human diet ~10,000 years ago. Therefore, given the potential health hazards of milk that science is revealing, I would use another protein source. Lean meat and seafood are very good sources of BCAA. If you want a protein drink immediately after strength training to speed recovery and increase muscle mass, I would suggest ~9 grams of essential amino acids, along with a banana.
I hope this helps.
Editor’s note: the following blog posts also discuss whey protein:
Q: I started the program and I was wondering if Whey Protein or protein powder in general is against the diet?
Q: I like drinking protein shakes in the morning, but I noticed some of the protein sources in my protein shake are made from milk or dairy products. Is there an alternative that is available in the market place?
Q: I am just trying to figure out your feelings and thoughts on protein powders.
Additional reading: Hyperinsulinemic diseases: more than just Syndrome X.