4 Myths Debunked: Why You Should Ditch Your Whey Protein and Go Plant-Based Instead
Like so many other fitness fanatics and athletes out there I am guilty of assuming whey protein to be the gold standard when it comes to protein supplementation. I always thought that it was the most healthy and convenient way for me to meet my daily protein needs and to support my training and recovery goals. Up until 5 or 10 years ago, that more or less held true. The explosion of the natural products industry along with growing concerns of the rising obesity epidemic, an increased awareness of industrial livestock production on the environment, and an understanding of the diminishing quality in our food system led me to question my assumptions.When I decided to change my diet and lifestyle toward cleaner eating by reducing meat and dairy consumption, I began to wonder if I should also question the protein supplements I was taking. In theory, the same reasons why I wanted to cut back on beef and eliminate dairy should be reason for reducing and/or eliminating consumption of the by-products produced by the same animals. However, despite cutting dairy out of my diet (except for the occasional indulgence of creamy Italian gelato), I was still consuming large amounts of whey protein powder each day.
I suppose this pattern continued for as long as it did because I was just unaware of other options, ignorant about the differences between plants and animals as viable protein sources, or just resistant to change. Regardless the reason for continuing on this way for as long as I did, I eventually decided to take a good hard look at the science to educate myself on the subject. I thought that after a thorough analysis I would be able to make an informed decision to either course-correct or continue just as I always had. The following is what I found:
Myth #1: Meat and Dairy Are a Necessity
Everything I always heard suggested that animals were a necessary source of protein in our diets and paramount for growth and development as humans. While true that protein is essential to human bodily function, it is not true that our only source of protein must come from animals. Why then, did I assume it was impossible to grow big and strong eating just fruits, vegetables, and grains? This is the myth that has been sold to us by industrial farming companies and global food providers.The myth stems from complete versus incomplete proteins. Animal proteins are more “complete”, meaning they contain an adequate proportion of all nine of the essential amino acids required for the dietary needs of humans. Essential amino acids are “essential” because they are not synthesized in the body, we must get them from our diet. Plants on the other hand are considered “incomplete” sources of protein. Although they often contain all 9 essential amino acids, they are usually low or deficient in one or more of these amino acids making them incomplete. The problem with this is that it only takes into consideration each source of protein in isolation rather than looking at them holistically. Complementary proteins are proteins that combine to create a complete protein because one makes up for what the other is lacking and vice versa. A good example of this is the combination of beans and rice or yellow pea protein and brown rice protein.
I don’t think anyone would disagree that eating spinach all day isn’t the solution to better health, for the same reasons that eating burgers and steak all day aren’t either. We were intended to eat a variety of foods to get the full spectrum of macro and micronutrients that our body needs to function. Since there is an abundance of protein-containing vegetables, grains, and legumes in existence, we are completely capable of meeting all of our protein needs from plants alone. The key lies in eating a wide variety to get adequate levels of all the essential amino acids.
Myth #2: Plants are Inferior Proteins for Muscle Gain
The long-standing theory has been that if the goal of your training (like mine was) is to increase size and strength then whey is the superior option. Most of the studies done in the past looked at whey protein versus soy protein and have concluded whey to being superior in this regard. With the advancements in plant-based supplements market, more recent studies have examined other types of plant-based proteins in comparison to whey. One such study of note looked at a high dose (42g) of rice protein consumed post-exercise versus an equal dose of whey protein to increase recovery and elicit adequate changes in body composition. The authors’ conclusion of the 8 week study was that “rice protein isolate consumption post resistance exercise decreases fat-mass and increases lean body mass, skeletal muscle hypertrophy, power and strength comparable to whey protein isolate.” As the science and demand for plant-based proteins continues to grow, we can expect to see more data emerge that supports plant-based proteins as comparable to whey for the purpose of athletic training, recovery, and muscle growth. As the industry continues to grow and the science advances, they may even prove to be superior!
Myth #3: The Contaminants in Dairy Are Filtered Out
In changing my diet and making the decision to live and eat healthily, I came to understand how important it is to know the source of what we consume. Just as important as the type of food we eat is knowing where those foods come from, how they were treated, and for meat and dairy, what they ate throughout the production process. One of many problems with our food system as it exists today is that the food production chain is ambiguous and confusing. Food companies frequently take advantage of a weak and confusing regulatory system by using clever marketing tactics to fool the consumer into believing they are eating clean and healthy, which is not always the case.
Let’s take eggs as an example. Next time you’re at the market, take a moment to examine your choices in the egg section. You’ll likely find terms such as “Farm Fresh”, “Omega-3”, “Nest-Laid”, “Cage Free”, “Free Run”, “Free Range”, "Pastured" and “Organic”. At first glance, these all seem like perfectly healthy options, but when we examine each in detail the ugly truth of the production methods actually used are exposed.
Obviously the phrase “Caged, abused, GMO-fed”, although true, just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
The same thing exists with almost every packaged food product, especially milk and dairy. We’d be ignorant to think that the same doesn’t apply to the supplements we use. Whey, a byproduct of milk, is a highly-processed commodity. Whey is what is left over after separating curd from milk. The curd gets processed and turned into cheese and what is left over is sweet whey and acid whey. The sweet whey gets ultrafiltered to become whey protein concentrate. It then passes through additional subsequent stages of microfiltration to make whey protein isolates, and hydro-isolates before undergoing a spray drying process to turn it from a liquid to a powder before being packaged and shipped. Confused yet? That’s exactly what most companies want. This article by Anthony Roberts helps to clarify some of this confusing terminology and expose some of the truth about whey protein products. In summary, all of that processing was required just to arrive at usable raw whey protein, but wait, there’s more. Whey protein on its own has a very sour or acidic taste to it. In order to mask that taste, manufacturers add artificial sweeteners and unpronounceable chemical agents to create irresistible options like Chocolate Eclair, Confetti Cake Batter, Orange Dreamsicle and more! Sounds a lot like putting lipstick on a pig. The reality is milkshakes and candy bars masquerading as health products.
The scary part of this whole process is they haven’t yet figured out how to use the acid whey, but they’re trying. “So far, acid whey has been fed to cows, and an attempt at turning it into proteins that can be used in baby formula or body building supplements, has also been made. But the cows have developed stomach problems; and while cheese companies figured out how to turn its by- product, sweet whey, into infant formula, a similar process has yet to be invented for acid whey.” Be on the lookout for “Super Duper Ultra-Advanced Strawberry Cheesecake Acid Whey Protein”...coming soon!
Despite the extreme processing that whey goes through, it still fails to eliminate all traces of antibiotics and steroids that are commonly pumped into cows to get them to produce as much milk as possible before being sold off for meat. The entire process is extremely inhumane and unnatural and a leading contributor to our poor health. There are some companies who have taken this into consideration who use whey from New Zealand and organic grass-fed cattle that are treated better and considerably more healthy than factory farmed cattle, which appears to be a healthier option if choosing to consume whey and other dairy products.
Myth #4: It’s Not a Top Concern to the Environment
Upon examining this topic, I was at first inclined to be in favor of whey. Whey protein, is a byproduct of milk and dairy production. The supplements industry isn’t what is driving the overall demand for dairy products, and to their credit, they are making use of some of the excess that otherwise would go to waste like acid whey does now. In a sense, this is beneficial because there are huge environmental issues tied to the disposal of whey, as demonstrated with the rising demand for greek yogurt.
That being said, upon looking at this from a different angle and trying to reverse engineer it, I have reasoned that a decline in demand for whey protein supplements may be a catalyst for reducing overall demand for dairy products in general, which would benefit the environment. Let me explain. (*The following is just a personal theory - I wasn’t able to find any solid data relating to the impact of whey production so what follows is largely based on assumptions and estimations.)
Recent data estimates that as a population, we consume about 2.2 lbs (1kg) of dry whey powder per capita. Based on 2014 U.S. population data (318.9 million), this equates to roughly 700 million pounds (318M kg) of whey protein powder consumed each year. Now, let’s look at the process to produce this. “Whey protein production is not an efficient process, over 720 pounds (327 kg) of raw liquid whey are required to make a 5 pound tub of whey protein powder.”
10 L of milk = 1 kg of cheese=9L of whey = 600 g raw whey powder
This means that to produce the 1kg of raw whey powder consumed per person per year in the U.S. requires about 16.7 litres of raw milk. In turn, this equates to 5.3 billion litres of milk production annually, which is about 5% of the roughly 90 billion litres produced in the U.S. each year.
Let’s assume for the sake of this article that you’re like I was. You’re making a conscious effort to clean up your diet and reduce your carbon footprint and haven’t yet considered the protein powder you consume to really be a factor in achieving either of these objectives. However, when taking a you may be surprised at how even the seemingly small decisions we make can be impactful at scale.
When I cut milk and dairy out of my diet, not only did I feel healthier, but I felt good about contributing to the health of the environment. By substituting dairy milk with milk substitutes (coconut milk and almond milk) and eliminating yogurt and cheese from my diet, I had reduced my ecological footprint. I estimate that prior to making this change, I was consuming about 6kg per month of dairy products. The problem was, I hadn’t yet stopped consuming whey protein. On average, I was going through about a tub of protein (1 kg/2.2lbs) per month. Assuming that I was taking a high-quality whey protein (90% whey isolate by volume), I was consuming about 900g of raw whey monthly, which, by my calculations equates to 15 litres of raw milk (roughly 15 kg by weight). By comparison, the whey protein I was consuming had 2-3x the impact of all the other dairy products that I had eliminated combined! Again, it’s important to point out that whey protein is a byproduct of cheese and is making use of what would otherwise become waste and also harmful to the environment. BUT, by continuing to consume whey protein I was still a part of the problem. What problem you ask?
While the environmental impact from dairy pales in comparison to raising livestock for beef, there is still an enormous negative effect due to the resources required to produce and ship products as well as resulting waste that leads to soil degradation and toxic methane emissions. “The average dairy cow uses almost 5,000 gallons of water per day. Dairy production is also estimated to produce roughly 4% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, primarily through the cow’s production of methane. Dairy cows also require a large amount of feed, feed that could be used elsewhere or simply not grown so unsustainably to maximize production.” The entire production chain is completely unsustainable and the animals themselves are inhumanely treated. ( WARNING: Disturbing Content)
The obvious solution to make a difference is to reduce our total consumption of ALL meat and dairy. Even simple choices like swapping our whey protein for healthier more eco-friendly and sustainable options is a step in the right direction.
In conclusion, I knew that in my quest to achieve optimal health and high performance it was necessary to evaluate ALL the food and products I regularly consume. Doing so has led to more conscious decision making and an overall improvement in my health. Eliminating whey from my diet wasn’t even on my radar until I actually took the time and effort to question it.
Fortunately, the plant-based supplements industry has come a long way so we don’t have to sacrifice taste for quality. If you’re serious about a healthier and more sustainable future and interested in going away from whey, check out LYFE Fuel’s line of great-tasting meal powders. Through ongoing education and asking questions about the food and products we consume we can make more informed decisions. Sometimes the smallest and simplest choices we make can have the greatest impact.