4 Reasons to Ditch Dairy & Wave Goodbye to Whey Protein

20 min read

key takeaways:
  • Plant-Based protein is the superior choice for any serious athlete looking to get the most out of their training and recovery.
  • Whey protein supplements have nasty side effects that can negatively affect overall health and performance.
  • The leucine threshold is an important factor in kickstarting muscle protein synthesis.
NUTRITION

There's a lot of misinformation about plant protein vs. whey protein. NFL fullback turned LYFE Fuel founder shares his personal plant-based journey and why he believes plants are the ultimate game changer. 

Like so many other fitness fanatics and professional athletes out there, I was guilty of thinking that whey protein is the gold standard when it comes to protein supplementation.

Fooled by loads of misinformation and lots of sexy marketing, I was convinced that whey protein was the most efficient, healthy, and convenient way to increase size and strength.

I now know that this couldn't be further from the truth.

Whether you're an elite level athlete, a weekend warrior, or just an average joe trying to look and feel a little better I hope my personal story and the science-based research herein will provide the insight you need to fuel your pursuit for optimal human performance and inspire you to "Live Your Fullest Every Day.

Before we dive in, let's lay the foundation for what whey protein is.

What is whey protein?

Whey protein is a type of milk protein that is produced by the process of separating curdled whey from the liquid part of milk.

Is whey protein plant-based?

Frankly, I'm embarrassed to have to even answer this question.

But, as shocking as it might sound, there are actually protein supplements and food marketed as plant-based yet still contain whey protein!

This is because, unlike the vegan certification, there isn't yet an agreed-upon definition for plant-based.

It's loose regulation like this combined with shameful marketing tactics that stir up much of the confusion that exists in food in supplements.The easiest way to know what's really in your products?

Read the labels!

Now, with that out of the way, let's get into it....

Whey Protein for Weight Gain

As an undersized collegiate and NFL fullback, putting on weight and muscle was always a challenge.

So much so that eating felt like more of a burden than an enjoyable and pleasurable experience.

You'd be surprised how tiring eating can be when you're trying to really pack on the pounds and bulk up!

I actually struggled a lot more to pack on lean muscle than I ever did to lose body fat.

To this day I can still hear my coaches and trainers say, "You gotta eat kid!  You're too small to play at this level."

Getting the calories I needed through food alone was nearly impossible, especially as a time-crunched student at Berkeley.

There were many days that the only meal I ate was during training table after a full day of class, meetings, practice, and film study.

For this reason (and the convenience), protein shakes and bars became a staple part of my daily routine.

Not to mention that they were one of the "free" perks we received as athletes.

I use the term "free" loosely because we certainly earned those shakes.

And boy were they delicious!

They tasted like pure dopamine-infused milkshakes.

Sure, they were loaded with sugar and a ton of other mysterious ingredients but that certainly didn't stop us from guzzling down the good stuff.

After all, the amount of calories I was burning during the grueling and strenuous workouts and battles on the gridiron gave me a free pass to eat whatever I wanted (or so I thought).

For the sake of convenience and to give my jaw a rest from all the chewing, I turned to protein powder to get the extra calories and branched chain amino acids that I needed to build muscle and replenish after my workouts.

After several years of going on like this, I was beginning to reap the rewards of all my hard work. 

I was gaining weight, getting stronger, and competing at a high level.

But, along with this success came some very unpleasant side effects.

I had constant heartburn, unexplained fatigue, uncomfortable gas & bloating, and a body composition comprised of more fat than I'd prefer.

But hey, any price for glory, right?

A Change in Focus: From Performance To Longevity

While I had always been fascinated with the human body and sports performance and nutrition specifically, it wasn't until after my departure from the NFL that I took more of a personal interest in my own health.

When you're hurling your body at full force into another giant human running full steam ahead straight at you "health" is a very relative term.

It was certainly secondary to everything else at the time and definitely trumped by the pursuit of optimal performance.

Funny enough, had I known then what I know now, I would have been much better off.

If you're an athlete reading this maybe this helps you to avoid making the same mistakes.

If you're not already taking your nutrition seriously, start now.

It was really during my post-NFL years that I began studying nutrition and dietary theory.

Having done plenty of damage to my body already, I figured it couldn't hurt to be by own N of 1 guinea pig to put all these different theories to the test.

To start, there was one burning question on my mind...

Is whey protein even healthy?

Now that my days of being an elite level athlete were behind me, I turned my focus to longevity and optimal wellness with the goal of physically transforming my body through food.

The amount of nutritional infomation out there was dizzying.

But among all the competing theories, there was one underlying theme that I kept coming across, especially as it related to longevity.

To my surprise it was in direct conflict with what I always heard as an athlete.

The science pointed to a whole-food plant-based diet as the superior choice for long-term health AND emerging research showed that it may even be the most beneficial for athletes!

So, I decided to give it a go!

And thus, my plant-based journey began.

Questioning Long-Held Beliefs

As I gradually incorporated more plant-based foods into my diet, I started to feel a noticeable difference in my energy and many of the symptoms I had experience before started to diminish.

Admittedly, the last thing to change was the way that I was fueling my workouts.

I had become so accustomed to using whey protein and just couldn't seem to shake the dogma that I needed it to build muslce.

But, as I progressed along my journey and became more in-tune with the effects that different fuel choices were having, I finally realized that the dairy-based shakes were contributing to the gas and bloating that I couldn't seem to shake...even with a cleaned up diet.

I wasn't willing to give up on my post-workout shake entirely so I started to look for other options.

At the time, there were only a handful of plant-based products available, all of which tasted like dirt.

I certainly wasn't prepared to give up on the artificial deliciousness that I learned to crave.

But, as I progressed with my research I knew that it was time to ditch the dairy and wave goodbye to whey.

Whey Protein or Vegan Protein: Which Is Better?

The growth of the natural products industry combined with growing concerns over the obesity epidemic, an increased awareness of industrial livestock production on the environment, and an understanding of the diminishing quality in our current food supply led me to question what I had previously always held as truth...that animal protein is superior to plants.

My personal transformation and the deteriorating state of health emboldened me to question the idea that the only way to be big and strong was to eat lots of steak and eggs, drink milk, and load up on animal-based protein powders.

When I decided to change my diet and lifestyle toward cleaner eating by reducing meat and dairy consumption, I also began to question EVERYTHING that I was consuming.

This included everything I was putting in (and on) my body, including the whey protein supplements I was taking.

In theory, the same reasons why I wanted to cut back on beef and eliminate dairy should have held true for reducing or eliminating consumption of the by-products produced by the same animals.

However, despite cutting dairy products like milk and cheese out of my diet, I was still consuming large amounts of whey protein powder each day.

For whatever reason, I failed to make the connection of whey to dairy.

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.

As I became more educated about plant-based nutrition, I eventually decided to take a good hard look at the science to get educated about plant-based protein vs animal-based protein.

I thought that after a thorough analysis I would be able to make an informed decision to either course-correct or continue using these supplements just as I always had.

Because I know so many athletes struggle with the same challenges and questions, I  felt compelled to share what I've learned.

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4 Myths About Plant Protein vs. Animal Sources

By calling into question the nonsensical dogma and pseudoscience perpetuated by the deep pockets of supplement manufacturers I hope to help others make more informed decisions for their health.

It's my firm belief that the fuel we choose to put in our bodies can have a positive impact on our individual ability to pursue our true purpose without compromising the greater good of humanity and the planet.

What follows is a collection of the most commonly held myths about plant protein vs. whey protein.

MYTH #1: Complete Protein vs. Incomplete Protein

The nutrition advice that I had received as an athlete was 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 simply not true that our 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, global food providers, and big supplement companies for far too long.

The myth largely stems from complete versus incomplete proteins.

Animal proteins as isolated sources, 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 deemed “essential” because they are not synthesized in the body, we must get them from our diet.

Plant-based proteins, on the other hand, are often considered “incomplete” sources of protein.

Although they also contain all 9 essential amino acids, they are usually low or deficient in one or more of these amino acids making them "incomplete."

This is referred to as the limiting amino acid(s) of plants.

The problem with this logic is that it only takes into consideration each source of plant based protein in isolation rather than looking at them in combination and part of a well-balanced whole food diet.

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.

Additionally, to address the growing demand for plant-based protein alternatives, there are now some breakthrough options available that have a PDCAAS of 1.0 which is equivalent to what you get from whey and animal-based sources.

When choosing a protein powder be sure to look for a combo of 2 or more vegan protein sources to ensure you're getting the full range of essential amino acids.

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 properly.

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.

One of the most common questions that plant-based dieters receive get is,

"Where do you get your protein?"

The easy answer?

"B**ch Peas!"

While it may be a little difficult to comprehend, vegan protein is actually very dense in protein and is usually better absorbed and utilized by the body to create and build lean muscle.

You may be surprised by the abundance of protein in vegan sources, which considering the amount of marketing and hype promoting animal protein with messages like "milk does a body good" and "BEEF, it's what's for dinner" shouldn't come as a shock.

The key to building muscle with plant-based protein lies in eating a wide variety to get adequate levels of all the essential amino acids that your body needs, which is actually pretty simple.

MYTH #2: Plant Protein Powder Is Inferior To Whey

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 be superior in this regard.

However, with the recent advancements in the plant-based protein market, more recent studies have examined other types of plant-based protein in comparison to whey.

One notable study looked at a high dose (42g) of rice protein consumed post-exercise versus an equal dose of whey protein powder.

The goal of the study was to evaluate whether the rice protein could increase recovery and elicit adequate changes in body composition compared to whey.

The authors’ conclusion of the 8-week study?

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.

To better understand the muscle-building properties of protein, we need to first understand what happens to the body when you do strength training, CrossFit, or any other type of high-intensity exercise.

Exercise is an acute stressor to the body and actually evokes an inflammatory response, causing muscle and tissue breakdown.

To replenish and rebuild these muscle fibers and tissues, it is imperative to provide the body with amino acids and more specifically, BCAAs (branched chain amino acids) - leucine, isoleucine, and valine - that serve as the primary building blocks for repairing the torn muscle fibers.

Protein from the diet and nutritional supplements is the primary source of providing the body with essential aminos that activate satellite cells to make the damaged muscle bigger and stronger.

Many athletes turn to protein supplements to refuel after a workout for this exact reason.

BUT, as it turns out, your whey protein shake might be doing you more harm than good!

Sadly, the supplements industry is rampant with half-truths, dubious marketing claims, and a weak regulatory enironment that allows companies to position their products as being healthy even though they lack the scientific evidence to back it up.

Many products are derived from highly synthetic and processed ingredients with a bunch of artificial sugars like sucralose or sugar alcohols that can actually damage the good microbiota in the gut

This poses some serious downstream health consequences that anyone trying to optimize performance would be wise to avoid.

Additionally, you may be shocked to learn that the majority of BCAA products on the market are actually derived from human hair and duck feathers, unlike better-for-you vegan options that are created through a natural fermentation process, not only making them more appealing to consume but also more digestible and usable by the body.

Another key point to consider is that for the goal of recovery and specifically muscle protein synthesis it is imperative to make sure you're getting all 3 branched chain aminos - leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

Research demonstrates that getting all nine essential amino acids can increase muscle protein synthesis by more than 50% than just BCAAs alone.

The problem with a basic plant protein powder like a naked pea protein, hemp protein, or rice protein is that on their own, they don't contain adequate amounts of all the aminos that you need to enter into muscle protein synthesis, which means you're just wasting your money.

Once particular amino of interest is leucine.

Recent studies indicate that leucine may be 10x more effective at stimulating skeletal muscle synthesis than other aminos and that a minimum threshold must be met to induce muscle building.

This is what is known as the leucine threshold.

The body is constantly in a state of flux between MPS (muscle protein synthesis) and MPB (muscle protein breakdown).

Serious bodybuilders will try to stay in a state of MPS as often as possible by consuming 20-40g of protein frequently throughout the day, which is why they seem to always be walking around with a jug of protein in hand.

But, the leucine threshold and MPS isn't just important for bodybuilders, CrossFitters, and athletes.

As we age, it becomes more difficult to maintain and build lean muscle, which is a vital component to maintaining good body composition, youth, and vitality, all critical components of total body wellness.

For this reason, even aging populations who in general consume low protein meals may benefit from a high leucine daily protein powder supplement.

Now you're probably wondering,

"What exactly is the leucine threshold?" and...

"How much leucine do I need for muscle protein synthesis (MPS)?"

Most studies suggest the ideal leucine threshold to be between 2.5-5g of leucine per meal.

One interesting finding in the research performed was that younger populations tend to need less than ageing populations due to a greater mTOR sensitivity pathway.

The muscle building pathway known as mTOR (mechanistic target of rapamycin) may be inhibited if the leucine threshold is not met.

While further studies need to be performed to better understand the role of leucine in muscle building, it would be prudent to choose a protein supplement with adequate amounts that meet your leucine requirements.

Generally, consuming between 20-40g of protein in one sitting should do the trick, and remember, just consuming more protein isn't always necessarily better and is actually more of a precise science than you might think.

Gender, body size, body composition, age, hormone levels, and activity levels all factor in to determine the right amount for you.

The general recommendation for the general population is to consume 0.8 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight to maintain muscle.

For athletes and bodybuilders looking to build muscle, your daily protein requirement may be as high as 1.8 grams of protein per kg.

It's important to understand the right amount of protein for your body type and fitness goals because too little means you will be breaking down more than you build and too much protein, excess protein that your body can't use, is actually metabolized into glucose, which can be used as energy or stored as fat.

Wrapping up this section, the body doesn't care how you get your protein, it's really just simple biochemistry.

Whether it's from plant-based protein or animal-based sources like whey, it still needs to be broken down into smaller chains of amino acids that in turn can be utilized for building and repairing muscle.

In fact, because plant proteins usually contain more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, your body actually will make better use out of a plant-based protein powder.

Just be sure that you choose a product that contains a PDCAAs of 1.0 or greater with a minimum leucine content of 2.5 grams or more per serving.

As the science and demand for plant-based proteins continues to grow, we can expect to see more data emerge that supports vegan protein powder as comparable to whey for the purpose of athletic training, recovery, and muscle growth.

At LYFE Fuel, we're out to prove that plant-based protein isn't just equivalent, but is actually SUPERIOR!

MYTH #3: Whey Protein Is Completely Natural And Perfectly Safe

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 everything that we consume and to analyze the entire supply chain.

Just as important as the type of food we eat is knowing where they come from in the first place.

How they were treated as animals, what they were fed throughout the production process, and how the ingredients and food sources were derived.

One of many problems with our food system as it exists today is that the food production chain is ambiguous, confusing, and impersonal.

Large food companies frequently take advantage of a weak and confusing regulatory environment 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 Rich, Cage Free, Free Range, 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 terms Caged, Abused, and GMO-Fed, don't quite have the same marketing appeal.

But, that's the truth about how much of our food today gets processed.

The same thing exists with almost every packaged food product, especially milk and dairy.

We’d be silly to think that the same doesn’t apply to the supplements we consume.

What is Whey Protein Anyway?

Whey, a byproduct of milk production, 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 remains is sweet whey and acid whey.

The sweet whey gets ultra-filtered to become whey protein concentrate.

It then passes through additional subsequent stages of micro-filtration to make whey protein isolates, and hydro-isolates before undergoing a spray drying process to turn it from a liquid to a powder.

Not such a natural process and actually quite confusing.

But, that’s the goal of large-scale food and supplement companies...make things so confusing that the consumer just accepts that because it is marketed as healthy, it must be.

It's exactly the same playbook used by big tobacco.

Large-scale industrialized meat and dairy producers don't really care about winning the debate about whether milk, dairy, and processed meat is bad for you.

They just want to protect their share of consumers wallets.

So much so that they're trying to claim ownership over the right to call things milk that are only derived from animals.

Despite what scientific research like The China Study shows, as long as the consumer is confused by mixed marketing messages they've won.

An article in Breaking Muscle by Anthony Roberts helps to clarify some of the confusing terminology commonly used by whey supplement companies and exposes some of the truths about what's really in your whey protein products.

In summary, there is a TON of processing required to arrive at usable raw whey protein before it is safe for human consumption.

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, and Orange Dreamsicle.

Sounds a lot like putting lipstick on a pig.

The reality is we're consuming milkshakes and candy bars masquerading as health products, which can be doing more harm than good by destroying our gut microbiome, causing inflammation, contributing to poor skin quality.

It's been well documented that sugar actually triggers the dopamine pleasure sensors in the brain and is more addictive than cocaine!

Of course we all crave a delicious and nutritious shake after a workout once we've busted our butt at the gym and worked up a sweat, but it doesn't mean we need a sugar bomb that wipes out all of our hard work!

The scary trade secrets of the dairy industry are becoming fairly well known and are more frightening and nightmarish than the latest scary movie you've seen.

A quick google search for "problems with dairy" or "treatment of dairy cows" will lead you down a pretty haunting road.

The part of this whole process that raises even more reason for concern is they haven’t yet figured out how to use the acid whey, but they’re trying.

Plant Protein vs Whey Protein

Plant Protein vs. Whey Protein

Infographic Created by artofwellbeing.com

MYTH #4: Animal Proteins Don't Harm The Planet

There are massive environmental issues tied to the production and disposal of whey protein.

This has been a rising concern for large-scale greek yogurt manufacturers due to the challenges with disposing of the byproducts of production.

Sweet whey can be turned into whey protein and easily re-used in food manufacturing but acid whey presents more of a challenge.

There currently isn't a market for this product meaning manufacutrers are required to dispose of it.

Often it gets dumped back into the land, contaminating our ground soil and drinking water.

So why then, with healthier options now available, do consumers continue to use this environmentally destructive food?

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!

Whey protein production is not an efficient process, over 720 pounds (327kg) of raw liquid whey is required to make a 5-pound tub of whey protein powder.

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 closer look, you might 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 planet.

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) every 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 liters 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!

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. 

The entire production chain is completely unsustainable and the animals themselves are inhumanely treated.

One solution that will certainly make an impact is to consciously reduce our total consumption of ALL meat and dairy products.

Even simple choices like swapping whey protein for healthier more eco-friendly and sustainable options is a step in the right direction.

As demonstrated by the Switch4Good movement, many olympians, elite athletes, and celebrities have already ditched whey and dairy for healthier more sustainable plant-based protein options.

Now it's your turn to join them and millions of others who are ditching dairy and going plant-based! 

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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 that I use and consume regularly.

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 you no longer have to sacrifice taste for quality.

If you’re serious about a healthier and more sustainable future and interested in saying goodbye to whey, check out LYFE Fuel’s line of great-tasting protein + superfood powders.

Ongoing education, challenging old beliefs, and continuing to ask questions about the food and products we consume helps us make more informed decisions.

Sometimes the smallest and simplest choices we make can have the greatest impact.

References:

  • Howatson G et al., “Exercise-induced muscle damage is reduced in exercise-trained males by branched-chain amino acids: a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled study,” Journal of the Internal Society of Sports Nutrition, vol. 9, no. 1 (May 8, 2012): 20 [Epub ahead of print].
  • Reporter, Daily Mail. "That's Whey Too Bad for Our Environment! How the Toxic By-product of Greek Yogurt Is Causing a World-wide Pollution Problem." Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 22 May 2013. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.
  • SEMC7495. "Whey-ing the Costs of My Protein Powder." CU Bouler Sustain Food. N.p., 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.
  • Witard OC, Wardle SL, Macnaughton LS, Hodgson AB, Tipton KD. Protein Considerations for Optimising Skeletal Muscle Mass in Healthy Young and Older Adults. Nutrients. 2016;8(4):181. Published 2016 Mar 23. doi:10.3390/nu8040181
  • Lambertz J, Weiskirchen S, Landert S, Weiskirchen R. Fructose: A Dietary Sugar in Crosstalk with Microbiota Contributing to the Development and Progression of Non-Alcoholic Liver Disease. Front Immunol. 2017;8:1159. Published 2017 Sep 19. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2017.01159

Disclaimer: The LYFE Fuel blog is for informational purposes only. The information does not serve as a replacement for professional medical advice or treatment. We kindly ask you not to ignore professional medical advice because of any information you’ve read on https://lyfefuel.com/. If you have any concerns about your health, please consult a physician or appropriate health care expert.