Do you really need whey protein to build muscle?
A couple of years ago, our approach to fitness changed once again. Home-cooked, timely food, with ingredients sourced locally, sleep, yoga, movement began to be seen as just as important as cardio bursts and HIIT. Now, fitness itself is being seen as subset of health, not as separate from it. There has been a shift in the way we see ourselves, thanks to the body positive movement, the emphasis on self-care, and the acknowledgement that there’s no one body type. Whey protein is no longer considered an essential gym accessory, whether for endurance athletes, hobbyists, or even professional sportspeople.
Anything that’s processed is convenience food. When I can get my nutrition from real food, why do I need a supplement? I’am against all ultra-processed food, whether it’s whey or chips.
Imagine you’re running long distance. Your body metabolism is already weak, and then you put in a chemical. It does more harm than good.” I likes to think of supplements as nature-based: tofu, peas, soya, milk, eggs that people can consume if they’re running low on protein. “This is what pehelwans (Wrestlers) used to use.”
I believe there’s also a psychological dependence, where people begin to feel they’re not at peak performance unless they’ve consumed whey protein or other supplements. It’s not the chemical out of a jar that eventually results in performance: it’s training, rest, and the food you fuel the body with.
Food Group Isolation
Other than casein, whey is one of the two major proteins in milk, though it may comprise only about one-third of the total protein content. It is a by-product of the cheese-making process, and typically comes in powder form. There are four types of products that are available today, with prices going as high as ₹4,000 per kilogram.
a sports nutritionist who has worked with the Sports Authority of India, does not prescribe whey protein, whether for athletes or those who practise recreational sport. “We need 0.8 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (for regular people; up to 2 grams for professionals), and the sources need to be diverse,”. This diversity occurs in Nature.
If it’s just whey with a bunch of chemicals, the body is subject to ‘a hit of acid’. Also, natural food helps the body eat intuitively.
“The problem with these packaged foods is that they come with a lot of additives, such as bisphenol-A (BPAs – found in plastics), heavy metals, and sugar.” Last year a report released by Clean Label Project, a not-for-profit, brought attention to the toxins in protein powders.
The concentrated levels of protein (a scoop contains 20-25 grams of protein), along with the additives leave behind a residue called acidic ash. This lowers the pH of the blood, and in the body’s fight to make itself alkaline, it leeches calcium from the bones.
Adding to this, Chennai-based sports physician Dr Kannan Pugazhendi talks about the importance of gut flora not just as a result of what we eat, but also in a particular environment (the soil, the weather). “The bacteria literally seems to choose the food, recognize it, digest it, and aid in assimilation,” he says. So the microbiome (the vast colonies of bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms within the gut) may not actually recognize whey protein. He’s bringing its bioavailability into question — how much of the whey protein is actually absorbed by the body.
When we get protein through food, the body metabolizes it naturally, in a way it is meant to, unlike when it’s an isolated nutrient. “It also causes hair loss and acne,”.
The kidneys may also be overloaded, causing damage. Protein cannot be stored in the body; the excess has to be excreted on a daily basis. This is especially because the nitrogen in protein is poisonous. This nitrogen is converted to urea and moved out of the body through the urine. “The body will have to produce extra urea if we’re eating extra,”. “If the person is dehydrated, very likely after a sporting activity, the excess will cause damage to the kidney over a period of time, since the urine will be concentrated.” UTIs may be common.
Supplement not Replacement
Whey protein is a nutraceutical, not a food replacement, something many gym newbies aren’t told. Krushmi Chheda, a Mumbai-based sports nutritionist and former international level tennis player, says whey protein must be consumed if a person has a higher training load and protein needs.
It’s not necessary for someone doing an hour-long low- to medium intensity workout or even a longer low-intensity workout, such as brisk walking.
“It’s best to consume whey protein for a limited duration when you are increasing training load to get the maximum benefit. Once you train for eight-ten weeks, muscle adapts to the load and your body does not need additional protein. You can stop consumption until the next increase in training load,” says Krushmi. Food products containing added whey protein, such as energy bars or protein bars can be used while travelling provided you have an active lifestyle.
“It’s not like a drug that undergoes a lot of protocols and is regulated.” Even the US FDA does not regulate it, so “there’s no way to know if a protein powder contains what manufacturers claim,” says a Harvard article on ‘The hidden dangers of protein powders’.
A few months ago, counterfeit protein powders under a US brand name were caught in UP’s Muzaffarnagar. In another incident last year, the Food and Drug Administration, Maharashtra, found steroids in protein powders.
All whey is not created equal though, says Dhruv Bhushan, founder and CEO of Habbit, a brand launched in February this year with a focus on protein. “Most whey in India is acquired through distributors who either hawk low grade and almost-expired products,” he says. He adds that the West gets the freshest, best quality, from pasture-bred, grass fed cattle. “The whey is freeze dried, not spray dried that denatures it (modifies the molecular structure).”
It’s best to avoid whey protein if you cannot digest milk products easily or have hormonal problems like PCOS. Whey also interacts negatively with drugs like Albendazole, Alendronate, and certain antibiotics), says the Mayo Clinic website.
For any supplement, do check with your doctor. For whey, also ask a sports nutritionist before you buy in.