“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten”.
Well, athletes and active individuals have been supplementing their diet with whey protein shakes for a while now, so that’s got to be the way forward – at least I assume that’s what the majority of the population believe.
But let’s move away from what the “majority of the population” believe, because I have also overheard comments about how “whey protein will make you gain weight/lean mass”, “whey protein will help you rebuild muscle”, and “protein shakes contain anabolic steroids” (believe it or not, I have actually heard this said directly in front of me by two different people, and a few others have definitely implied it). In case those need explaining – the first statement could be partially true if we add to it something about the correct training programme, good form, the right exercises, the right diet, adequate recovery, and favourable genetics – the second is closer to the truth but implies that whey protein is the only way to rebuild muscle which would make it incorrect – and if you haven’t realised the last statement was complete nonsense then you probably won’t be interested in reading any more of what I have to say.
So if we are agreed that the majority belief or habit is not always the best, why do people still swear by whey protein?
Well it’s hard to find much writing on the topic that isn’t on a whey protein supplement website – and even the article I am going to quote (http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/whey-protein-health-benefits.htm), being from BodyBuilding.com, is of questionable value. However, it does go over some key facts which will be useful to review.
Of course, everyone now knows the importance of protein in the diet, especially for an athlete. In fact, I have found that when mentioning to anyone that I train 5-6 times a week, predominantly in martial arts, and that I don’t consume meat, their first concern is where I get my protein from – and that’s usually before they even find out that I don’t eat dairy either. To anyone who has also had to deal with this question from people who clearly have never studied anything to do with nutrition – ask them (innocently, of course) what protein does and how much of it you should be consuming. Chances are they won’t have a clue. Unfortunately, what most people fail to realise is that the dietary guidelines we have grown up with, particularly people in the United States, are the result of intense food lobbying (http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/pyramid-full-story/).
Of course, the food lobbies – in particular the hugely powerful meat and dairy lobbies – were smart about it; instead of bluntly telling people to eat more meat and more dairy (although this did happen, to some extent), they emphasised the importance of protein and calcium, and let people join the dots. Now even though some people know this, these moves have created eating patterns that are deeply embedded in Western cultures, and which will take much longer to shift than the simple graphic redesigning of a food pyramid. Hence people’s concern – they don’t know the nutritional values of different foods, they just know that you need protein and meat and milk contain protein, so what do you do without them? An example; right in the introduction of that same BodyBuilding.com article, they list one of the benefits of whey protein isolate as containing “the lowest levels of lactose” which, they explain, will “definitely benefit” anyone who is lactose intolerant. Am I the only one who thinks that maybe if you are lactose intolerant, you should steer clear of all source of lactose?
The problem is that so many of us haven’t learnt to listen to our own bodies. As lactose intolerance can vary hugely in its intensity, and as we are used to eating so many processed foods, drinking caffeine and alcohol, sleeping too little, working too hard, training too hard, and doing a multitude of other things we know are bad for us (and I’m not judging here, we’re all human), we are used to varying degrees of internal physical discomfort. So if we are mildly lactose intolerant, we are unlikely to notice a bit of bloating, a bit of stomach cramping, a little acid reflux… It’s probably because we had too much coffee, or maybe it’s that pastry we grabbed on the way to work because we forgot to have breakfast, or maybe it was that slightly dodgy takeaway last night.
Even if you have never experienced training when feeling bloated, I’m sure you can imagine how unpleasant it is. Unfortunately for me, I happen to spend most of my time training in martial arts; at the moment I am focussing on Brazilian jiu-jitsu and grappling. For those of you unfamiliar with the sport, it involves a lot of rolling around on the ground, often holding your partner in between your legs, and occasionally contorting yourself further into pretzel-like poses whilst exerting as much force as possible from pretty much all of your muscles in order to cause your partner as much discomfort as possible. Every so often, you might perform an extremely explosive full-body action in order to get out of a threatening situation. Trust me, you don’t want to feel bloated or nauseous or cramping during any of that. I won’t expand on the matter.
For those of you who don’t train in martial arts – for the casual and competitive runners out there, ever heard of runner’s gut? (http://www.rice.edu/~jenky/sports/abd.pain.html) It has nothing to do with dietary intolerances, but the last thing you want to do is go adding to that. And to those involved in some sort of resistance training – care to perform squats with a grumbling and growling gut, anyone?
My point is that we need to figure out for ourselves what our bodies like and what they don’t. Peanuts may be a great source of healthy fats, antioxidants, and B vitamins (http://www.nutrition-and-you.com/peanuts.html), but are you really going to go and suggest to someone with a nut allergy that they should slip some peanuts into their daily diet? If you’ve been told that whey protein is the best source of protein, but you’re lactose intolerant, don’t take whey protein. Simple. It is quite a well-known fact that many Asians are lactose intolerant, but according to this article (http://www.uhs.uga.edu/nutrition/lactoseintolerance.html) 21% of Caucasian Americans could be lactose intolerant. That is huge! But I bet far fewer than 21% of gym-goers who consume protein shakes, choose lactose-free protein. Even the Dairy Council’s own website (http://www.milk.co.uk/page.aspx?intPageID=138) writes that 70% of the world population produce low levels of lactase – even though that does not make them lactose intolerant, it does indicate that perhaps lactose is not the best choice for these people. For those who are still intent on consuming dairy products despite their digestive difficulties, consuming an entirely dairy-based product like whey protein on an empty stomach, after putting the body through intense exercise, seems like a bit of a kick in the gut (excuse the pun).
The problem is that nobody points these people towards the right options, or even the right frame of mind. Personally, I think this comes from the “no pain no gain” mentality – that desire to feel and appear heroic by training when you are ill, injured, overly stressed by other aspects of your life, to restrict yourself to a diet of chicken, rice and broccoli six times a day, and to neck protein shakes and supplements that make you gag. Those people are hardly likely to think that their stomach cramps after taking their 60g-protein whey isolate shake are going to be anything to worry about, much less do anything about it. To use an analogy, because I like analogies, you could liken it to putting diesel in a car that takes unleaded – it might still be fuel, it might work great for other cars, but if it’s not what your car needs then not only are you not going to get much further in your journey but you risk doing your car some serious damage. And, to take it further, if your friend who drives a diesel car was raving about how great his car is and suggested you try using diesel in your car, you would either laugh and reprimand them for being stupid, or just shake your head in pity and find some way out of that conversation.
So I think we’re pretty clear now on why people need to be more aware of their bodies, and why people with lactose intolerances should probably not be taking whey protein. Of course, vegans will also stay well clear of whey (despite this article – http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/Health/Commercial-features/The-benefits-of-whey-protein-in-your-training.htm – which suggests that vegans could and would consume a whey protein shake…), but what about the large percentage of the population who have no aversion to consuming dairy?
If you’ve ever read anything about dairy, in particular anything written by a vegan, you will probably have heard that dairy consumption stimulates mucus production. This is great for creating a shock factor among most of the population, but is particularly relevant for athletes as it can restrict respiratory tracts, making those all-important deep breaths significantly more difficult. For those of you who have come across that argument before, you may be pleased that I am not going to rehash the point – in fact, more recent research suggests that there is no discernible link between mucus production and dairy consumption (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2154152). However, we have already established that more people may be lactose intolerant, or have difficulties digesting lactose, than we generally believe – mucus production can very well be a symptom of allergies (http://www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtPrint/wsihw000/9273/35323/1428749.html?d=dmtHMSContent&hide=t&k=basePrint), so maybe there is our link.
To delve a little further into the allergy issue: although I am not lactose intolerant, when I see how many people’s bodies aren’t geared up to digest lactose it does make me think that we really aren’t meant to be consuming dairy. Of course this is a recurrent vegan argument – cow’s milk is another species’ breast milk, designed to contain all the essential vitamins, minerals, and macronutrient ratios for the young of another species – hence why calves grow into cows or bulls, and babies grow into humans; two very different creatures! While I’m not here to talk about ethics, I really would urge people to think about what they are putting into their bodies and why. Especially as it’s not like there aren’t any plant-based protein sources out there, that are increasingly easy to purchase and increasingly palatable.
Even an article in Men’s Fitness magazine (http://www.mensfitness.com/training/pro-tips/the-fit-5-protein-sources) gives a nod to plant proteins – their argument that whey protein is superior because it is a “complete protein” is totally defunct as the theory of “complete” and “incomplete” proteins and “protein combining” has been debunked (http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/vegetarians-need-to-combine-proteins-myth-or-fact.html): as long as one is consuming a wide range of protein sources throughout the day, the body can absorb the necessary amino acids to recreate “complete proteins”. So the only point against plant protein in that Men’s Fitness article is invalid. Plant protein: 1 – mainstream belief: 0.
Even BodyBuilding.com is now promoting plant protein as an equal to whey protein (http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/drobson71.htm). Again, I know this is possibly not the most reputable source of information, but if the science can trickle all the way down to the notoriously oldschool pro-animal-consumption world of bodybuilding, there must be something to it. The main point to note from the article, aside from refuting the “soy destroys the testosterone needed for muscle growth” myth, is that the athletes consuming a mixture of soy protein and whey protein benefited from the different digestive breakdown rates of these two protein sources, and also may have enjoyed other health benefits such as reduced risk of coronary heart disease, which is associated with the overconsumption of animal products.
These are the points I have been working towards. I have talked a lot about digestion and obviously there is something to be said for ingesting a protein source that your body can digest more efficiently. However, most people take whey because it is a very fast-absorbing protein (well, actually most people take whey because it’s what their friend told them to take, but you get my point). According to this table (http://www.bodyrecomposition.com/nutrition/what-are-good-sources-of-protein-speed-of-digestion-part-2.html) there is quite a gap in the absorption rates of soy and pea proteins versus whey protein and even casein. However, we don’t need all of our protein intake to hit us in one go! Yes, we talk about the 30min post-exercise “window of opportunity” (http://www.training-conditioning.com/2010/04/17/the_recovery_window/index.php) and this does seem to be the time the body goes into overdrive to repair the damage done by a moderate- to high-intensity training session, but the recovery process goes on for far longer – though I wouldn’t be able to tell you how long as this depends on the type of session, your level of conditioning, and all sorts of other variables related to your body and health and environment. Anyway, my point is – is it really worth having a great big hit of protein within 30mins, if then your body is left to fend for itself for the next few hours? Personally, I would much rather set it up with a good dose of slower-digesting protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, and electrolytes, so that it can absorb what it needs straight away, but also has everything it needs to continue working away at its recovery until I can get a proper meal in, containing more protein, carbohydrates, fats, and fibre. Back to my earlier point about people not really knowing what is right for them – I would wager that most of the people who argue that they need whey protein for faster absorption a) do not know the actual rate of protein breakdown, b) do not know how many grams of protein they need, and c) do not know what the macronutrient profile of their next meal or, indeed, their entire diet should be. I do apologise to anyone who does happen to know all of this about themselves and their diet, but in my defence I have known a lot of gym goers and not a single one of them has known any of these details.
Finally, although I do not believe that dairy is a sensible addition to a human diet for a number of reasons, I am not trying to convince anyone reading this to give up dairy. However, we all know the importance of a balanced and varied diet for short-term and long-term health, and yet nobody seems to think this applies to supplements. If you limit yourself to, say, three servings of dairy a day, are you including your whey protein shake in that? If you get bored eating the same lunch every day, do you not get bored of taking the same shake after every workout? If you tailor your daily nutrition plan to suit your exercise session, do you vary the supplements you take before and after training? My guess is, no – and the reason I assume that is because I didn’t use to either. But once I tried a few different types of protein – soy, pea, hemp, brown rice – and different combinations of protein sources and additional supplements, I realised how much better I felt. It was like all of a sudden my body had found the extra pieces of the puzzle it had been looking for. When I read about the different nutritional profiles of various protein sources, it made sense – your body digests them all differently, and they all bring something different to the table, even if it’s just variation for its own sake.
So whether you are a bodybuilder, a martial artist, or someone who just likes to keep fit and healthy – whether you eat meat, dairy, seafood, plants, raw food, or any combination of the above – and whether you train once a week or six days a week – try plant proteins. Try different types, flavours, brands, combinations, play with smoothies, drink them for breakfast, as a snack, post-training, or pre-bedtime. Find out what works for you. The bottom line is that protein is protein, diet is a part of our daily routine, and our bodies are for life – we need to take ownership of our health, and broaden our horizons. Listen to everyone’s advice, but don’t follow it all – except mine, of course!