Like so many other fitness fanatics and athletes out there, I was guilty of thinking that whey protein is 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. As an athlete who consistently struggled to put on and maintain weight, I was told by my trainers, coaches, friends, and family that it was imperative I get more protein! In my effort to heed their advice I would consume massive amounts of food to put back what I burned after grueling and strenuous workouts and battles on the gridiron. Determined to meet my goal weight I would eat massive amounts of calories any time I sat down to eat, but you'd be surprised how tiring eating can be when you're trying to really pack on the pounds and bulk up! For the sake of convenience and to give my jaw a rest I turned to protein powder to get the extra calories and protein I needed to build muscle and replenish after my workouts. I gradually put on weight but, as I did, I started to notice some unpleasant health concerns like heartburn, unexplained fatigue, gas, and a body composition carrying a little more fat than I liked...but any price for glory, right?
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. After all, when you're willingly hurling your body at full force into another giant human running full steam ahead straight at you "health" is a very relative term and was basically secondary to everything else that came with he love for the game. As I began studying various nutrition and dietary theories I put what I learned into practice with the goal of transforming my body and getting healthy. I eventually began to fuel my body with more plant based foods, which actually made me feel better. While progressing through my journey of adopting a more plant-based lifestyle I was relieved that my health had improved but also a little upset that nobody had ever told me about the benefits of a plant based diet and cleaner fuel sources like vegan protein powder.
The growth 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 current food system led me to question what I had previously always held as truth...that animal protein is superior to plants and that if I wanted to be big and strong I needed to eat lots of steak and eggs, drink milk, and load up on protein powder.
When I decided to change my diet and lifestyle toward cleaner eating by reducing meat and dairy consumption, I began to also question EVERYTHING that I was consuming and 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 and/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 educate myself 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 just as I always had. I felt compelled to share what I learned so that more people can make informed and conscious choices about the fuel they put in their body and the impact it may have on health and performance .
As an athlete, the nutrition advice that I had always received 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 “essential” because they are not synthesized in the body, we must get them from our diet. Plant based protein, on the other hand, is 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 logic is that it only takes into consideration each source of plant based protein in isolation rather than looking at them in combination.
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 biggest question that plant-based dieters 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 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.
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. 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 such study of note looked at a high dose (42g) of rice protein consumed post-exercise versus an equal dose of whey protein powder 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.”
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 (You can learn more about this in our workout recovery blog). 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 key aminos that activate satellite cells to make the damaged muscle bigger and stronger. Many athletes and fitness junkies turn to protein supplements to refuel after a workout for this exact reason, BUT, your whey protein shake might be doing you more harm than good!
Sadly, the supplements industry is full of weak promises and marketing hype that promote products as healthy, but in reality can actually be harmful. Many products are derived from highly synthetic and processed ingredients with a bunch of artificial sugar like sucralose or sugar alcohols that can actually damage the good microbiota in the gut, which poses some serious downstream health consequences. 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, and, 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 on something that on its own is ineffective at what it is being marketed as.
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. 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 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 aging 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 with a minimum leucine content of 2.5 grams or more.
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 plan- based protein isn't just equivalent, but is actually SUPERIOR!
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 those foods come from, how they were treated, and for the animals used 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, confusing, and impersonal. 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”, 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 consume. 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 is left over 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 gives up and just believes the hype. Let's not forget the days of big tobacco...large-scale industrialized meat and dairy producers are taking a page straight out of their playbook by creating confusion. They don't care about winning the debate about whether milk, dairy, and processed meat is bad for you...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, Orange Dreamsicle and more! 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.
"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 not yet been 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 sent to the slaughterhouse to be sold off for meat. The entire process is extremely inhumane and unnatural and a leading contributor to the current state of poor health that we face as a nation.
There are some supplement companies who have taken these growing health concerns into consideration who instead source whey from New Zealand and organic grass-fed cattle that are treated better and are considerably more healthy than factory farmed cattle, which appears to be a healthier option if choosing to consume whey and other dairy products, BUT, this still doesn't mean that whey is inherently good for you. Numerous health conditions like bad skin and poor gut health have been linked to dairy consumption...remember, this includes whey. If you've ever had that unsettling bubble gut feeling after drinking your protein shake, it's your body trying to tell you something...LISTEN!
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 by 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 (327kg) of raw liquid whey is required to make a 5-pound tub of whey protein powder."
10 LITERS OF MILK = 1 KILOGRAM of CHEESE =9 LITERS of WHEY = 600 GRAMS RAW WHEY PROTEIN 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 liters of raw milk. In turn, this equates to 5.3 billion liters of milk production annually, which is about 5% of the roughly 90 billion liters 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 closer look, 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 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) 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 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! 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.
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 our 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!
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 we don’t 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.
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Co-Founder of LYFE FUEL in Newport Beach, CA. Chris was an NFL fullback for the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs before pursuing a career to pursue his passion for health & nutrition. Chris is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and earned a completion certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Course in Plant-Based Nutrition.