Whey protein powder side effects are real - and for many can be significantly life changing - in a bad way. Given that whey protein is derived from dairy, many who struggle with milk allergies (like lactose intolerance) are going to have a bad time. These negative health impacts are often easy to reverse - it can be as simple as just stopping use of whey protein powders and replacing with a whole foods, plant-based protein powder instead!
For myself, when I was in my younger years, whey protein powder would often be used to supplement a calorie heavy diet and rigorous muscle building exercises. A common struggle with all of this excessive dieting and supplementing were the side effects - much of which was derived from the dairy (and meat) I was eating - in large quantities no less.
Of course, eating a whole lot (like many bodybuilders and powerlifters do) can potentially cause some bodily harm and bad side effects too, but specific foods and food groups are scientifically known to have detrimental effects on the body such as dairy and meat. The side effects of whey protein powder have been documented through both research and plenty of anecdotal evidence (like my own little story!).
Learning how to identify whey protein powder side effects is valuable in becoming more "plant-smart," and if you are a current user (or considering use) of whey protein supplements, you may be deterred and want to try a plant-based protein powder instead!
Top 10 Whey Protein Powder Side Effects to Know About!
1. Bloating and cramps. One of the most common whey protein powder side effects you will see reported (or maybe have experienced yourself!) is feeling bloated. This was personally a tough experience to go through day in and day out. When the goal is to supplement the body with something nourishing to help you better push through heavy workouts, no one wants to deal with a side effect that makes you feel enlarged and unable to do heavy barbell squats. In my experience, this side effect would not just last for a short period, sometimes lasting for a few hours.
2. Headaches. Another common whey protein powder side effect is a headache. Of course, this can be attributed to a number of factors ranging from other foods to the current temperature outside and even things like a stressful day at work. The whey protein powder headaches I am talking about felt distinctly different than a regular, run-of-the-mill headache we all experience from time to time naturally. These headaches seemed to radiate and even lying down to make them difficult to shake. Not so impairing like a migraine, but sickening enough.
3. Lactose intolerance and other dairy allergy effects. Most whey protein powder supplements have lactose included - generally at levels ranging between 4 - 6% of the product. If you have been diagnosed with a lactose intolerance or other dairy allergies, it is recommended to stay far away. Even certain varieties such as whey protein isolate include at least 1% lactose - a number that could be enough to cause an allergic reaction.
One thing to keep in mind, and that is often overlooked when it comes to dairy "allergies," is that everyone is allergic to dairy products by nature. It may take a larger quantity for some people to show side effects that are particularly jarring and life-altering, but virtually everyone will experience symptoms of dairy allergy at one point or another - at least while they are consuming products containing dairy such as milk, cottage cheese, yogurt, and...whey protein powders!
4. Increased gas. Passing gas is a normal bodily function - we all do it! However, it can become a big problem when the food you are consuming directly impacts the frequency. Going hand-in-hand with the bloated feeling, feel the need to pass gas throughout the day is just very uncomfortable - both for yourself and those around you if you manage to let one slip. As with the bloating symptoms, it would sometimes feel like relief was not in sight, which had a detrimental effect on my ability to rest both body and mind. Cutting out whey protein powder and dairy as a whole has helped me take control of my own bodily functions, and now the plant-based diet I adhere to lets me feel good, be healthy, and regular too!
5. Increased fat. Whey protein powder supplements are typically used by 2 types of people: those looking to build muscle mass through higher calorie and protein heavy diets, and those who are using the supplement as a meal replacement to try and stave off hunger and lose weight as a result.
Both are truly sensible reasons for wanting a protein powder supplement, but with this comes some risk of belly fat gain in the process. Whey protein powders are notoriously not the healthiest food sources. They are generally not "whole foods" sources either given their components. The high calories, sometimes excessive nutrients, and depending on the brand, sometimes concerning additives can make for an unhealthy meal replacement or addition.
In healthy bodybuilding circles, protein powder supplements can even be frowned upon as it is far better to get nutrients from whole foods. This is generally accepted even by those not into a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Of course, protein powders can prove useful when you are limited by time to prepare and eat food, and "liquid calories" tend to be easier to consume. This ease can come at a cost, and a slip up or 2 of missing a few workouts during the week (or not performing hard enough) can lead to weight gain of the unsavory kind.
As with plant-life in general, plant-based protein powders provide an alternative. Many are far more organic, some even more "whole" in nature. They tend to be just as filling without all of the potential side effects.
6. Might promote or worsen kidney stones. If you have ever had a kidney stone, you may be able to relate to the phrase that having them is "worse than childbirth." The core of the problem appears to be excessive protein consumption - which of course can come from all types of protein sources (plant-based protein, whey protein, casein protein, meat protein, etc). With that in mind, we should keep in mind that sometimes whey protein is promoted in fitness circles that can be irresponsible or are uninformed.
Often, protein is viewed as a sacred macro-nutrient. For those looking to gain muscle mass, it is often advocated that you consume 1 gram of protein for every pound of body weight up until the weight you are looking to be.
In simple terms, a 150lb guy looking to bulk up to become a 180lb guy should consume 180 grams of protein. What qualifies as "excessive" will vary from individual to individual (as all of our bodies process things differently), but I would imagine this could be overkill by most reasonable standards. Overworking the kidneys can lead to their inability to break down the high quantity of protein - leaving your body exposed to more risk of kidney stones (and other diseases, too!).
7. Increased risk for gout. Unlike what you may think if you have not tried a whey protein shake before, these powders are not made up just of "protein." There are, in the vast majority of whey protein powders, an assortment of other additives ranging from simple vitamin and minerals to amino acids, high levels of fat and carbs, GMO's, and probably even hidden ingredients no one is telling you about. Similar to kidney stones, high levels of protein and some of these other elements in whey protein powder can put great strain on your bodies vital organs.
8. Nausea. One of the worst and most frequent whey protein powder side effects I used to experienced was feeling nauseated. The cause of this seemed to be influenced by a number of factors like...drinking the whey protein shake too quickly, drinking it too slowly, drinking it before working out (then feeling nauseated while working out), and drinking it after working out (and feeling nauseated while lying on the couch tired and sore from the workout). You may be noticing a trend: the nausea can be difficult to overcome, and for some people (like myself), it was such a common problem that I just accepted as a part of increasing my muscle mass.
Certainly, while working out with heavy weights and frequently, some nausea is too be expected as you are intentionally putting strain on your body. But, when you can identify certain parts of your diet that are negatively impacting your body like this, cutting them out can bring things back to a "regular" level.
9. Poor reactions to artificial sugar and other additives (even caffeine!) One of the scary things about whey protein powder side effects is that some are not even directly associated with the whey or protein content - but rather, the additives that you may (or may not) realize are included in the mix. As a way to boost calorie content, artificial sugar is often thrown in to make the drinks sweeter and more appealing to your average person. Some special powders also experiment with throwing other additives into the mix to "enhance performance" including testosterone boosting chemicals and even caffeine. These additives come with their own side effects which may be enhanced when paired with the effects of the whey and dairy content already.
10. It's easy to overdose on whey protein. Reaching the high level of protein often recommended for a lifter's diet can come at a cost. According to the Mayo Clinic, whey protein is considered "possibly safe" is dosages up to 50 grams. The safety concern that arises is that many people consume more than this quantity, especially when training. I remember when I would use MuscleMilk's whey protein powder supplement and use 2 (and sometimes more) scoops per shake. Each scoop was 30 grams of protein, so the simple math can show I was consuming at least 60 grams of whey protein in a sitting. Add this to all the other protein sources like red meat, chicken, a quart (or 2) of whole milk, and you can easily see why someone following a similar diet could end up sick as a result.
Knowing about whey protein powder side effects will help to better promote better awareness of what you can expect when using this purported fitness enhancer. If it is the case that increased calories, protein, and other nutrient content is mandatory to gain muscle mass (in addition to rigorous workout routines like StrongLifts 5x5), then it is understandable why a protein powder supplement would be so attractive. But, with the many negative side effects whey protein powders can bring to the table, it is certainly a good idea to consider better protein supplement alternatives like plant-based protein powders.
My larger recommendation would be to do without supplements if possible - instead opting for whole food sources. Certainly, you could make your own, healthier, shakes in a blender comprised of fruits, vegetables, steel cut oats, quinoa, plant-based milks (like soy, almond, etc.) and more. Like with most foods that are convenient, whey protein powders tend to be more costly than just creating something from scratch, and with this cost comes other costs too your health and well-being.
Plant-based protein powders (like pea protein powder and soy protein powder) are generally a step in the right direction, but not going to be as healthy as something you have prepared for yourself at home. No doubt, if you still feel the need for protein supplementation as a part of your diet, be it for fitness or meal replacement, plant-based protein is an advisable alternative to whey - given the abundance of whey protein powder side effects.