Everything you ever wanted to know about whey protein
Abbas Ali, a fitness trainer who has trained Shilpa Shetty, Sonakshi Sinha, and Shahid Kapoor in the past, remembers the whey supplements of the early 2000s. “Strawberry was the tastiest flavour; chocolate was the worst, but on the whole, they all tasted bad,” he says, of the days when a box of 42 sachets would cost ₹7,000 to ₹12,000.
“If you were having two or three a day, you were really wealthy.” Those were the nascent days of gym training, when fitness instructors, most often high school graduates, advised their clients on supplements. Their inspiration: beefed up Bollywood men.
“We didn’t have stores, we had supplement ‘suppliers’ in Mumbai,” he says, adding that consumption was way higher than it should it have been. Then, between 2008 and 2014, people began Googling for information, travelling, and questioning trainers. Supplement companies set up in India, dieticians started to sell their skills, and while glossies continued to feature muscle men, women’s fitness picked up. It was around this time that Abbas too set up Bodyholics, first as an outdoor fitness class and then as a gym.
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.
Abbas still has protein powders, but only when he feels his nutrition for the day has been compromised, because of frequent travel and a hectic lifestyle. “The pack that used to last me a month now lasts for three months,” he says, adding that now, he combines his with almond milk and almond butter, and it’s “really tasty and nutrition dense”.
Chemicals in a jar
Gurugram-based Abhishek Misra has been an ultra-runner and a triathlete for about a decade. His company, Tabono Sports and Events, organises running events and tri races. He has never taken a whey protein supplement. “Anything that’s processed is convenience food. When I can get my nutrition from real food, why do I need a supplement?” he asks. He’s against all ultra-processed food, whether it’s whey or chips.
He draws a parallel with energy gels that long-distance runners often consume: “When they first have one, people often cramp, even throw up. That’s the body rejecting it. 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.” He 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 used to use.”
He believes 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.
Types of whey protein
- Concentrate: contains 80% whey, lactose, carbohydrates, and fats. Has a slower absorption as compared to isolate and hydrolyzed whey.
- Isolate: contains 90% whey; easier to digest compared to concentrates, as they have low levels of naturally occurring lactose, fats and carbohydrates.
- Hydrolysed: predigested and smaller amino acid chains present, compared to whey isolate; absorbed faster than whey isolate.
- Blends: more than one type of protein mixed together, for example, whey, casein, egg protein, soy protein, hemp protein or pea protein.
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.
Lovneet Batra, 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,” she says. 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, she feels 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, recognise 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 recognise 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 metabolises it naturally, in a way it is meant to, unlike when it’s an isolated nutrient. “It also causes hair loss and acne,” says Lovneet.
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,” says Dr Pugazhendi. “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.
Both he and Lovneet are of the opinion that whey proteins are a result of food becoming an industry.
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, she feels.
She’s wary about making it a regular part of life because a number of brands are not certified by any agency or can be contaminated.
“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).”
Habbit is trying to go the fill-the-nutrition-gap way, unlike say Divine Nutrition that has products called Hunk Gainer with lines like “Bigger the nutrition, bigger the flex”. One of its owners, the bulked up Sahil Khan, has an Instagram following of 7.6 million. That imagery is something whey protein will find hard to leave behind, though players like GM Nutrition a daily family protein, try — its owner often posing to his 1.6 million followers on Instagram with his child.
Sumaya Dalmia, a Delhi-based fitness instructor, like many gym trainers, favours whey protein, because she, like Dhruv, feels people just don’t get enough protein in India. She says people mistake whey for a steroid, which is why it has got such a bad rap in the first place.
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.