Whey Protein: Fit or Shit?

Walk into any gym nowadays and you’d find bulky bros gulping an ‘isolate shake’ right after their workout, trying to leverage that anabolic window that’s just opened up. Look around a bit more and you’ll see many more guys (and very few girls) doing the same, not necessarily knowing why. Walk out the gym though, and you’ll hear many scoffing at this rampant supplementation.

“He shouldn’t be consuming supplements, he doesn’t even go to the gym”

“She takes whey! She’ll weigh a lot more soon, just you see”

“2 scoops a day! No wonder he’s farting all the time.”

“Whey! Why? Doesn’t she know it causes acne!”

“These artificial things just aren’t any good. I don’t like these things.”

These are some of the top accusations that the anti-supplement brigade makes against whey. And they back it up with examples of close friends/ family who’ve suffered at the hands of this innocent looking chocolate-y powder.

So what’s the truth? Are protein supplements really required? More specifically, is whey protein a boon for building muscle and staying healthy? Is it good for men but bad for women? Or is it just an artificial food that the human body in general isn’t equipped to digest?

Sounds like the perfect, FITSHIT sort-a mystery to bust on a lazy Sunday. So let’s get to it.

Oh wait. I forgot to tell you something. We’ve been asking the wrong question.

How much protein do you need?

Remember, they’re called Protein Supplements. Supplements — so, by definition, they are gap-fillers. So the real question, is whether you have a gap in your protein intake. Let’s answer that first.

According to the US RDA, any healthy adult needs a minimum of 0.8grams / kg of bodyweight. Many folks will throw this figure at you, so I wanted to do it first. So I could then tell you to throw it away. Because this isn’t the optimal amount. It’s the minimum. Any lesser and they’d label your diet as deficient and you as ‘what the fuck, dude’.

If you are a healthy adult looking to put on some muscle mass, you need to almost double that amount! So as an adult male, that’s about 1.5–1.7grams of protein/kg of body weight. For women, it’s pegged it a little lower, at ~1.2–1.4grams/ kg.

Don’t feel like doing the math, here is an easy calculator. You need to hit the top-end of the recommended ADA range.

How big is my protein gap?

Let’s say you are an 80kg adult male with a moderately actively lifestyle. Or a 65kg adult female. Your protein requirements, if you intend to gain some muscle and be healthy, are about 130gm and 85gm respectively.

Now let’s look at what you’ve been eating. Let’s say you have a glass of milk + 2 whole eggs in the morning. Then a bowl of dal (lentils) + some veggies for lunch. Then some snack that you’d rather not mention, in the evening. And then a piece of chicken or fish in the night. Sounds like a healthy diet (if I ignore that samosa).

How many grams of protein would you reckon you’ve had? Here’s the answer (in order).

Total Protein = 7+6*2+10+5+nutritionless crap+25 = 59gms.

Ah. Now you see! Even as a female your gap is >25gms. If you’re a guy eating this diet and hoping to make muscle gains, then kindly take a moment to spank yourself and then read on.

How do I fill the gap?

Here is a list of the best, natural protein sources. If you can, bridge your gap entirely by including more of these in your diet. There really is no better way to make up your protein quota than to do it through wholesome, naturally occurring foods. If you’re able to manage this, then, by all means, don’t even look at that protein supplement.

But if you’re looking at the sample diet I described above and wondering — ‘hmmm, I’m not even doing this much” — then chances are you won’t be able to make up this deficit through your regular meals (especially if you’re vegetarian)

Also, remember, that natural protein sources like meat, come with a lot of fat/carbs. So too much of those, and they can push you over your daily calorie limits (What’s that I hear? You’ve not been calorie counting! Do I need to convince you any more than this?)

So I need a Protein Supplement?

Well, you do need more protein. And if it’s not going to come from natural sources, then it better come from artificial ones. Especially if you’re Indian, in which case your diet is designed to be protein-deficient. Because not consuming enough protein is much worse than whatever few side-effects these supplements may (or may not) have. And the most commonly used form of supplement is Whey Protein. So let’s break it down.

What is Whey?

Whey is the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained. Whey protein is the globular proteins that can be isolated from whey. I’ve lifted these definitions from Wikipedia — you can gorge on the details here.

Simply put, Whey Protein is a milk-derived protein that’s 100% vegetarian. Now, there are various ways to derive the protein out of whey. If you’ve heard of Whey Isolate, Whey Concentrate, Whey Hydrolysate or Whey Native — you’d know what I’m talking about. If you wish to weigh (no pun) the pros and cons of each and understand them better, go here for a short summary. But I’m not going to get into the amino-acid profiles of each and confuse you. Instead, let me give you a thumb rule.

When starting out, go for a regular concentrate. It’s the least processed form of whey, has many of the other nutrients intact and it won’t cost a bomb. But it does come with some fat and carbs. So if you’re planning to be really strict, I’d say go for an Isolate. As the name suggests, it is almost entirely protein and almost zero fat/ carbs. Even more importantly, if you are lactose intolerant, isolate is for you. It has <1% lactose. So no farting.

Here is the composition of a standard whey isolate that you’d find in the market.

Isolate is Whey better

So is whey the only way?

As I said earlier, you should first try and make up your gap with natural foods. But doing so, in our busy lives, while ensuring you don’t overshoot your calorie-limit, is very tough. That’s where a simple protein shake, that instantly takes you from ‘woefully short’ to ‘almost touching’ your protein goal, is a big boon.

As a thumb rule, a 30 gm scoop of Whey Isolate will give you anywhere between 24–27gm of protein. And since that’s all there is in the scoop, it’ll cost you ~100 calories. That simple equation is why I love whey. It’s the most calorie-efficient form of protein. I’ve personally found it next to impossible to meet my daily goal without it.

OK. I’m (sort of) convinced. How do I start?

Slow.

Start with half a scoop. Have it in a banana milk shake if lactose doesn’t give you the farties. Or just shake it with some cold water (always cold or it’ll taste like shit) and drink it.

If you’ve been on a sub-50gm protein diet till now, chances are your body isn’t ready to absorb a sudden 30-gm protein shock in one go. That’s why I say start slow and let your body adjust to this new normal. For the same reason, don’t have your protein shake with a meal. Infact, have it as a meal in itself. Remember that evening snack. The one-that-must-not-be-named and should-definitely-not-have-been-had. Replace that with a protein shake. Or if you exercise, have it right after the workout.

Initially you might suffer some indigestion. Maybe even some acne. Don’t worry and don’t let it deter you. Soon your body will adjust. And that’ll be your signal to up the intake a bit.

If after two weeks it still makes you uncomfortable, then don’t push it. I’ll suggest some alternatives in next week’s post.

But doesn’t it have too many side-effects?

Weight-gain, acne, indigestion and a general fear of artificial things are the top side-effects whey is popularly accused of. None is entirely true, or immediately dismissible. I’ll tackle all of them in next week’s post.

Whey is also believed to be gender-biased and hence not suited for women. Which couldn’t be further from the truth and I’ll tackle this too. For now, if you’re a woman reading this, please do yourself the favor of having an open-mind when it comes to whey and trying before you decide. It might not suit you, but if it does (and that’s a high-probability outcome), the benefits are immense.

Till I bust these myths, if you wish to read the most scathing attack against whey, go here. I don’t agree with much said here, but that’s the FITSHIT way. I write from my own experience but I have no interest in ensuring that your world-view aligns to mine. Neither am I particularly fond of this internet-age phenomenon of echo chambers. So I’m happy sharing counter-views and letting you decide.

My Experience

In my experience, whey has had far more benefits than side-effects. When I first started, I had a severely broken metabolism. So I found digesting whey very difficult. No one told me how to start so I started big and suffered the gastrointestinal-consequences.

But over time it has become a trusted friend on my fitness journey. I keep a jar at work and I carry it in a pouch when I travel. It’s both a tasty snack and my insurance against unavailability of protein-rich food. I always have 1-scoop in cold water right after gym. And sometimes, when my calorie-quota allows it, I also have it as a tasty shake with soy milk + banana + strawberries + cocoa.

Whey. My Way.

The whey itself is sweet (naturally + artificially) so the shake needs no sugar. But do read this post about artificial sweeteners before you start binging on it.

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