Whey sensitivity and intolerance: Here's when whey protein just isn't for you.

Whey sensitivity and intolerance:
Here's when whey protein just isn't for you.

By John Berardi, Ph.D.

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While this might surprise you, there are many folks who suffer allergies or intolerance to traditional protein supplements. Heck, you might be one of them and not even know it!

This week I’m out in Calgary working with Canada’s top bobsleigh and skeleton athletes. And right now, the athletes are in the midst of a testing camp, meaning that they’re all here competing for a position on this year’s upcoming World Cup and Europa Cup squads.

As nutritional support for their hard training is a must, I spend a lot of time with these athletes making sure everything is in place for success – food amount, food type, food timing, and appropriate supplement intake.

Interestingly, as most of the athletes use some type of protein supplement to help meet their high protein needs, every time I’m out here I’m reminded of how many folks are hypersensitive to protein powders – especially whey protein.

In fact, during this trip alone, I’ve had to take 5 athletes off whey protein because of their negative reactions to the stuff – even the so-called “high quality” whey isolates.

One athlete, for example, had extreme bloating and gas from their whey protein supplement. Within 30 minutes of drinking their shake, a big, smelly cloud would fill the room and their belly would bloat up to about 125% of its normal size.

Another athlete, who has used whey protein during training sessions for the last year, thought – FOR THE ENTIRE TIME – that he had a low-grade, chronic head cold due to the extreme stuffiness he’d experienced during every workout.

Another athlete, after every serving of whey protein, would build up a thick coating of mucous in their throat as a result of their protein supplement.

And the list goes on…

These symptoms, of course, are commonly associated with food allergies and/or food intolerances. And unfortunately, they are symptoms many of them, and likely many of you, have either failed to recognize, ignored, or just simply learned to live with. But, as I told my athletes, these symptoms are not normal and should not be brushed aside. Rather, they should be dealt with and eliminated.

4 questions

So, at this point, let me pose these 4 questions:

  • How often do you feel gassy and bloated?
  • How often do you suffer from flatulence?
  • How often do you have a stuffy nose?
  • How often do you feel excess mucous production in your head and throat?

If these symptoms above are part of your normal day, it’s time to look to your food intake to see what might be causing the problem or problems. Specific to protein problems, the symptoms above are typically the result of one or both of the following:

Lactose Intolerance

In certain individuals (those without enough lactase enzyme activity), undigested lactose passes through the stomach into the intestines where it must be fermented. Through this process, lots of gas is formed, causing stomach cramps, bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea.

Protein Allergy/Intolerance

In addition to the above, symptoms can be a result of milk protein allergy/intolerance. While casein protein has been implicated in more cases of milk protein problems than whey, both milk proteins can cause similar issues. This is due to the fact that in some individuals, casein and whey can cause an excessive inflammatory immune response. This leads to mucous production. And high mucous means blocked airways, stuffy noses, and thick throats.

Now, I know. Your supplement manufacturer swears that the protein they’re selling you is a “high quality” isolate. And yes, true high-quality isolates contain very little lactose. But again, it may or may not be the lactose that’s the problem. It could be the protein isolate itself that’s causing the issue.

But, consider this as well…any protein powder that contains “whey protein concentrates” still contains lactose – even if the manufacturer claims it’s a high quality isolate. Therefore if it’s got concentrates, it’s got lactose.

In addition, many protein industry insiders believe that some companies are lying about the quality of their product to increase profit margins. They claim that since it’s much cheaper to use lower quality whey protein concentrate than it is to use a high quality whey protein isolate, some companies are adding concentrate without listing it on the label.

Sneaky, sneaky.

Of course, I’m not trying to kick off a conspiracy theory – rather, I’m just trying to help you look and feel better by avoiding potential dietary problems. And, like I said above, even if you’ve got high quality protein product that is lactose free, you could actually have a protein allergy/intolerance. Therefore the protein type itself would have to go.

Practical suggestions

Now, without making things too complicated here, let’s get practical with a few suggestions for those of you who think you’re having problems with your protein supplements.

1) Switch Protein Brands

If you consistently get gassy and bloated or stuffy and mucousy after having a supplemental milk protein product, it may be time to switch brands. Your brand might have too much lactose or too high a concentration of certain protein products and either of these could be detrimental.

Indeed, this week one of my athletes switched protein powders from a whey protein isolate to a milk protein blend and within 1 day all of their complaints disappeared. Heck, I’ve even seen athletes switch from one brand of whey isolate to another and have an improvement in function and a removal of symptoms.

2) Switch Protein Types

If you switch protein brands and that doesn’t help, you may legitimately have an intolerance to the milk protein itself. In such case, you might try switching to rice protein isolates. Rice protein isolates are hypoallergenic and are nowadays fortified to contain a complete compliment of amino acids.

3) Think About Your Dairy

One other thing to also consider if you’re suffering the symptoms above is your dairy intake. Maybe, instead of your protein being the problem, you’re having a problem with milk, cheese, yogurt, etc. Again, the lactose or protein fractions in dairy products may be the culprit, so don’t rule either out. If it turns out that dairy is the problem, you could switch to non-cow’s milk dairy (goat or sheep’s milk dairy), or you could switch to soy-based dairy like milk, yogurt, etc.

In the end, the point of this article isn’t to make you a dairy or protein hypochondriac. Don’t invent symptoms that don’t exist. However, I do encourage you to think about your protein and dairy intake and consider whether your protein supplements and dairy are helping or hurting you.

If you’re aware of the link between what you eat and how you feel, it’s much easier to begin to change things up if a particular food is problematic.

Eat, move, and live…better.

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