THE BLOG

Ask JJ: Whey Protein

05/12/2015 06:24 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016

Dear JJ: I combine your diet with Jorge Cruise's plan. He used to recommend whey, yet you now both caution against this protein. The whey I use doesn't have added sugar, so am I okay continuing to use it?

My first caution here would be against mixing and matching plans. While I love Cruise (and wrote the forward to his new book Stubborn Fat Gone!), no two experts agree 100 percent.

On to whey: Among protein powders, this is probably your most ubiquitous and popular option. Whey has a very high biological value, or measure of how quickly your body absorbs it. That's one reason whey has long been the gold standard in protein powders.

Its ubiquity has a downside: Because whey remains a staple among bodybuilders and other health-minded folks, manufacturers often mass-produce it cheaply with added preservatives, sweeteners, and artificial flavors.

Even quality whey isn't the panacea you might think. One study found whey creates an insulinogenic effect similar to white bread. In other words, whey protein can elevate blood sugar (and subsequently, insulin) levels similarly to a high-carbohydrate food like bread.

While elevated insulin might be ideal after a rigorous workout, most folks aren't using whey as a post-workout glycogen-storing fuel. Like you, they probably use it as a meal replacement powder.

Remember earlier I mentioned whey has a high biological value, meaning it absorbs very quickly. While that might be great after a workout, if you need a slow-releasing meal-replacement powder to keep you full for hours, whey doesn't work.

Whey is dairy, with all its potential problems. "There is no biological requirement for cow's milk," writes Dr. Mark Hyman. "It is nature's perfect food, but only if you are a calf. The evidence of its benefits is overstated, and the evidence of its harm to human populations is increasing."

Hyman says among its many problems, dairy can trigger or exacerbate diverse conditions including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and allergies.

Especially when you consume it frequently (as with whey), dairy can become a highly reactive food. One study found dairy products (including whey) could elevate insulin and basal insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I) levels that contribute to acne. Gas and bloating, stuffy nose, and excess mucus production are other signals your body might not be tolerating whey and other forms of dairy well.

Then you have casein. When this protein breaks up during digestion, the morphine-like compounds it produces are called casomorphins. Compared with other forms of dairy like skim milk or cheese, whey doesn't have much casein, but what little it contains can create cravings and reactions.

While protein shakes remain my No. 1 needle mover for fast, lasting fat loss, I've long said "no whey!" because of its potential reactivity but also because better protein powders exist.

"Pea protein powder [is] a hot plant-based protein," writes Cynthia Sass. "I love to whip it into smoothies, and use it as a protein-booster in oatmeal." Many high-quality powders blend pea with other plant-based proteins like rice to provide a well-rounded amino acid profile similar to whey.

Another smart option is defatted beef protein powder. Hey, don't knock it till you've tried it. Defatted beef protein powder provides whey's creaminess and texture without dairy's drawbacks.

Regardless whether you opt for plant- or animal-based, opt for a low-sugar impact protein powder with five grams or less of sugar per serving, with as few ingredients as possible.

And don't turn your protein shake into an adult milkshake. Blend protein powder with frozen raspberries, kale (you won't taste it), avocado, freshly ground flaxseed, and unsweetened coconut or almond milk for a meal that takes minutes to make but keeps you full and focused for hours. Almond butter or cacao nibs give your shake major zing.

What's your go-to protein powder to whip up smoothies and other protein-boosted foods? Share yours below. And keep those great questions coming at AskJJ@jjvirgin.com.