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When Whey is Getting in the Way: A Guide to Whey Intolerances

Whether you are a seasoned “gym-rat” or someone who is new to structured exercise, chances are that you have heard others talk about protein powders ad nauseam- how much to consume, what brand is best, which flavors to try, etc. This is for a good reason. 

In our last blog, we talked about the importance of how recovery and proper protein consumption play a huge role in that delicate training/recovery process. While we stress the importance of trying to get most of our calories from minimally processed, nutrient dense foods, it would be silly to assume everyone has access to a fresh cooked meal at all hours of the day. 

Enter the protein shake: an easy, convenient way to consume more protein on a daily basis. But what if that protein shake doesn’t sit well with your stomach? What if you have intolerances to dairy? What if you are showing symptoms of intolerance and don't even know it? Keep on reading and we will cover all of these questions and how to combat the issues.

Throughout my years of coaching others -and through personal experience- I’ve found that intolerances to whey protein are more common than I originally thought and often show themselves in not so obvious symptoms. 

The most common-and obvious- signs of intolerances to whey protein come in the form of bloating, excess flatulence or bowel movements and an upset stomach/nausea. Some of the “sneaky” symptoms may include headaches, excess mucus in the throat and extreme stuffiness. 

These symptoms are commonly associated with food allergies and/or food intolerances. Unfortunately, many people have either failed to recognize, ignored or just simply learned to live with these symptoms which are not normal and should not be ignored, rather, they should be dealt with and eliminated.

Here I will turn to Dr. John Berardi, PhD, CSCS to explain 4 simple questions you can ask yourself to help identify a whey protein allergy or intolerance:

“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 mucus 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 or protein allergy/intolerance.”

What Is Lactose Intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is a digestive disorder caused by the inability to digest lactose, the main carbohydrate in dairy products. It can cause various symptoms, including bloating, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. People with lactose intolerance don't make enough of the enzyme lactase, which is needed to digest lactose.

Protein Allergy/Intolerance

In addition to the previously mentioned, symptoms can be a result of a 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 mucus production. And high mucous means blocked airways, stuffy noses, and thick throats.” -Dr. Berardi.

What to do:

1) Switch Protein Brands

If you consistently show any of the aforementioned symptoms after having a 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. 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 has concentrates, it has lactose. The supplement industry is the “Wild-Wild-West” and unfortunately some companies will cut corners to save money, and it’s your stomach that suffers. 

Primal Athletics exclusively carries SFH brand protein because of their commitment to quality ingredients and no “fillers”. SFH supplements can be found at both Primal Athletics locations.

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 a case, you might try switching to a plant based or rice protein isolate protein.

Primal Athletics carries SFH Plant Based Protein at both gym locations.

3) Think About Cutting Dairy

Another thing to consider if you’re suffering from the symptoms above is your dairy intake. Instead of your protein being the problem, you might have a problem with milk, cheese, yogurt, etc. Remove them from your diet for 30 days and take note of how your body feels. 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. Reintroduce dairy products slowly after 30 days and take note of how your body reacts.

In the end, the point of this article isn’t to make you afraid of dairy or whey protein. If you use whey on a regular basis and don’t show any of these symptoms, there is no need to make changes for the sake of making changes. But if you are feeling any of these symptoms, you don’t need to try to “fight through” them just to try to get your protein numbers up. You have answers to your problems.

As always, our coaches are here to help. If you feel like you are stuck in your training or diet, our nutrition coaches can help guide you to your goals. Let our 1-on-1 Nutrition Coaching program be the 12-week stepping stone to the best version of yourself.

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