I have to say this every single time I write an article like this because otherwise, people assume I am anti-Paleo. I have no problem with Paleo whatsoever! What I do have a problem with is obsessing over whether or not something is Paleo without considering the bigger picture.
Q: Are Whey Protein Powders Paleo?
A: No. Whey protein comes from cow’s milk, which is not Paleo.
Asking if whey is Paleo gives us an answer that provides very little real information about whether or not whey protein is actually of any use to us. Instead, we should be asking questions like these:
Q: Can my body use whey protein? I always hear that it’s just wasted after digestion.
A: Yes. Whey protein is practically the most bioavailable, fastest absorbing source available.
Many authors make silly claims that protein powder is useless because most of it just “passes through you” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Protein is comprised of amino acids. Protein bioavailability describes the percentage of essential amino acids present. Regardless of where it comes from, protein will be broken down into these constituents and absorbed. Eventually, amino acids are used to rebuild and repair tissues or transformed into either glucose or ketone bodies. Protein rarely just passes through you. Whey protein actually has more essential amino acids, including the ones you need to build muscle!
Furthermore, the rate of digestion and absorption of most foods isn’t great, but when you look at protein powders, they are more absorbable, not less, in comparison to meat. This means they hit your blood stream faster and that can be a good thing or a bad thing depending upon your goals.
In the end though, the physiological value of protein has more to do with the amino acid profile than the absorption rate – as long as you’re consuming complete protein sources or mixing incomplete sources, your body couldn’t care less. Most meats and fish provide a complete amino profile, and so does whey protein powder.
The real issue here has to do with satiety – how protein affects your hunger levels. This is where you have to consider your goals – are you trying to lose body fat? That will require creating a Calorie deficit in some form, and that might make meat, fish, and poultry better options as they’ll fill you up more. Protein shakes tend to have less of an effect on satiety – they just don’t fill you up as much as a nice steak.
Does this mean you should have nothing but protein powders? Absolutely not! I only use them on occasion to fill in the holes of my protein requirements for the day. The rest of the time I eat meat and get incidental protein from all of the other stuff I eat.
Q: What if I’m lactose intolerant? Isn’t whey a dairy product?
A: Whey is in fact a dairy product, but most whey proteins have almost no lactose after processing.
Whey protein is a byproduct of cheese production and is usually cooked down further to provide whey isolate, they most common whey variation available. This process lowers the lactose content from about 5% to less than 1%. In addition, many brands add lactase enzyme to their protein powders so that the lactose can be broken down safely during digestion. Mild lactose intolerance is essentially a non-issue at that point, so whey protein would be a good example of a processed food you could use to add to your health equation.
Q: What if I have a dairy protein allergy? Is there a safe way for me to have whey protein?
A: I personally have a dairy protein allergy and that is why I use hydrolyzed whey. I’m not providing any medical advice with this answer – you need to make changes to your diet under the supervision of a doctor if you have an allergy.
It’s important to note that dairy protein allergies are different from lactose intolerance. The most common allergenic protein in milk is casein. While processing of whey protein eliminates almost all casein, there’s still some left over. Hydrolysis breaks the protein down further, into free-form amino acid peptides. People with allergies tend to be unaffected. Whey hydrolysate is also used in baby formula for this reason.
Clearly, just because something isn’t Paleo doesn’t mean it’s bad for you. It’s a lot more complicated than that, and it depends upon the individual.
Here’s another example.
Q: Is Oatmeal Paleo?
A: No. Oatmeal is a grain, and grains aren’t Paleo.
That’s only part of the answer though. Of course, if you have Celiac disease, obviously you want to stay away from gluten. Avoid all grains and be careful with preparation due to issues of cross-contamination. You may also find that, regardless of diagnosis, that grains affect you negatively and it might make some sense for you as an individual to keep them out of your diet. No need to go there.
Simply put though, basing your diet on questionable science because someone who was intolerant said it “changed their life” is ridiculous. This isn’t an attack on your values or your lifestyle, it’s just common sense. If someone changed their life by dropping grains, good for them. They aren’t you.
The real argument against grains runs very deep, beyond gluten. A major point of emphasis is lectin concentration. Lectins are carbohydrate-binding proteins that can aggravate and inflame your digestive tract. There are high concentrations of lectins in oatmeal. The thing is, all foods have lectins – including many Paleo-approved foods – so you can’t completely avoid them. That’s OK, because most people aren’t very sensitive to phytolectins as long as foods containing them are prepared properly; grains need to be cooked thoroughly and removing the germ can be beneficial.
Again, if you’ve found that despite your best efforts, you feel better avoiding grains and you’ve already tried everything, then don’t go back. If you’re ready to give grains a try again, though, oatmeal is actually a pretty safe place to start.
Anecdotally, I used to live on Tums and when I reduced my grain intake, my issues with acid reflux went away. Now, I eat oatmeal on occasion and I’m fine.
Let me tell you why.
First off, my problem wasn’t occasionally eating oatmeal – that certainly wasn’t the thing that made me fat and sick. My problem was that I didn’t eat much whole food at all, so when I made that a priority, the game changed. I didn’t eat oatmeal during that time and I felt better.
I later added oatmeal back in to meet my needs for starchy carbohydrates with no problems at all. It turns out that I wasn’t gluten intolerant or sensitive to lectins, so why would I continue to avoid oats?
Q: What about the insulin spike from eating starches/sugar/carbs/etc?
A: Insulin spikes are normal and healthy for most people. If you’re a diabetic (type I or type II) or you have issues controlling your blood sugar, consult a physician.
If you have diabetes or you’re developing diabetes, controlling insulin is important. Your body doesn’t make enough insulin, or any at all, to clear glucose from your blood stream. For those populations, it’s a matter of life and death.
For the rest of us, worrying about insulin spikes is unecessary. Of course, most of us have been taught to fear insulin by low carb diet gurus. They argue that insulin is a fat storage hormone but I think it’s better to look at insulin is a building hormone. Let me explain.
To maintain the muscle you’re tearing down when you work out, you need insulin. Without the presence of insulin, muscle cells don’t open up to accept nutrients. Certainly, bathing your cells in insulin 24/7 isn’t a good thing – you can develop insulin resistance and become quite unhealthy.
Ironically, when you eat a diet of mostly meats and veggies with few starches and no sugars, you can elicit the same adaptation and essentially make yourself insensitive to insulin as well. The problem with insulin resistance is that it makes it more difficult for insulin to do it’s job and open up transport pathways into cells so you can grow stronger and healthier.
Sure, if you’re obese from chronically overeating, you would see results from doing the opposite of what you have been doing. That isn’t the case for a lot of people though. 100% adherence to a diet devoid of starches not only isn’t necessary for most people, it’s a way to develop a very unhealthy relationship with food.
A diet that is more flexible is the key.
Ask “Does This Food Fit My Goals?”
Paleo is a framework, a list of foods, and for some people, it’s a lifestyle. If Paleo is just a diet to you, however, then you really need to ask yourself why you’re doing it when there are a ton of other, more specific ways to figure out what to eat that are probably a lot easier to adhere to for most people.
Once again, even in the instance where Paleo is your lifestyle, 100% adherence isn’t the goal. Authorities that recommend the hard line approach often forget the role food plays in most peoples lives. Food is not just fuel – it’s meant to be enjoyed as well! It’s a myth to believe that the people with the best physiques are the cleanest eaters. Almost the exact opposite is true; the people with the best physiques are the ones who took a moderate approach and kept it up for years and years.
A diet of mostly whole foods – meats, veggies, fruits – that allows for times where you occasionally eat for joy is about right for most folks. Some people need to get specific before they know what that formula looks like for them, but it’s worth it. That is what ETP is – it’s not the quick fix, it’s not about huge changes – it’s about sustainable results.