Protein powder is a popular nutritional supplement. Not only is protein an essential macronutrient for building muscle, repairing tissue and making enzymes and hormones, it’s also used to aid weight loss and help tone muscles. Powdered protein can come from an animal source, like eggs or milk, or from a plant-based source, such as pea, hemp or rice.
Protein powders can also include additional vitamins, minerals, artificial ingredients and added sugars - so talking about the potential side effects is dependent on the ingredients it contains. Most powders won’t give you any side effects, but the risks differ according to which type of protein you’re consuming, if it’s contaminated, and what other ingredients they’ve packed in there.
Whey protein powder side effects
Whey protein is derived from whey, the watery part of milk that separates from the curds during the cheese-making process. It’s the most popular fitness and dietary supplement, used to help improve athletic performance, increase recovery time, build muscle and lose weight - but it’s also the one most likely to give you unwanted side effects. Many people experience digestive issues such as bloating, gas, cramps and diarrhoea when taking whey protein because of the lactose in it (we discuss the delicate issue of protein powder farts in more detail here). An estimated 68% of the world’s population are sensitive to lactose, with much higher rates of lactose intolerance in places like East Asia, West Africa and the Middle East, so it’s no surprise that many people report symptoms associated with their whey protein shake.
Although lactose intolerance is uncomfortable, it’s not a serious condition; however, you can run into real issues with whey protein if you happen to be allergic to cow’s milk. Symptoms of a cow’s milk allergy include hives, facial swelling, rashes, throat and tongue swelling, and can even trigger an anaphylactic reaction, which can be life threatening. If you experience uncomfortable symptoms while taking whey protein or if you are allergic to cow’s milk, you’re safer sticking to a non-dairy source of protein.
Whey protein may be safe for use for most people, but there isn’t enough reliable information to know if it’s safe for use when pregnant or breastfeeding. You don’t want to put anything you’re not 100% sure of into yours or your baby’s body, so stay safe and steer clear of whey protein if you’re an expectant or new mother.
Soy protein powder side effects
Soy is a controversial member of the protein family, with lots of conflicting research surrounding it. Some studies have concluded that it’s a health food, looking at the links between soy-eating populations in Asia and reduced risk of diseases such as heart disease and breast cancer. For others, soy protein supplementation is blacklisted, out of fear of increased estrogen levels and thyroid issues.
First of all, if you are someone who steers clear of soy at all costs, the truth is that there’s no need to be scared of tucking into soybeans and soy-rich whole foods like tofu, soy milk and miso. They’re rich in nutrients such as B vitamins, fibre, potassium and magnesium, contain all nine essential amino acids and, unlike animal protein, decrease cholesterol. They’re also rich in isoflavones, which is a type of plant estrogen. Soy isoflavones are why soy foods are considered so healthy, linked to better health, lower cholesterol and lower blood sugar.
However, when it comes to richly concentrated protein products like the soy protein isolate you’d find in a protein powder, it might be advisable to exercise some caution. That’s because soy is unique in that it contains a high amount of isoflavones, which can bind to estrogen receptors in the body and cause either weak estrogenic or anti-estrogenic activity. Its effects on the body varies depending on the existing amount of hormones in the body; premenopausal women have much more estradiol (the major form of estrogen) than postmenopausal women. For premenopausal women, soy may act like an anti-estrogen, whilst for postmenopausal women it may act more like estrogen.
Because the effects of a high amount of isoflavones differs from person to person, you might be best off avoiding consuming too much soy protein isolate. Soy isolate is soybeans stripped of all the other vitamins and minerals which give soy its health-promoting qualities, but with a very high amount of isoflavones, of which the effect is unclear. Try opting for a different source of protein for your protein shake, and enjoy your soy in the form of whole foods like edamame, tofu or soy milk.
It’s also worth noting that soy is a pretty common allergen. Soy allergies often begin in infancy with reactions to soy-based infant formula and, although most children outgrow their soy allergy, the allergy can continue into adulthood. Symptoms of a soy allergy include hives or itching around the mouth and, in severe cases, can cause a life-threatening anaphylactic shock. If you’re allergic or intolerant to soy, avoid any soy-based protein powders. You’re in luck with Vivo Life if you are a soy allergy sufferer, as all of our products are completely soy-free.
Pea protein powder side effects
Pea protein is on the rise, which is made by isolating the soluble protein in yellow peas. Unlike ground peas, pea protein isolate has most of the fibre and starch removed. Pea protein is free of the top allergens, and is generally well tolerated. Our protein powders VEGAN PROTEIN and PERFORM protein (with BCAAs) both contain bio fermented yellow pea protein, for easier digestion and a superior amino acid profile.
The rare side effects from pea protein are primarily digestive, but the risk of having troubles with digesting it is much lower than with whey or casein based options. In fact, eating too many actual peas is more likely to give you digestive issues than pea protein powder! That’s because, unlike the powdered format, whole peas contain a high amount of fibre, which can cause constipation or diarrhoea.
As such, there are no real side effects of having too much pea protein. You’re only at risk if you have reduced kidney function or are susceptible to gout, as pea protein is a source of purines, which are substances that the body converts to uric acid. Purines are fine in moderate quantities, but excess purines can make it difficult for your body to get rid of all the uric acid, so speak to a doctor before supplementing with pea protein.
Hemp protein powder side effects
Hemp is a high-quality vegan protein containing all nine essential amino acids, as well as fibre and additional minerals and antioxidants. Research has also shown that 91-98% of the protein in hemp seeds is digestible, so your body can use almost all of the amino acids for important bodily functions. Not only that, but hemp seeds are a rich source of minerals like phosphorous, magnesium, calcium, iron, manganese, zinc and copper.
Hemp’s high fibre content could trigger symptoms like gas, bloating or diarrhoea if it’s consumed too quickly, so make sure you don’t down your protein shake in one gulp. Those with hemp allergies should avoid hemp protein powder - otherwise, hemp is a good choice if you’re looking for a complete option that also contains antioxidants, minerals, fibre and unsaturated fats.
The dangers of plant-based protein powders like hemp and pea are the same as with all varieties. As they’re dietary supplements, they aren’t regulated by the FDA, meaning that it’s up to the manufacturers to determine the safety and labelling of products. That means there’s no way of knowing if they contain the ingredients it claims and nothing else; many protein powders do contain unwanted toxins and contaminants.
Researchers for a nonprofit group called the Clean Label Project screened 134 products for 130 types of toxins and found that many proteins contained heavy metals (such as lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury), bisphenol-A (which is used to make plastic), pesticides and other contaminants. One protein powder contained 25 times the allowed limit of BPA - so if you were to consume too much of an unregulated powder, you could be at a higher risk of cancer and other health conditions. That’s why it’s important to get yours from a source you trust, from a company which tests their products. At Vivo Life we rigorously batch test all of our ingredients at the source for heavy metals and contaminants, to make sure there’s no danger of them making their way into your protein powder.
Side effects of too much powdered protein
Let’s clear up the most common myth first of all: that a high protein diet can cause kidney damage. Although research has shown that people with pre-existing kidney dysfunction should restrict their protein intake, there’s no evidence to suggest that a high protein diet can cause damage to the kidneys. You can rest easy with your couple of protein shakes a day knowing that, unless you have chronic kidney disease, your kidneys should be perfectly fine.
Zooming in on protein powder itself, your body processes protein from powder the same way it would from any other protein source, so a good quality powder won’t cause you any unique issues.
However, like most things in life, protein is best consumed in moderation, as excessive consumption can cause some negative side effects like nutritional deficiencies or gastrointestinal issues. Protein powder contains very little carbs or fat, which is good for your macros, but decreases the nutritional quality of your diet. Whole food sources of protein like beans, legumes and soy are also sources of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and micronutrients, some of which you simply cannot replicate in a powder. To make sure your nutrition is on top form, you want to make sure you’re not getting too many of your daily calories from powdered protein, and you also want to make sure your remaining calories are nutrient dense. Our How Much Protein Do I Need guide is a good starting point to understand more.
You might also experience gas, bloating and cramping if you consume too much protein powder in one sitting. Although they’re most commonly consumed in a drink format, making it easy to gulp down in one sitting, that doesn’t mean it’s good to neck your protein shake! Whole foods require chewing and are more filling, so it’s easier to control how much you’re consuming - make sure to sip your shake at a moderate pace to avoid any issues with digestion.