There are plenty health benefits that can be gained by eating whey protein, but if you have recently started to follow or are contemplating the primal or paleo diet, you may be wondering whether whey is compatible with this regime. While purists of the paleo plan will tell you outright that whey has no place in this way of eating, when you consider the point of eating similarly to your ancestors is to benefit health and the health-giving properties that whey has, it is important to consider the concept of including whey alongside strictly paleo foods. To fully answer the question, it is first important to fully appreciate what makes a food paleo and where whey protein falls in relation to this. It's then worthwhile considering how best to incorporate this whey into a primal eating plan to get the benefits from both elements to maximize your chances of good health.
What Is the Paleo Diet?
While the paleo plan is covered in detail elsewhere, here we'll cover the basics that will help you to understand how well whey protein fits in relation to this diet's rules. The concept of the paleo diet is that we are still adapted to eat the same foods that our hunter-gatherer ancestors did 10,000 years ago. While our diet may have changed markedly since the development of agriculture, our genes haven't had nearly enough time to catch up with these changes, so our body still isn't designed to eat the foods that agriculture brought with it. As a result it is believed that including these foods in our diet is why we develop health problems that did not trouble our ancestors; evidence suggests that for hunter-gatherers obesity, heart disease, autoimmune conditions, osteoporosis, digestive disorders and gout were not a problem. Basing our diet on paleo foods therefore promises to help prevent these medical conditions. So which foods are considered to be paleo? The foods eaten by our ancestors and which can be included in the diet include:
Meat that is grass-fed, as well as game and eggs
All fish and seafood
Fruit and non-starchy vegetables
Nuts and seeds
Healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil and perhaps surprisingly grass-fed butter
The absence of processed foods should come as no surprise, as they're a modern invention, packed with lots of unhealthful ingredients. The dangers of added salt and sugar are also appreciated, and neither were originally included in what we ate. However, looking at this list you will see that some of the foods we include in what we consider to be a healthy balanced diet are missing. We are encouraged by dietitians to base our meals on wholegrains, but these are completely absent from the paleo way of eating as we didn't eat cereal grasses till we made them into crops; the same goes with starchy vegetables such as potatoes, yams and squashes. You will see that all dairy foods are also absent, as until cows, goats and sheep were domesticated, milk and everything we make from it is played no part in our diet. As whey protein is derived from milk, this is why those who following primal eating to the letter say that it cannot be considered as one of the paleo foods. However, as dairy produce is a good source of protein, calcium and other nutrients, what is so wrong with them from a paleo perspective?
Dairy Foods and Acidity
Why purists of the Paleo diet frown upon dairy foods is that they are one of the food groups that can be classified as making conditions within the body more acidic. While acidity is beneficial in certain areas, such as in the stomach to aid digestion and to protect us from microbes we have ingested, on a wider scale this considered to be detrimental to our health. The body needs to maintain conditions within a narrow pH, so when the acidity rises, it has been suggested that it does its best to neutralize this extra acidity by drawing out protein from the muscles and calcium from the bones. If this is allowed to continue, this may potentially lead to muscle wasting and osteoporosis. Opponents of dairy foods therefore claim that far from protecting the bones, they may do more harm than good. However, with respect to acidity the argument does fall down in the primal diet, as meat which is undoubtedly one of the paleo foods is also classified as being acidic. While the acidity of foods in the diet and the bearing this has on our health is still a much debated subject, for those wishing to err on the side of caution and limit their intake of acid foods, they may like to know that in fact whey protein is only mildly acidic, so will have far less impact on conditions in the body than consuming cheese and yogurt. It is also a better choice than soya milk substitutes, which are more acidic; though soy products are also excluded from the paleo plan being derived from a bean.
Reducing Whey Protein Acidity
Instead of considering foods in isolation when it comes to their acidity, it is useful to consider that the acidity of food is influenced by others that are consumed at the same time. This means that the overall acidity can be reduced by eating an acidic food with one that is believed to be more alkaline in nature. This would allow whey protein to fit more comfortably into the paleo diet. If whey protein is to be made into a shake, this lends itself very nicely to adding other ingredients to reduce its acidity. For instance, banana, almond butter and cinnamon, which are all alkalizing foods would be the perfect addition to make a smoothie, and by adding these extra nutritious ingredients this heightens the benefits of the drink.
Whey and a Paleo Diet
Whether you discount the theory about the impact supposedly acidifying foods have on our health or you takes measures to reduce the acidity of whey, there are some other factors to consider. Firstly, whey protein doesn't exist in its own right, it can only come about through processing, which wouldn't allow it to meet the definition that paleo foods must comply with. However, for a nutrient with so much to offer, should we really be too concerned about the technicalities of how it came into existence? This is particularly the case when whey is sourced from milk produced by grass-fed cows that have been farmed organically. By raising cows in this manner it ensures that the cows have eaten a similar diet to their wild ancestors and have not been subjected to any unnatural supplements, allowing a very pure product. It is also pure in the sense that high quality whey protein doesn't contain lactose or casein, which are two of the nutrients people frequently react to in milk and dairy produce. Lactose intolerance is characterized by digestive upset which may include nausea, bloating, abdo pain, diarrhea and excess gas production; these symptoms subside when a lactose-free diet is followed. Meanwhile, casein is thought to be one of the factors behind a condition known as leaky gut syndrome. This is where the bowel lining is believed to be compromised, allowing the entry of larger substances such as toxins and microbes that would usually be kept out, and this may explain the development of conditions such as MS and chronic fatigue syndrome; though this is still yet to be proven.
Another benefit of whey protein is that it is highly digestible and easily incorporated into our tissues. Its biological value is higher than that of an egg, which is considered to be one of the best foods when it comes to digestion and usage. This suggests that while whey protein may not have been eaten by our ancestors, our body is very adept at making use of it, suggesting that it is a suitable food for us to include alongside traditional paleo foods.
Although a protein derived from milk may not strictly be considered paleo, when you compare some of the health benefits that can be obtained from consuming this protein to that of a paleo diet, they are remarkably similar:
Both promote lean body mass. Whether you are an athlete or someone concerned about their health, striving for a higher proportion of lean body mass is beneficial and something we should all be aiming for. When we have more lean body mass, our fat stores are lower, which is beneficial in terms of reducing our risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other metabolic problems. With so many people at risk of these diseases associated with a modern lifestyle, combining whey protein and paleo eating may benefit much of the population. Achieving a greater muscle mass is additionally important for us all as we age to help combat the inevitable loss of muscle that occurs as part of the aging process.
Both promote a healthy heart. Besides primal foods aiding gains of lean body mass and the positive impact this has on heart health, the diet is also believed independently to lower blood pressure, cholesterol and inflammation, all of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Similarly whey has been demonstrated to favorably modify the same risk factors.
Both are associated with stronger bones. Concerns that whey protein is detrimental to bone health are unfounded, with studies showing that bone strength is enhanced by this nutrient; one of the components of whey protein stimulates the production of another protein that is essential for building new bone, which helps to boost bone mineral density. While dairy is excluded in the paleo diet, a number of the paleo foods are rich in calcium (seafood, nuts, seeds and certain fruits) and other nutrients for bone health - the diet is high in protein, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, vitamin C and K, as well as essential fatty acids, which many people don't realize are also required to maintain bone strength. Additionally as both primal eating and whey protein encourages muscle bulk and strength, this helps to prevent falls and therefore reduce the risk of fractures.
Both boost immune function. While the paleo diet doesn't claim to reduce infections, it is associated with a lower risk of cancer, which is in part determined by how strong someone's immune system is, as a healthy army of white blood cells can stop cancerous cells in their tracks before they have chance to take hold. Primal foods are rich in immune boosting nutrients such as zinc, vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin E, selenium and other antioxidants. On the other hand, whey is thought to boost the immune system by stimulating glutathione, a protein with a powerful antioxidant function, which is able to counteract free radicals before they are able to damage cells. Additional benefits may be gained from the immunoglobulin activity of whey proteins, that help to destroy invading microbes.
Both may benefit mental health. Although this is one of the lesser known benefits of both, there is good reason to believe that they can boost mental well-being. Paleo foods are rich in mood boosting nutrients - from the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and seafood, and magnesium from fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds to the B vitamins found across the whole range of foods. Equally, it has been shown that when people prone to stress take whey protein, the impact of their stress is reduced.
As you can see, whey protein shares many of the same health benefits as the paleo diet and while it can't be classified as one of the paleo foods, it would be a shame to exclude it from the diet when it has so much to offer. This common sense approach allows you to still follow the principles of primal eating, and include the foods classified as such, while adding in another nutrient with proven advantages for current and future health. This allows anyone following this regime to therefore give themselves the best chance of staying fit and healthy when included alongside physical activity, which itself was a key component of the paleo lifestyle.