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Are Your Protein Powders Causing You Digestive Distress? How Protein Supplements Affect Your Gut

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Protein powders are the ultimate convenience food. They’re quick to prepare, they taste good (or at least tolerable), and they’re an easy way to squeeze more protein into your diet. However, not all protein powders are great for your gut.

Is your protein powder the culprit of your digestive problems? It could be. Your gut microbiome may not appreciate it--even if it is grass-fed whey from organically-raised cows. Is there a better way to “beef” up your protein intake?

Together, we’ll unpack what goes into a protein powder and how some of the most common types affect your gut microbiome. Based on our findings, we’ll suggest alternatives for supplementing your protein intake without any of the potential digestive symptoms that can come from eating protein powder.

How Protein Supplements Affect Your Gut

Protein Powder

What is it? A dietary supplement (not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration), protein powder is just that--powdered protein. This protein can come from a variety of sources, including the following:

  • Soybeans
  • Peas
  • Rice
  • Potatoes
  • Hemp
  • Eggs
  • Milk (Casein and Whey protein)

Most of the common protein powders on the market today are created from whey, the main protein found in dairy products. Sugars, sweeteners, vitamins, minerals, flavoring, and thickening agents can also be added to the supplement. The amount of protein per scoop depends on the advertised purpose of the protein powder, whether it’s building muscle or fat loss.

Digestive Issues

Unfortunately, eating protein powder can come with some negative side effects. Most of the symptoms are linked to whey-based protein powder.

Whey is a dairy protein. People with intolerances and allergies to milk-based products and lactose (the sugar found in dairy products) may experience digestive distress when consuming whey protein powder.

That’s not all. Not only can whey protein affect people with lactose intolerance or milk allergies, but its chronic use can negatively affect your liver, your kidneys, your skin, and of course, your gut microbiome.

Effects on Gut Health

Research about how protein supplements affect the gut microbiome is ongoing. However, one study has demonstrated that the consumption of animal-based protein supplements may have negative effects on the gut microbiome. The scientists examined how a blend of whey protein isolate and beef hydrolysate impacted certain aspects of the gut microbiome, like metabolite concentrations, pH, and the abundance of certain types of microbiota. What did they find? When compared to the control group, the group that received the protein supplement had a slight decrease in abundance of certain probiotic bacteria, like Roseburia, Blautia, and Bifidobacterium longum. Yikes.

Plant-Based or Vegan Protein

You may be wondering, how does a plant-based or vegan protein powder affect your gut? Plant-based protein powders, like those made from soybeans, peas, rice, hemp, and potatoes, are more environmentally friendly. They’re also an excellent option for people with sensitivities to dairy in animal-based protein powders. But unfortunately, they come with their own set of drawbacks. Plant-based protein sources have lower digestibility and can lack essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein). However, when combined with other plant-based protein sources, their nutritional profiles can complement one another to create a complete protein.

Vegan protein, packed with fiber (a prebiotic that feeds our probiotics) can also provide several benefits to the gut microbiome and boost health outcomes. For example, one study found that soy protein is superior to milk protein in promoting microbial diversity in the gut microflora. Not only that, but researchers point to soybean and pea proteins to promote gut health by shifting the composition of the gut microbiome and increasing the relative proportions of certain probiotic bacteria, like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Plant-based protein can also lower cholesterol levels, reducing one’s risk for cardiovascular disease.

However, eating too much protein in general can also cause harm. Though the limits vary widely from person to person, it can wreak havoc on one’s protein metabolism and cause discomfort in the gut. Symptoms of protein over-consumption include frequent abdominal pain, fullness, bloating/distension, and several other forms of discomfort. Studies have also linked protein overuse to bone, kidney, and liver disorders along with an increased risk of cancer and a quickened progression of coronary artery disease.

Alternatives

Fear not, there are plenty of other ways to properly incorporate protein into your diet without protein powder if it’s not your jam. Here are a couple of our favorites:

  • Eggs
  • Greek yogurt (rich with probiotic “friendly” bacteria)
  • Milk
  • Nuts (prebiotics that “feed” your probiotic bacteria)
  • Cooked lean meat, like chicken

Have you been hitting the gym and pumping up with protein powder? Curious to see how your gut may be affected? Floré can analyze your unique gut microbiome and create probiotics, customized and tailored just for you.

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