Does Whey Protein Cause Acne?

(Last Updated On: September 10, 2018)

Does whey protein cause acne? In a nutshell, yes. Whey protein is a major contributor to the factors that cause acne.

That’s probably not what you want to hear if you’re happily boosting your protein intake with a whey smoothie or two every day. But, facts are facts and facts don’t care about your preferences.

Whey protein has reached the status of a superfood among health conscious consumers, and it’s a status that it doesn’t deserve.

At one time, whey protein was mainly the preserve of bodybuilders and athletes who were looking for faster bulking (in the case of the former) and better performance (in the case of the latter).

Over time, the purported benefits of whey protein spread due to word of mouth recommendations down at the gym, and the endorsements from health and fitness magazines, bloggers, and Instagrammer’s.

Recommendations and endorsements which were themselves fuelled by the marketing machinations of the supplement industry and its insatiable appetite for profit.

And now, millions of people harbor the mistaken belief that a strawberry/vanilla/chocolate flavored drinkable dose of extra protein is the key to good health and extra vitality.

However whey protein is a hugely problematic food product, and it’s one that you’re better off avoiding if you care about your health.

That’s a strong statement, so let’s back that up with quote from a 2011 study which should quickly clue you in on the bigger picture.

“The elimination of the whey protein-based insulinotropic mechanisms of milk will be the most important future challenge for nutrition research.

“Both, restriction of milk consumption or generation of less insulinotropic milk will have an enormous impact on the prevention of epidemic western diseases like obesity, diabetes mellitus, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and acne.”

Yes, you read that right, that quote puts a serious ding into the notion that whey protein is healthy, and it looks like acne could be the least of your problems.

Acne is a disorder that you can see, and therefore do something about.

Cancer, diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases are hidden, gestating slowly in the darkness, before bursting onto the scene as a screaming, red headed problem child that you can’t ignore.

When you stop and think about it, it’s hardly surprising that a food (milk) that is meant to nourish baby cows would cause health problems in the adults of an entirely different species.

And don’t forget, we humans are the only mammals that continue to consume milk (albeit from another species) after infancy.

Far from milk and its derivatives – cheese, yogurt, whey protein, etc – being a necessary part of a healthy diet, we like other non-infant mammals have no nutritional need for these foodstuffs at all.

In evolutionary terms, the bovine secretions otherwise known as milk, have only been part of our diet for a small period of time, and we haven’t fully developed the digestive mechanisms to deal with them in a wholly safe manner.

So how can a product isolated from the mammary secretions of another species, which we don’t have the digestive capability to safely assimilate, be a health food? Answer – It can’t. The only health that whey protein powders promote, is the health of corporate balance sheets.

There Is No Proof for Many Of the Health Claims Made About Whey Protein

Does Whey Protein Cause Acne

When so many health claims are made for a substance that the human body has no nutritional need for, something fishy might just be afoot.

And sticklers that they are for backing up health claims, the European Union decided to do some whey protein fact checking of their own, and the results weren’t good.

In 2010, the European Food Safety Authority verify the health claims made for whey protein. For each of the claims listed below, either no references for the claimed effects were found, or upon examining the studies that were available, the panel found that the studies had not tested the claims or had produced conflicting results.

(Quotes taken from the report).

Claim 1

Increase in satiety leading to a reduction in energy intake.

Finding

None of the studies provided tested the sustainability of an effect of whey protein on measures of satiety and subsequent energy intake.

Claim 2

Contribution to the maintenance or achievement of a normal body weight.

Finding

No references were provided from which conclusions could be drawn for the scientific substantiation of the claimed effect.

Claim 3

Growth or maintenance of muscle mass.

Finding

In weighing the evidence, the Panel took into account that only three small intervention studies in humans were pertinent to the claim and that these studies reported conflicting results with respect to the effects of whey protein on muscle mass compared to other protein sources.

Claim 4

Increase in lean body mass during energy restriction and resistance training.

Finding

From all (but one) of the references provided for the scientific substantiation of this claim no conclusions could be drawn for the scientific substantiation of the claimed effect, and one human randomized controlled intervention study which compared whey protein and casein reported a significantly greater increase in lean body mass in the casein group compared to the whey protein group.

Claim 5

Reduction of body fat mass during energy restriction and resistance training.

Finding

From all (but one) of the references provided for the scientific substantiation of this claim no scientific conclusions could be drawn for the substantiation of the claimed effect, and one human randomized controlled intervention study which compared whey protein and casein reported a significantly greater decrease in body fat mass in the casein group compared to the whey protein group.

Claim 6

Increase in muscle strength.

Finding

In weighing the evidence, the Panel took into account that the results from the three small intervention studies in humans that addressed the effects of whey protein versus other protein sources (i.e. casein and soy protein) on muscle strength were conflicting.

Claim 7

Increase in endurance capacity during the subsequent exercise bout after strenuous exercise.

Finding

No references were provided from which conclusions could be drawn for the scientific substantiation of the claimed effect.

Claim 8

Skeletal muscle tissue repair.

Finding

No references were provided from which conclusions could be drawn for the scientific substantiation of the claimed effect.

Claim 9

Faster recovery from muscle fatigue after exercise.

Finding

No references were provided from which conclusions could be drawn for the scientific substantiation of the claimed effect.

Hmm, so no verified health benefits for these heavily marketed, health supplements. Isn’t that interesting? What are we left with then? The only benefit seems to be convenience.

But it gets worse. According to Consumer Reports, whey protein supplements including some big name brands are contaminated with arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury at low to moderate levels, with some products tested containing levels that were above those deemed pharmacologically safe.

Consumer reports also highlights the fact that protein powders have in the past been found to contain the anabolic steroid precursors norandrostenedione and androstenediol.

How about that? People would innocently think that their extra muscle mass was the result of the protein powder, when in fact steroid precursors (turned into steroids in the body) were the real reason.

The supplement industry is unregulated, so many products don’t undergo any purity testing or even verification that the ingredients on the label are accurate.

Okay then, now that some common whey protein myths have been dispelled, let’s find out how this not so healthy health supplement affects your skin.

The Role of Whey Protein in Acne

The Role of Whey Protein in Acne

Acne is caused by a combination of disruptions in your body.

Hormone overload from insulin, insulin-like growth factor 1, and testosterone; and hormone depletion (estrogen); coupled with a lack of antioxidants, leads to inflammation and the overproduction of sebum and its oxidation.

As far as whey protein consumption is concerned, you’ll see a rise in insulin and insulin-like growth factor 1 which both cause an increase in a type of testosterone made in your skin.

The more testosterone present in your skin, the larger your sebaceous (sebum producing) glands will be, and the more sebum they will produce.

That’s the bird view, now let’s zoom in for a closer look.

When we think of raised blood sugar levels, we usually think about refined sugar and carbohydrate rich foods. But protein can also spike blood sugar, and that goes double for liquid protein.

The liquid protein in your whey based shake needs little processing in the gut before it hits your bloodstream, and instead of the slow and steady rise in blood glucose that your body expects, and is equipped to deal with in a normal manner, you get a blood sugar surge which necessitates the release of a flood of insulin to bring glucose levels back to a safe range.

High insulin levels stimulate the release of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) from the liver.

And crucially, high insulin levels decrease the amount of insulin-like growth factor binding proteins (IGFBP) produced.

Insulin-like growth factor binding proteins, as the name suggest, bind IGF-1. When IGF-1 is bound, it is biologically inactive, meaning it will have no effect on your body. But when the binding proteins are in short supply, that IGF-1 can run amok.

So what do have so far? Whey protein results in higher insulin levels, higher insulin levels result in more IGF-1 and less IGFBP.

Moving on.

Insulin and IGF-1 increase the amount of Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) produced in the liver. DHEA is a testosterone precursor which is turned into testosterone.

Normally the liver produces a sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) that binds testosterone making it inactive. The majority of testosterone in the bloodstream is bound and inactive.

Insulin and IGF-1 also make the testosterone converting enzymes in the skin more active.

The net result of this is more testosterone in the skin, and more testosterone means larger sebaceous glands pumping out more sebum.

How Does Sebum Cause Acne?

Sebum in and of itself is not a problem and is, in fact, vital for healthy skin. High levels of oxidized sebum, on the other hand, clog pores and create the perfect environment for a bacterial population explosion.

Sebum is composed of lipids and fatty acids, and two fatty acids, in particular, have the most relevance for acne – squalene and linoleic acid.

Squalene

Squalene is usually beneficial for your skin, and you’ll find that it’s added to many skin care products for that reason.

But oxidized squalene is bad news. Oxidized squalene becomes squalene peroxide, and squalene peroxide is the reason that sebum becomes comedogenic (pore clogging).

Studies have shown that squalene peroxide levels in those with acne are almost 80% higher than the levels found in normal skin.

In addition to clogging pores, squalene also increases keratin production. Keratin is a sticky protein that binds skin cells together.

Your skin has a built in exfoliation method that gets rid of dead skin cells. Normally, skin cells exit the pore one by one in an ongoing process.

But in the presence of massive amounts of keratin, they stick together and clump up, further blocking the pore and providing food for bacteria.

Keratin also makes the pore wall brittle.

Linoleic Acid

Linoleic acid keeps the pore wall strong.

Low levels of linoleic acid result in pore walls riddled with tiny holes. Again, thanks to studies we know that acne sufferers have much lower levels of linoleic acid (as much as 65% less) in their sebum than those with clear skin.

What causes this linolenic acid deficiency in sebum?

Well, it appears to be the overproduction of sebum. The more sebum pumped out by the sebaceous glands, the lower the concentration of linoleic acid.

And it’s the testosterone in the skin resulting from high insulin and IGF-1 levels (thanks to whey protein) that stimulates sebum overproduction.

What Causes Sebum Oxidation?

Alright, we know that with acne, there is too much sebum and that an important component of sebum – squalene – becomes oxidized. Without this oxidation, you won’t get acne.

So what causes this oxidation?

A lack of antioxidants.

Studies show that people with acne have far lower levels of antioxidants than people without acne.

In one study the levels measured were as follows:

  • Vitamin C levels were 40% lower.
  • Vitamin A levels were 33% lower.
  • Vitamin E levels were 45% lower.
  • Beta Carotene (a vitamin A precursor) were 65% lower.

Because so much sebum is being produced, high amounts of antioxidants are needed to prevent oxidation, and when the body doesn’t have enough antioxidants to go around, it will send the antioxidants it does have to mission critical areas like the cardiovascular system and leave the skin to cope as best as it can.

Boosting your dietary antioxidant levels with supplements will go a long way to helping resolve an acne breakout.

When researchers applied antioxidant cream comprising retinol (vitamin A ) and vitamin E to the skin for 4 weeks, squalene peroxide levels decreased by almost 60%.

Try a Retinol and vitamin E serum for yourself.

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Bacteria – The Final Puzzle Piece

We all have bacteria living on our skin and in our skin. The bacteria most often associated with acne is Cutibacterium acnes (this used to be called Propionibacterium acnes).

C. acnes bacteria live deep inside the pore, and ordinarily, cause no problems, but when its food source (sebum and dead skin cells) increases, the C. acnes population explodes.

Now, along with sebum and skin cells, you have a mass of bacteria and all of their waste products (toxins) filling the skin pore to bursting point, and causing inflammation and irritation.

And because the pore walls are weak (riddled with holes), brittle, and inflexible, they inevitably burst, and the goopy mess from the pore spills out into the surrounding tissue.

This spill triggers an immune response which leads to even more inflammation as white blood cells rush to the area on clean up duty.

As you can see, acne is a condition with many interlocking parts.

If whey protein is triggering your acne, the easiest way to combat your acne is to remove the trigger.

Remember, whey protein has no proven health benefits over and above the regular protein found in proper food.

What Are The Alternatives To Whey Protein?

Whey protein is undoubtedly convenient. You whip up a smoothie at home or take your shaker bottle to the gym for a post workout protein boost. But if you’re serious about your health over the long term, and want to enjoy clear, glowing skin, whey protein needs to hit the road.

Is Soy protein a good replacement for whey protein? Nope. Soy has its own considerable health downsides (which again are minimized by the health and wellness industry – because profit) and studies show that is is just as disastrous for insulin and IGF-1 levels as whey protein.

Why not just give your body the protein that it evolved to handle in the form of real foods? You can still have the convenience if you choose your protein sources wisely.

Portable protein sources include:

Canned tuna

Hard boiled eggs

Good Quality Beef or Chicken Jerky

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A Tupperware full of pre-cooked steak or chicken slices.

A Thermos Food Jar full of rich beef and beef liver stew (effortless to make in a Crockpot, see recipe below).

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All of those will tickle your taste buds and be ultimately more satisfying than a cup of artificially flavored sludge. And because they take a while to digest, these foods won’t spike your insulin levels.

Crockpot Beef and Liver Stew Recipe

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To make this stew, you’ll need a Crockpot. Crockpots are slow cookers that you can set and forget. Throw in your ingredients in the morning and when you come home, your dinner is tender, hot and full of flavor. You can cook pretty much anything in a Crockpot.

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ pounds beef (trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes)
  • 1 ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • 3 ounces Grass-fed Beef liver, thinly sliced into 1″ pieces
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 medium onions, each cut into 8 wedges
  • 8 garlic cloves, crushed
  • ¼ cup dry white wine
  • 1 cup beef stock
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste/puree
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon thyme
  • 1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
  • 3 cups sliced potatoes or sliced sweet potatoes
  • 2 cups sliced carrots

Directions

  • Heat the oil in a large non-stick frying pan over medium heat.
  • Toss beef in ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper; dredge in flour.
  • Add beef chunks to the pan and brown for 2 minutes.
  • Place browned beef in your Crockpot.
  • Add onions and garlic to the pan, cook for 5 minutes until soft.
  • Add wine to the pan and stir with a wooden spatula, scraping the sides as you stir.
  • Add onion mixture to the Crockpot.
  • Add beef stock, tomato paste, bay leaves, thyme, and tomatoes, then top
    with sliced potatoes and carrots.
  • Close the lid and cook on LOW for 8 hours or until beef is tender, and the gravy has thickened.
  • Stir in 1 teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper.
  • Remove bay leaves and serve.
  • Makes 6 servings (freeze extra portions)

 

“This article is due to be re-visited, proofread and updated a maximum of 3 years from its original upload date by Dr. Kimberly Langdon, M.D. All the content and media has been uploaded by Lily Greene our webmaster, who is also is in charge of page design.”

Written by Irina Radosevic MD
Irina graduated from the University of Belgrade, School of Medicine as a Doctor of Medicine (MD) and spent over 3 years working in the Clinical Hospital Center Zvezdara, in the Department of Emergency Medicine. She also undertook a postgraduate in Cardiology from the same University and had previously worked for over a year as a Physician and Nutritionist Dietitian for the Fitness club Green Zone. She eventually left her chaotic but fulfilling job in the ER to pursue her passion of writing, travelling and mountain climbing which has included writing a first aid course for the alpine club of Belgrade. Irina currently works as a VA for PintMedia focusing on medical and travel writing. Feel free to connect with Irina on LinkedIn and FaceBook. Her CV can be seen here.