When shopping for protein powder, is whey the way to go? Not if you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). People with IBS should avoid powders and shakes with whey protein because it often contains ingredients that can trigger IBS symptoms. It's best to reach for protein-rich whole foods instead.
Protein is a vital nutrient and plays an important role during exercise for muscle growth and tissue repair, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). So it's no surprise that over the years protein shakes have become popular for workouts.
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However, protein shakes should not be mistaken as a comprehensive source of protein, because they don't have the same amount of dietary fiber, antioxidants and other important substances found in whole protein-rich foods, NorthShore University HealthSystem says. Most people get enough protein, often too much, from the foods they eat, NLM says, so protein supplements such as shakes are often unnecessary in the first place.
Read more: Is Drinking Too Much Whey Protein Dangerous?
Protein Shakes and IBS
Protein shakes and powders include a wide range of products, including some that are terrible for your gut and others that are fine, according to Elena Ivanina, DO, a gastroenterologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. But most protein shakes and powders should be avoided by people with IBS, Dr. Ivanina says.
"Protein supplements and powders are a dietary supplement. Therefore, the ingredient list may not contain the entire truth," she says. "Protein powders may include added sugars, unnecessary calories, artificial colors and flavoring, emulsifiers and thickeners, and excessive vitamins and minerals that may impact gut health and symptoms."
Dr. Ivanina also points out that in 2020 a nonprofit group called the Clean Label Project released a report about toxins in protein powders. They found some included heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury. They also found pesticides, bisphenol-A (BPA) — which is used to make plastic — and other contaminants linked to cancer and other health conditions.
That being said, there may be some more natural or gut-friendly protein powder options that might be OK.
"There are more wholesome and natural protein shake options, but the general caution is, beware of powders and blends that contain many ingredients and instead stick to wholesome natural foods if you have irritable bowel syndrome," Dr. Ivanina says.
Meal replacement shakes should also be avoided, she adds. "At this time, there is no convincing data supporting that meal replacement shakes are good for people with IBS. The best management of IBS includes an integrative approach with a gastroenterologist, nutritionist and therapist to cover the food triggers as well as the gut-brain axis that is so vital to address in IBS."
Say No Way to Whey
Whey protein powder is a powdered collection of proteins derived from whey, which is the liquid that remains after cheese is made from cow's milk, according to the National Cancer Institute. It should not be consumed by people with IBS, according to Dr. Ivanina.
"Looking at one whey protein complex powder, the ingredients include multiple milk-based items and lecithin, which is an emulsifier," she says. These ingredients can trigger IBS symptoms and gut inflammation.
So it's best to stay away from whey if you have IBS, and instead get your daily dose of protein from whole food sources. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says you can turn to meats, poultry, eggs, and nuts and seeds to get your fill of protein-rich real food.
IBS Is Common
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition involving a group of symptoms including abdominal pain and changes in bowel movements, such as diarrhea or constipation, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. It affects up to 15 percent of people in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Though doctors still aren't sure what causes IBS, research has shown that many IBS symptoms are linked to hypersensitive nerves located in the gastrointestinal tract wall, Johns Hopkins Medicine says. Some symptoms may also stem from communication issues between these nerves and the brain, or how the brain processes that communication.
Read more: Your Ultimate Guide to Living Well With IBS
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)”
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Nutrition and Athletic Performance”
- NorthShore University HealthSystem: “Good and Bad: Juicing and Protein Shakes”
- Elena Ivanina, DO, gastroenterologist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City
- National Cancer Institute: “Whey Protein Powder”
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Food Group Gallery: Protein Foods Group”
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.