With heart disease topping the charts as the leading cause of death in the United States, many people are concerned about a link between whey protein and cholesterol or other types of protein shakes and how they affect your cholesterol levels.
Although there are many different options to choose from when deciding on a protein shake, the good news is that most of them have no negative effect on cholesterol levels. In fact, some protein shakes may even lower your cholesterol levels.
Different types of protein shakes affect your cholesterol in different ways, but studies show that whey protein and soy protein may both lower cholesterol levels, optimize their particle size and reduce your risk of heart disease and metabolic syndrome. There are also other benefits of protein shakes, like weight loss and lower blood pressure.
What Is a Protein Shake?
Protein is an essential macronutrient for building and maintaining muscle mass, maintaining your body weight and keeping your bones healthy. Although you can get protein from the whole foods in your diet, many people opt for protein shakes and powders to help meet their needs in an easy and convenient way. Most protein shakes are made from a protein powder that can come from various sources, including:
Although each type of protein has a different nutrient profile (with varying amounts of different amino acids) and comes with different health benefits, several of them have been shown to have a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels.
Whey Protein and Cholesterol
Protein is often studied for its connection to weight loss and muscle building, but the research on protein's effects on cholesterol, especially in the form of protein powders, is limited. That being said, some small studies have looked at the effects between whey protein and cholesterol, as well as the effects and benefits of protein shakes in other forms.
One small study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in December 2016 looked at the effect of an eight-week supplementation with whey protein powder on different risk factors for heart disease. The researchers discovered that one of the whey protein benefits is that it may protect heart health because it lowered total cholesterol levels and improved blood pressure in study participants.
A literature review published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in August 2016 looked at all relevant past studies and reported that, while they didn't find any associations between whey protein and lower cholesterol levels, supplementation with the protein powder did reduce triglyceride levels.
Other Types of Protein
Another small study compared soy protein to whey and egg protein to see if there was a difference in cholesterol-lowering effect and other risk factors of heart disease, like weight and blood pressure. The study, published in The Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging in January 2015, reported that both total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides were reduced in all participants, regardless of the type of protein they consumed.
All types of protein powder also contributed to weight loss, with more fat loss than muscle loss, and helped reduce blood pressure in study participants who were on a calorie-restricted diet.
A Note on Particle Size
When discussing cholesterol, many people focus on the different types, like LDL, HDL and VLDL, but emerging research shows these may not be the right things to look at. According to a 2014 report in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, high LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, is considered one of the most important risk factors in the development of heart disease, yet many people who have normal LDL levels still wind up with the condition.
That's because it's not the number of LDL particles in the blood that matter as much as the size of those particles. LDL comes in two sub-types: small, dense particles and large, fluffy particles. As a report in the June 2014 issue of Current Opinion in Lipidology notes, having a high concentration of small, dense LDL particles, which is also associated with low HDL and high triglycerides, increases your heart disease risk.
Soy Protein and Particle Size
In addition to the general cholesterol-lowering effect of protein shakes, limited research shows that soy protein may be extra beneficial because it also decreases the amount of small, dense LDL particles in the blood, according to an older report published in March 2004 in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
If you opt for a soy protein powder, make sure you choose one that's organic without any added artificial ingredients. Michael Rabovsky, MD, a family medicine doctor from the Cleveland Clinic, also recommends consuming it in moderation since the jury is still out on its estrogenic effect. Keep in mind that you can alternate between soy protein and other forms of protein powder, such as grass-fed whey, hemp protein and pea protein.
Other Things to Consider
Although including protein shakes in your diet in moderation isn't likely to raise your cholesterol, Harvard Health Publishing recommends that you should use caution when making your choice. Many protein powders contain sugar and artificial ingredients whose negative effects can outweigh the benefits of protein shakes.
In fact, sugar, especially in the form of fructose, has been linked to an increase in LDL cholesterol as well as other risk factors for heart disease, like inflammation of the arteries and increased oxidative stress, according to an April 2016 report in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases. Sugar can also specifically increase small LDL particles and triglycerides, another type of fat in your blood. Although the protein powder doesn't have a negative effect on cholesterol on its own, the sugar in it can.
When choosing a protein powder, make sure you look at the product's ingredient list and opt for one that contains minimal ingredients. Check the nutrition label and make sure there's no added sugar. If you choose a sweetened version, go for one that contains natural sweeteners like stevia or monk fruit, instead of sugar or artificial sweeteners.
- Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology: "Small Dense Low-Density Lipoprotein-Cholesterol Concentrations Predict Risk for Coronary Heart Disease"
- Current Opinion in Lipidology: "The Composition and Metabolism of Large and Small LDL"
- Journal of Nutrition: "Soy Protein Favorably Affects LDL Size Independently of Isoflavones in Hypercholesterolemic Men and Women"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Is Soy Good for You — Or Not?"
- Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases: "The Evidence for Saturated Fat and for Sugar Related to Coronary Heart Disease"
- Current Atherosclerosis Reports: "Influence of Dietary Carbohydrate and Fat on LDL and HDL Particle Distributions"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Leading Causes of Death"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Whey Protein Lowers Blood Pressure and Improves Endothelial Function and Lipid Biomarkers in Adults with Prehypertension and Mild Hypertension: Results from the Chronic whey2go Randomized Controlled Trial"
- European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Effect of Whey Protein on Blood Lipid Profiles: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials"
- The Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging: "Effect of Protein Source During Weight Loss on Body Composition, Cardiometabolic Risk and Physical Performance in Abdominally Obese, Older Adults: A Pilot Feeding Study"
- Cleveland Clinic: "7 Tips for Choosing the Best Protein Powder for You"