The whey protein market is growing rapidly, especially among body builders and athletes, even people looking to lose weight. But what if you suffer with gout? Is whey protein safe in a gout-friendly diet?
Read on to discover why, although whey protein is low in purines, it could still lead to high uric acid and an increased risk of gout.
Whey Protein and Gout
What is whey protein?
Whey protein is isolated from cow’s milk as a byproduct of the cheese making process, part of which involves separating the solid curds (to make the cheese) from the liquid whey.
The liquid whey then goes through a process to increase it’s protein content and reduce its fat and carbohydrate content: purification, filtration, evaporation, and drying; the end result being plain “whey protein concentrate” powder typically containing up to 80% whey protein. The other 20% is made up of fat, carbohydrates, and lactose.
Another popular type of whey protein is “whey protein isolate” which contains 90-95% whey protein. Isolate goes through even more filtration stages to further increase protein concentration and further reduce fat, carbohydrates, and lactose content.
Both types may be sold as a plain powder or mixed with other ingredients, like spirulina or flavorings.
Whey protein is normally consumed as a shake by adding water or milk to the powder. However, pre-mixed, ready-to-drink, protein shakes are available. And it’s widely used as an ingredient in nutritional bars too.
Whey protein is a complete protein, so-called because it contains all nine essential amino acids (histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine).
They’re called “essential” amino acids because your body cannot make them on its own, it needs to get them from the food you eat.
Who uses whey protein?
Whey protein is typically used by body builders and athletes to help build muscle, increase strength, improve athletic performance, and aid post-workout recovery.
And some people take it because they’re lactose intolerant or allergic to other sources of protein, such as eggs.
It’s also used, usually under medical supervision, as a dietary supplement for those with a protein deficiency or those who need a nutritional boost after a long illness.
It’s also thought, by some, that a high-protein diet may help them lose weight as it makes them feel fuller for longer.
Now, before we investigate whey protein’s potential effect on gout, let’s quickly familiarize ourselves with the cause of gout…
What causes gout?
Gout is a form of inflammatory arthritis whose root cause is high uric acid levels in the bloodstream, a condition called “hyperuricemia”.
Left unattended, hyperuricemia can result in tiny uric acid crystals forming in the joints and connective tissue. This triggers the painful symptoms of a gout attack, often called a gout flare.
Where does uric acid come from?
Uric acid is the end product of purine metabolism, which purines are natural chemical compounds found in the cells of all living creatures and plant life.
Which is why gout sufferers are usually encouraged to change to a low-purine diet that avoids high-purine foods, limits moderate-purine foods, and allows low-purine foods as normal.
Generally speaking, foods with the highest purine content are also high-protein foods, for example, organ meats, game and seafood. These are usually avoided by gout sufferers.
Although high in protein, foods such as red meat, poultry, and some species of fish and shellfish, have moderate concentrations of purines. These may be consumed in moderation without increasing the risk of gout.
But it’s not just animal-based sources of protein; some plant-based foods are good sources of protein too, for example, potatoes, sweet potatoes, asparagus, artichokes, broccoli, lentils, beans, peanuts, almonds, chickpeas, green peas, chia and hemp seeds.
However, unlike animal proteins, studies show that plant-based proteins, such as in vegetables, aren’t associated with an increased risk of gout.
So, can whey protein — isolated from milk — be part of a gout-friendly diet? Or, given that it’s a protein concentrate, may it actually increase the risk of gout?
Does Whey Protein Cause Gout?
The good news is that whey protein, in and of itself, has little in the way of purines so, as far as its purine content goes, it shouldn’t increase the amount of uric acid produced in the body.
However, we’re talking about a high-protein supplement being taken in addition to dietary proteins. It’s this combination that may be problematical…
A 2013 study concluded that there wasn’t a scientific basis to recommend protein consumption above the recommended dietary allowance for healthy adults.
Indeed, the opposite may be the case, since the same study noted that the body doesn’t process excess protein very efficiently which, in turn, can overload organs like your kidneys and liver, even your bones.
So, could an excess intake of protein be a risk factor for gout, especially when taken to extremes?
It’s possible: overburdened liver and kidneys could struggle to process and excrete sufficient uric acid from the body.
This would cause excess uric acid to build-up in the bloodstream, leading to an increased risk of gout attacks. There’s also a known higher risk of kidney stones with high-protein diets.
So how much daily protein does a healthy individual actually require?
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein
The RDA for a healthy adult is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
So the RDA for, say, a 150 pound (68 kg) adult is just over 54 grams per day (0.8 grams of protein x 68).
Because the majority of people are likely to get sufficient quantities of protein through their diet — the average American, for example, eats more than 79 grams of protein per day; Brits slightly less — it’s highly unlikely that the average healthy person would need to add whey protein into the mix.
Even gout patients, who completely avoid high-purine animal protein, should get sufficient protein from plant-based and low-fat dairy protein, along with limited amounts of moderate-purine animal & seafood protein.
And bear in mind that manufacturers commonly recommend one to two scoops of whey protein per day; equivalent to 25 to 50 grams of protein per day (depending on the type and brand).
So, unless there’s a medical reason for whey supplementation, taking 25 to 50 grams over and above your RDA won’t provide any additional health benefits but could well increase your risk of gout and kidney stones.
Whey protein for maintaining muscle mass and function
If you’re elderly and thinking you need to supplement your gout diet with whey protein to help maintain muscle mass and function, then you’re likely mistaken here too…
Studies have shown that you don’t need a very high protein intake to help prevent muscle loss. For example, one study published in the National Library of Medicine concluded that:
“A 113 g serving of lean beef increased muscle protein synthesis by approximately 50% in both young and older volunteers. Despite a 3-fold increase in protein and energy content, there was no further increase in protein synthesis following ingestion of 340 g of lean beef in either age group. Ingestion of more than 30 g of protein in a single meal does not further enhance the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis in young and elderly.”
To give some context, a 113 gram (4 oz) portion of lean beef — a moderate-purine food — is just slightly over the 100 gram (3.5 oz) limit allowed, per day, in a healthy gout diet.
So an average healthy person, even someone with gout, who gets their RDA protein intake from their diet, shouldn’t need whey supplementation to maintain muscle mass or, indeed, for any other health benefit (unless specifically advised to do so by their doctor).
Although whey protein is very low in purines and doesn’t inherently raise serum uric acid levels, excessive total protein intake is still a risk factor for gout.
A typical whey protein dosage is 1 to 2 scoops, supplying 25 to 50 grams of protein per day. But this will be over and above your RDA for protein from your diet
Thus, by adding whey protein to your diet on a daily basis, you could be consuming way too much protein for your body’s needs.
This can affect your kidneys’ ability to excrete uric acid from your body, leading to an increase in serum uric acid and an increased risk of recurrent gout flares.
So gout sufferers should refrain from taking whey protein unless advised to, by their doctor, for a medical condition.
But, if there are no medical reasons, and you’re still determined to take whey protein, make sure to seek professional advice before taking it.
Your doctor should be able to tell you whether or not whey protein is something you can add to your diet. They can also let you know the best type and dosage of whey protein to take to minimize the impact on your gout.
Who Should Not Take Whey Protein
Anyone with a milk allergy or a sensitivity to milk should refrain from taking it as it can cause an allergic reaction.
Whey protein can also interfere with the proper functioning of certain medications, including antibiotics. So, if you are on a course of medicine, refer to your doctor before taking whey protein.
And talk to your doctor before consuming any kind of protein powder if you have kidney disease.
Finally, be aware that too high doses of whey protein may cause side effects, such as nausea, headaches, diarrhea, bloating, and cramps.