When I was pregnant with my third child, I was horrified at one prenatal visit to find a basket of soy protein bars in the waiting room! This was at a birth center staffed by midwives who should have known better.
Even conventional authorities remain skeptical of this so-called health food. Kathy McManus, a registered dietician and Director of the Department of Nutrition at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, had this to say to the Harvard Health Letter,
“I don’t recommend using protein powders except in a few instances, and only with supervision.”
This warning is especially important because it includes all brands of protein powder. It does not matter what the source of the protein is (whey, rice, soy, pea, etc.) or whether it is organic.
Dangers of Protein Powders while Pregnant
While adequate protein intake is indeed important during pregnancy, getting this macronutrient via highly processed protein powders and high protein foods is a disastrous choice. This is because these same ladies that are drinking high protein smoothies and protein bars are very likely avoiding saturated fat at the same time.
A diet high in protein and low in fat rapidly depletes Vitamin A stores. Natural vitamin A from food (not beta carotene or synthetic palmitate) is necessary for optimal fetal development.
Whole foods containing large amounts of protein naturally include protective amounts of fat such as eggs and grass-fed beef. On the other hand, high protein processed foods are devoid of any fat in most cases. This makes them particularly dangerous for regular consumption.
Depletion of Vitamin A stores during pregnancy is a dangerous problem. This nutrient is critical to preventing birth defects such as cleft palate, cleft lip, major heart malformations, and hydrocephalus. Vitamin A is also the “beauty vitamin” responsible for symmetry in physical and facial features.
Vitamin A deficiency from consumption of high protein foods is not assisted by prenatal vitamins either as these worthless pills do not contain true vitamin A but instead the synthetic version, Vitamin A Palmitate or the plant-based version beta carotene. Little of this is converted to true Vitamin A.
Protein Powder Side Effects
Vitamin A depletion when consuming high protein processed foods is also risky for the average individual as well. Symptoms of Vitamin A depletion include:
- Heart arrhythmias
- Kidney problems
- Autoimmune disease
- Thyroid disorders
Negative calcium balance is also a risk with high protein, low-fat diets which means that more calcium is lost than what is taken in. The consequences of negative calcium balance include bone loss and nervous system disorders.
Know anyone who drinks a high protein smoothie every day for lunch who develops a bizarre neurological disorder out of the blue? I personally know several.
I’ve wondered about the stories in the news of young, healthy, vibrant male athletes, some only in high school, who inexplicably drop dead during competition. Or, seem prone to dangerous, full body cramping dehydration despite drinking plenty of water. Could these young men be eating lots of protein, much of it processed, while on a low-fat diet in order to build muscle and strength as recommended by bodybuilding magazines? Such misguided advice would rapidly deplete Vitamin A stores which could potentially lead to heart arrhythmia and sudden death.
Other Problems with High Protein Processed Foods
Besides the depletion of Vitamin A stores, high protein processed foods contain potentially large amounts of MSG in the form of protein isolates. Separating protein from its food source during manufacturing results in the creation of MSG. It is essentially the amino acid glutamic acid gone bad. Therefore, MSG is present in high protein processed foods but it is not on the label because it is not technically added to the final product. It is created during manufacturing and therefore is conveniently unlisted on the label.
Don’t buy into the “low temperature dried” protein powder fallacy as well. Low-temperature processing and drying of protein powders is a less damaging manufacturing method. The powdering process still denatures the protein, however. Whey protein, in particular, is very fragile and should not be dried or powdered.
A good rule of thumb is that no protein powder is a safe protein powder!
Protein Powders Increase Risk of Death
One of the most worrisome studies published in 2019 involves whey protein. Shakes made with this type of protein are typically used to quickly build muscle mass.
Whey protein contains high levels of the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, valine, and isoleucine.
Researchers from the University of Sydney found that mice whose diet that is high in BCCA-containing protein but relatively low in other essential nutrients can have many negative effects on long-term health and lifespan.
Researchers identified that the competition between BCAAs and another amino acid – tryptophan – in the blood led to lower-than-normal serotonin levels in the brain, resulting in negative consequences to health.
Healthy Alternatives to Protein Powder
Need a protein boost in green smoothies and other beverages and want to avoid the protein powders now that you realize the dangers to your health in using them?
Try powdered gelatin or collagen hydrolysate also referred to as hydrolyzed collagen peptides. The natural gelatin from bone broth is an option too although it is not ideal for adding to smoothies in this form.
Gelatin and hydrolyzed collagen have 11 grams of protein per tablespoon. They are colloidal substances which means they attract digestive juices similar to raw foods full of enzymes. This is the quality brand of gelatin and peptides I use. Hence, both gelatin and peptides are helpful to the digestive process and contain a protein kick to boot!
Another option would be to use nutritional brewers yeast. The best brand is made by Sari Foods as it has no additives, synthetics like folic acid and is low temperature dried. It has 8 grams of protein per serving.
Be aware that even natural gelatin contains small amounts of MSG, so if you are particularly sensitive, you may wish to choose nutritional yeast as the better alternative.
Sarah Pope has been a Health and Nutrition Educator since 2002. Her work is dedicated to helping families effectively incorporate the principles of ancestral diets within the modern household. She is a sought after lecturer around the world for conferences, summits, and podcasts.
Her work has been covered by major media including USA Today, ABC, NBC, and many others.