So you’re taking whey protein for muscle building. Hey, I get it! I’ve been there.
You’re probably breaking out with some acne, too.
And you’re wondering, “Could whey protein be causing my acne?”
And the answer would be, yes! At least, it’s definitely contributing to your acne, and here’s why.
What is whey protein, anyway?
I’ll keep this short. Whey protein is one of the two main proteins in cow’s milk (the other being casein). Whey protein powder is made from whey, a by-product of cheese making. It’s an almost neon-yellowish liquid that’s strained off in the initial draining of most cheeses.
In other words, whey is dairy, and essentially, that’s why it causes acne and must be avoided.
One secret ingredient in whey that causes breakouts
Whey causes acne for several reasons, and one reason (we think) is because whey contains a hormone called IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1). This hormone is meant for baby cows to make them grow big and strong while they’re drinking their mothers’ milk.
Humans also make IGF-1 – you got it in your mother’s milk if you were breastfed, and you get some every time you drink a glass of milk (or a whey protein shake). IGF-1 makes baby cows grow fast, and it also makes us humans build muscle faster, which is one reason why whey is so widely used for muscle building (other than the fact that it makes it easy to down 50 grams of protein at once).
IGF-1 is normally regulated by your body, which has insanely complex systems of checks and balances to make sure your hormones don’t get out of whack (and cause problems like acne). But if you’re straight drinking the stuff, you’re throwing alien IGF-1 into the mix, which screws up your hormones. (And acne is primarily a hormonal disease, despite popular belief to the contrary.)
So there’s a serious problem with getting extra IGF-1 from whey protein.
How does IGF-1 from whey cause acne?
Here’s the basics of how IGF-1 from whey triggers your skin to create acne:
- IGF-1 makes your skin produce excess oil
- IGF-1 tells your skin cells to multiply too fast (so your pores get clogged more often with dead skin cells)
- IGF-1 glues dead skin cells together inside your pores before they can escape normally (through a complex signaling mechanism), meaning more clogged pores
In addition to these problems, most whey protein powder has actually been pasteurized twice, which denatures the proteins and forms complex protein + sugar cross links that are very difficult for your body to digest. If you’re also eating gluten (which damages your gut lining and allows food particles to pass through), chances are these large alien molecules are crossing into your bloodstream and wreaking small amounts of inflammatory havoc on your skin (i.e., redness and swelling and acne).
Whey spikes your insulin, worsening acne
It’s no secret that dairy products spike your insulin three to six times as much as they should, judging by their low glycemic index.
The problem with spiking your insulin like this is that it tends to worsen acne, in a similar fashion to IGF-1. The two hormones are closely related and interact with each other in ways that we don’t fully understand – but the most important thing to remember is that whey protein (as protein powder, or in milk / dairy products) triggers this insulin-spiking response in your body, which may be an additional mechanism for how whey contributes to acne.
As you can see, while whey protein is very effective at building muscle, it causes acne for a number of reasons, and is better to avoid if you’re going for clear skin.
Whey protein isolate vs. whey protein concentrate
Whey protein concentrate is worse than whey protein isolate, because it contains more of the intact milk hormones that cause acne.
Whey protein isolate is more intensely processed to get rid of as much of the “non-protein” stuff as possible, but don’t take that as a recommendation to go buy whey protein! It still causes acne.
Other acne-causing ingredients in whey protein powders
In addition to the IGF-1 in all whey protein, most off-the-shelf whey protein powders contain loads of artificial flavorings, sugar, artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, and just basically artificial everything. These ingredients can also cause acne, and create an extra toxin load for your body to deal with.
Yes, it’s true: 100% pure whey protein isolate is not as bad for acne as fancy commercial blends containing the above crappy ingredients, but even 100% whey protein isolate still causes acne, in my personal experience.
What about high-quality whey protein?
I’ve tried grass-fed whey from New Zealand, low-temperature processed whey protein isolate and concentrate, and several other 100% whey protein powders and have always noticed a few pimples. And that’s pretty conclusive evidence to me, considering that the rest of my diet is a completely clear-skin diet (which I show you how to do in my book).
Cut out the whey if you want clear skin!
I’m pretty opinionated on this. If you haven’t read my milk and acne article, read it now. Milk is the #1 worst thing for acne, along with all other forms of dairy – skim milk, yogurt, cream cheese, sour cream, yogurt, you name it (aside from grass-fed butter, which I don’t believe contains enough IGF-1 to cause problems, and which contains beneficial and hard-to-find compounds like CLA, omega-3s, and Vitamin K2). Whey protein is derived from cow’s milk, so if you’re eating whey protein and you’ve got acne, try removing it and see if your skin improves. Mine certainly did!
What about soy protein?
Avoid like the plague!
Seriously, soy has strong estrogenic activity in the body, and that’s not something you want to muck around with if you’re dealing with acne. Soy phytoestrogens fit neatly into your body’s own estrogen receptors, but don’t activate them fully, disrupting the complex ebb and flow and feedback loops of your body’s hormonal system.
I strongly advise you to avoid soy protein.
Alternatives to whey for building muscle (that don’t cause acne)
There are all kinds of other vegan protein powders out there, like hemp protein and pea protein and brown rice protein, but I’m just not a fan. First, they don’t taste very good (chalky, gritty, etc.), and second, I just think getting protein from meat is more complete, more effective, and stimulates your muscle-building hormones in a natural way that doesn’t tend to cause acne.
Eating red meat boosts your testosterone and helps build muscle. It contains heme iron which improves oxygen transport in your body, potentially increasing your maximum force output (and strength). Red meat also contains naturally-occurring creatine, for which aspiring bodybuilders have been paying loads of money for the last several decades. And yes, red meat even contains branched chain amino acids!
Non-red meat like chicken, pork, and fish also supports muscle growth through high-quality, complete proteins, BCAAs, and high mineral content. I’m a huge fan of the Paleo diet, as it’s the only diet I’ve found with two very important characteristics:
- It cures acne
- It’s sustainable and nutritionally complete (i.e. long-term healthy, unlike raw food diets, for example)
That’s why I recommend meat as your main source of protein. It’s better for your skin than whey protein, and will support muscle growth as long as you’re eating enough.
Eat this kind of meat whenever possible
Eat grass-fed meat as much as possible.
Avoid factory-farmed meat like the plague. It contains synthetic hormones, heavy metals, PCBs, agricultural pollutants, hormone disruptors (very bad for acne), and low-quality inflammatory fats (omega-6s) which lead to increased inflammation / redness / swelling of acne.
Grass-fed meat contains cancer-protective CLA, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, and many other awesomely healthy nutrients that factory farmed meat doesn’t.
Which meat is best for muscle building?
Red meat. Grass-fed. No question about it. It has the most creatine, the most heme iron, the most nitric-oxide boosting abilities, and boosts your testosterone the most (and that’s good for the ladies, too, as women also need testosterone to build muscle, and no, it will not make you look like the Hulk! It will just make you lean, strong, and sexy).
This means grass-fed beef, bison, venison, elk, and all other grass-fed (or wild) animals that produce red meat.
Next best is probably wild-caught fish.
The fattier the better, because the omega-3 fats will help shorten your recovery time after working out.
The next best meat is grass-fed pork.
I mean truly 100% grass-fed pork (not “pastured” pork, which usually means pigs raised on pasture, but fed corn and grains!). Check out pastured pork here: http://www.texasgrassfedbeef.com/id78.htm I have yet to try Slanker’s grass-fed pork, but they say their pigs actually produce red meat, not white meat. Whoa! I have eaten pork from heritage pigs in France that were raised in the woods, and while they were fed some grain, their meat was still incredibly dark and red-meat-like, so I can’t wait to try Slanker’s truly, 100% grass-fed, red-meat pork. It’s pretty affordable, too, compared to grass-fed meat in general, so it’d be a great thing to stock your freezer with.
And last are chicken and turkey.
I’m not saying never eat chicken or turkey, as they’re still much healthier than grains, beans, soy, tofu, gluten, milk, whey, and all other Frankenproteins. But they contain the highest amounts of omega-6 fats, and not enough omega-3s to balance them out. It’s just how the birds grow. If you’ve ever seen chicken schmaltz (chicken fat), you can see it’s much jello-like than, say, bacon fat or beef tallow, because it contains lots more omega-6 fat and not as much saturated fat (which, at the risk of throwing one too many curveballs, is actually healthy for you, as the science is now showing).
But what about my post-workout protein shake?
Don’t sweat it. You don’t need it to gain muscle. Just make sure you eat a meal with protein within 1-2 hours after your workout. A pound of grass-fed ground beef is my favorite post-workout meal. If you’re really going for muscle building, eat a few sweet potatoes along with the beef, pork, chicken, or other meat.
Your gains might be a tad slower without your post-workout shake, and your recovery time a tad longer, but the most important thing to remember is that post-workout shakes give you acne, and so if you want clear skin, I’ve found through years of experimentation that it’s best to be okay with a little bit slower gains. If you try to hack your body with whey protein, you risk getting acne. Play it safe!
Take the long view! Would you rather gain 2 pounds of muscle a week and get loads of acne, or gain 1 pound a week and have clear skin?
If you’re skinny and gaining muscle, you could drink a gallon of milk a day (GOMAD) and cram down 4,000 calories, but you will feel like crap the whole time and your skin will break out badly. (I’ve only managed to do HGOMAD, i.e. half a gallon of milk a day, but I still felt crappy, and it was raw milk to boot!)
Here’s a better solution for gaining muscle without the acne
Here’s a better solution: stick to real, whole Paleo foods, including lots of grass-fed meat, and you will still be able to make rock-solid gains (without gaining fat), and your all-around health and energy and mental clarity/focus will improve, too.
Most importantly, your skin will clear up.
Other calorie-bomb foods for mass gain (that won’t make you break out)
If you’re following a clear-skin-promoting diet (something similar to Paleo, probably), it can be hard to pack in enough calories with just whole foods if you’re not used to it. Staple mass gain foods like bread, oats, peanut butter, and milk (GOMAD) are out the window.
So what’s a guy/gal to do?
Here’s a bunch of ideas.
If you’re into coffee, butter coffee (i.e. Bulletproof coffee) is a great morning calorie bomb. I don’t recommend drinking caffeinated coffee (read my article about that here), but decaf is a pretty safe option. Find some high-quality decaf – from local roasters that roast lightly, or online from Intelligentsia, Blue Bottle, etc. – and add 2-4 TBSP grass-fed unsalted butter, and maybe 1 TBSP of coconut oil if you like the taste, or MCT oil as tolerated (NOW Foods sells a good ‘n cheap one). Blend with a hand blender or regular blender, add cinnamon/cardamom/nutmeg if you dig the spiced/chai flavor, and drink up. 4 TBSP is half a stick of butter, and while that seems ridiculous, that’s a good 400 calories right there! (BTW, be a little careful with the butter if you’re sensitive to dairy. It might be problematic due to potential hormone content, so if you’re on the fence, skip the butter coffee.)
Good calorie bomb staples, to replace oats/butter/etc., are these:
- white rice
- sweet potatoes
White rice and white/red/purple potatoes can be pretty high-glycemic, but if you’re lifting a ton, you’ll probably have pretty good insulin sensitivity and it won’t be as much of an issue. You can blunt the insulin response of these foods with a few tricks. For white rice, add some rice vinegar (plain, not flavored). For potatoes, steam them instead of baking them – that will lower the glycemic index significantly.
Coconut oil should be all over your daily menu. If you ever make smoothies, it’s an easy way to pack an additional 117 calories per TBSP. What I’ve been doing lately (since I’m also on a mass gain program) is making a bunch of white rice, mixing 1-2 TBSP of coconut oil in, adding a sploosh of rice vinegar to blunt the insulin spike, and then topping with a 7.5 ounce can of wild-caught salmon (here’s a good bulk Amazon source I like, or here’s an alternate). That’s ~800 calories right there, and ~45g of protein.
Steaming sweet potatoes is a great option – if you can steam a bunch at once, you can mash it, then mix in several TBSP of coconut oil and a bunch of cinnamon (to blunt the insulin spike), then refrigerate it. It’s a great breakfast addition (or for any meal). And it’s a great carotene-rich calorie bomb.
If you make salads, seriously douse them in olive oil and add tons of avocado on top.
Instead of peanut butter, go for almond butter. It is definitely more expensive, but generally a lot easier on your skin. The best almond butter I’ve ever had, and surprisingly one of the cheapest, is Zinke Orchards creamy almond butter. It’s seriously amazing. I’ve eaten half a jar in one sitting (not recommend unless you love gut pain). That’s another great way to get some extra calories, and a lot easier to eat more of than eating handfuls of almonds.
Organic, nixtamalized corn tortillas are also a decent way to pack in some extra calories. While we generally don’t recommend corn on the CSF diet in our book, it’s a decent option if you need novel ways to pack in calories. “Nixtamalized” means treated with lime (calcium oxide), which removes most of the enzyme inhibitors and phytic acid and makes them easier on your gut. They’re about 50 calories per tortilla, so adding ~4 to a meal will give a nice 200-calorie boost.
Also, you could try working some ground lamb into your diet. It’s generally fattier than most ground beef, hovering around 70% lean. Or just look for fattier grass-fed ground beef, like 70-80%. There’s a HUGE caloric difference between them. To illustrate, this is per 100 grams (a bit less than 1/4 pound):
- 90% lean ground beef => 176 calories (20g protein)
- 70% lean ground beef => 332 calories (14g protein)
So making a 1/2 pound patty of 70% ground beef (or lamb), and putting it on a salad topped with 1 TBSP olive oil and 1/2 avocado, would net you 750 + 120 + 160 = 1030 calories. That’s a pretty good mass gain meal right there!
When in doubt, just eat more of everything you are eating. Eat more red meat. Eat more canned fish (but not tuna). Eat more fat (coconut oil, olive oil, etc.). Eat more sweet potatoes, white rice, and white/red/yellow/purple potatoes. It’s tempting to try to find powdered substitutes and other “magic bullet” calorie bomb foods, but your body (and skin) will thank you for sticking to real foods as much as possible, and just eating more of them.
Alternative protein powders
If you really need some powdered protein (and I don’t recommend it, as per the above section!), your best option will probably be egg white protein (provided you don’t have an egg allergy). Egg allergy notwithstanding, I can’t think of any way that egg white protein could cause acne. It doesn’t contain IGF-1, it doesn’t contain human-analog hormones, and AFAIK it doesn’t boost your fasting insulin like whey does.
Yes, egg white protein is considerably more expensive than whey. For example, last time I checked, NOW Foods Pure Egg White Protein was around $15/pound on Amazon, and you can usually get Optimum Whey for around $10/pound, or grass-fed whey from a place like Pure Nutrition. That said, if you’re dealing with acne, the extra cost should not stop you from switching to egg white protein!
Note that egg white protein is naturally pretty salty, so you’ll ideally want to blend it into a smoothie with some other flavorful ingredients – something based on banana, almond butter/cashews, spinach, etc. comes to mind.
Also, if you go for egg white protein, avoid the ones with soy lecithin (e.g. MRM). Go instead for something like NOW Foods Pure Egg White Protein or Paleo Protein Pure.
You could also try sprouted brown rice protein, or an equivalent vegan alternative (e.g. Vega). The protein digestibility scores for these proteins are much lower than egg protein, and you’re getting a bunch of fiber in there, too, so overall it’s way more expensive. You’d be better off just buying and eating real food for protein – pass the meat, please! Canned fish, like salmon or sardines or mackerel (sustainably-harvested, BPA-free can) is a great way to get powerful, packaged doses of protein that will support clear skin rather than work against you (or neutral, in the case of egg white protein).
P.S.: Are you lifting heavy enough to build muscle?
Another important thing to keep in mind is that, to build muscle, you’ve got to lift heavy. Most machines do not allow you to do this properly and safely (contrary to popular belief), and most personal trainers don’t know how to do the most beneficial lifts for muscle growth properly.
The #1 exercise you can do for overall strength and mass development is the squat. The barbell squat, that is. That does not mean 1/2 squats, where you only go down until your thighs are at 45 degrees. That means going at LEAST to parallel with the ground! Make sure your stance is wide, though, because if it isn’t, you risk hurting your knees. Check out Starting Strength – that book is the absolute bible of weightlifting for complete beginners to advanced weightlifters.
There are really only five exercises you need to do to get a complete, whole-body workout that most gym-goers dream of:
- Bench press
- Power cleans
If you’re not gaining muscle, and you want to, do these five exercises only. Cut out the machines, cut out the Body Pump, cut out the cardio. These five free-weight lifts are the most powerful combination for overall basic strength development and muscle gain – they use many muscle groups at the same time, which produces a more effective growth stimulus as well as making you more functionally strong, because in all real-life weightlifting scenarios (e.g. moving to a new house, hauling stuff, lifting boxes), you’re using many muscle groups at the same time (which curls, for example, do not train you how to do!).
Again, if you’re interested in doing these lifts, I’ll refer you to Starting Strength, the best book there is on weightlifting for muscle + strength gain. (And yes, it’s great for women, too – in fact, many of the explanatory photos in Starting Strength use women as models!).
P.P.S.: One more reason to avoid whey
Whey comes from milk. Milk comes from dairy farms. Dairy farms tend to separate baby calves from their mothers, and feed them with grass or grains instead. That does not make for happy baby cows! This is a generalization – some hip dairy farms allow the calves to suckle from their mothers and just take the leftovers, but for the most part, raising cows for milk does not make for happy cow families. It feels much better to eat grass-fed beef than to eat whey protein or dairy, because most grass-fed beef farmers keep mothers and calves together the whole time, and let the mothers raise their babies on their own milk. I don’t know about you, but I just feel better about that.
- Whey protein contains IGF-1 and other substances that cause acne.
- Avoid whey protein if you want clear skin (both whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate).
- Drop the idea of gaining 2lbs per week – focus on slow, steady gains, which will a) reduce acne potential, and b) give your connective tissue more time to build up so you don’t get a bad injury.
- For gaining muscle, eat whole Paleo foods instead, including lots of grass-fed meat.
- Eat a meat-based Paleo meal 1-2 hours after your workout to maximize gains (including 1-2 sweet potatoes if you’re a hardgainer).
- Lift heavy weights (squat, bench press, deadlift, press, power clean) to make sure you’re actually shocking your body into growing muscle (read Starting Strength for how to lift for better gains).
- Avoiding whey protein is only one part of a holistic diet- and lifestyle-based treatment for acne.
- You need to fix your diet and lifestyle to really cure the root causes of acne (that’s what our book is all about!).
- Acne and whey protein supplementation among bodybuilders. Dermatology. 2012;225(3):256-8. doi: 10.1159/000345102. Epub 2012 Dec 13. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23257731 ^
- Whey protein precipitating moderate to severe acne flares in 5 teenaged athletes. Cutis. 2012 Aug;90(2):70-2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22988649 ^
- Evidence for acne-promoting effects of milk and other insulinotropic dairy products. Nestle Nutr Workshop Ser Pediatr Program. 2011;67:131-45. doi: 10.1159/000325580. Epub 2011 Feb 16. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21335995 ^