Protein shakes are a diet staple for gym-goers – whether they’re trying to gain muscle mass, develop leaner muscles, or lose fat. But one of the most common questions regarding protein shake intake is if it causes hair loss.
The short answer is, it depends on the kind of protein in your shake.
Whey Protein’s Fitness Benefits
High levels of protein are needed for muscle growth and strength, and the best protein sources are whole foods, such as eggs and chicken. Solid food, however, takes quite a bit of time to digest – which means that the protein also takes a bit time to become available for absorption and utilization. This is where whey protein comes in.
Whey protein powder is highly bioavailable – it is quickly digested and absorbed by the body so that it is readily available for the muscles to use when it’s needed, such as during or immediately after a workout. Exercising the muscles to gain muscle mass or make muscles leaner requires an immediate influx of amino acids to help with muscle recovery and growth. And whey protein meets this need efficiently.
As a dietary supplement, whey protein powder is versatile. It can be a form of meal replacement, a pre- and/or post-gym snack, or satiety booster when taken with regular meals. These days, whey protein supplements come in a wide variety of flavors, and can be mixed with many kinds of foods.
Whey protein is touted as the best kind of protein supplement because it provides high-quality protein and contains all 9 essential amino acids. However, evidence suggests that drinking whey protein powder can cause hair loss in some individuals.
Whey Protein and Hair Loss
One study, conducted by hair transplant surgeon and dermatologist Dr. Larry Shapiro, discovered that a certain type of whey protein can aggravate or accelerate hair loss.
The two most common forms of whey protein powder are whey protein concentrate (WPC) and whey protein isolate (WPI). They differ in protein, fat, and lactose content. WPC has higher levels of fats and carbohydrates compared to WPI. And with the higher protein content in WPI, there are also higher levels of branch-chain amino acids, or BCAAs, which are essential to muscle protein synthesis.
One of the effects of high levels of BCAAs is increased levels of testosterone. And scientists believe that high levels of testosterone, particularly in men, can lead to hair loss. According to Dr. Shapiro’s study, those who consumed WPI experienced accelerated hair loss; those who consumed WPC, on the other hand, actually experienced an improvement in their hair’s appearance.
WPI’s high concentration of BCAAs increases testosterone levels; the hormone is then broken down into dehydroxytestosterone (DHT) which is known to cause hair loss and baldness.
Generally, high-protein foods support healthy hair, and can actually help improve hair loss. But a significant increase in testosterone levels as stimulated by BCAAs can cause hair to fall out.
Whey Protein Concentrate vs Isolate
The nutritional differences between whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate are due to how each one is processed.
Whey is initially collected in liquid form from the production of cheese or yogurt from milk. It is then processed to increase its protein content and is subsequently dried into a powder. Whey protein concentrate is made to retain up to 80% of protein by weight, with the remaining 20% being fats and carbohydrates.
Whey protein isolate is made by reducing the fat and carbohydrate content further so that the powder contains at least 90% protein by weight.
Both WPC and WPI have the same types of amino acids, but the higher protein content of WPI means it also has a higher concentration of BCAAs. Additionally, the higher protein in isolate also makes this protein powder more expensive than concentrate.
Should You Stop Taking Whey Protein?
The same study by Dr. Shapiro showed that consuming WPC supported hair transplant patients’ hair growth and hair health. So if you are experiencing hair loss from whey protein isolate, you can simply switch to whey protein concentrate and you’ll quickly observe an improvement.
You can easily make up the difference in the amount of protein that you would normally get from isolate by increasing your consumption of WPC. If you’re on a low-carb diet, however, you should keep track of the amount of carbohydrates from whey protein concentrate that gets added to your overall daily intake.
Experts also recommend that consumers get most of their recommended daily allowance for protein from high-quality food sources, such as eggs, lean meats, and fish. Whey protein supplements, as the name itself implies, should only provide support and should not be your main protein source. Real foods also provide other nutritional benefits that are not just good for the hair but for overall health, as well.
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