Dear Mark: Insulin Response of Whey and Cancer

Dear_Mark_Inline_PhotoFor today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering one reader question. It’s an important one from last week’s post on insulin and illness. Given the potential effects of excess insulin on cancer development and growth, should we be worrying about the insulinogenic effects of a food like whey protein—which is one of the most insulinogenic foods of all? I sell the stuff, so I’d better know what I’m doing. Do I?

Let’s find out.

Rob H. asked:

Great post Mark, very thought-provoking. However it throws up a big question for me: you wrote that “colon cancer patients who eat the most insulinogenic foods have poorer outcomes” and from clicking through to the study it appears this was based on the insulin index of foods. Now, as I understand it, whey protein is one of the most insulinogenic of foods (higher even than white bread), so is this something we should be avoiding? I take 40g of your ‘Primal Whey Protein’ every morning before breakfast, but is that going to cause me problems down the line? From your 2011 article on dairy you wrote: “It comes down to the amino acid composition of dairy proteins, specifically the amino acids leucine, valine, lysine, and isoleucine. These are the truly insulinogenic proteins, and they’re highest in whey (which is probably why whey protein elicits the biggest insulin response).” Does this mean we should be avoiding whey protein if the insulin response it produces fuels pre-cancerous growth (often very commonplace) into full-blown tumours?

Nice catch and great question.

I don’t think you should worry about whey protein and cancer. Here’s why:

We Primal people exist in a strange (but growing) bubble. The foods we eat that provoke insulin are way different from the foods most others are eating. Most other people by and large probably aren’t chowing down on grass-fed lamb leg, roast chicken, sockeye salmon, canned sardines, and whey protein shakes. The bulk of the insulinogenic foods the colon cancer folks ate were carbs, not animals. We can’t extrapolate from french fries and soda to whey shakes and steak.

Even if you ignore the differences in micronutrient content between animal protein and carbs, you can’t ignore their disparate effects on glucagon. Protein like whey provokes insulin release, but it also releases glucagon, a hormone that counters some of the effects of insulin and has potential inhibitory effects on tumor growth. Carbohydrate consumption does not lead to glucagon secretion.

The available evidence suggests to me that whey isn’t harmful in the contest of cancer and may even be protective, even when the cancer is already established (and presumably highly responsive to insulinogenic foods).

For one, many oncologists are actually recommending their patients take whey protein or similar protein sources to deal with muscle wasting, a terrible affliction that can really increase mortality and worsen outcomes. In one study, taking essential amino acids—of which whey is a great source—helped people with advanced lung cancer retain muscle mass without affecting disease trajectory. 

You might be surprised to learn that whey supplements are an accepted part of pre-op preparation and post-op recovery for cancer patients.

Among colon cancer patients awaiting surgery, those who partake in a multimodal prehabilitation program that includes whey protein, exercise, nutritional assessments, and anxiety coping techniques have better outcomes.

Colon cancer surgery patients who take whey are able to walk farther than patients who don’t take whey.

Helping preserve muscle and functional capacity is to be expected. That’s not affecting the cancer itself, though. What about that?

Well, whey promotes glutathione production. Glutathione is the body’s premier endogenous antioxidant. It lowers oxidative stress and inflammation and helps detoxify various toxins—real ones, like ethanol and heavy metals—which can trigger carcinogenesis. That said, glutathione may also reduce the effect of chemotherapy. By and large, glutathione is probably better to have than not if you’re worried about cancer prevention.

Culture studies where they bathe isolated cells in whey have mixed results. Usually it helps, increasing cellular resistance to cancer. Sometimes it seems to cause certain types (prostate) of cancer cells to proliferate while reducing proliferation in others (breast). Whatever the result of these studies, in reality, eating a whey shake doesn’t “bathe” your prostate in whey protein. That’s not how food works. If anything, it seems protective against prostate cancer.

In animal studies, whey protein shines, outclassing most other proteins in the suppression of tumor growth. There are also human case studies where whey protein consumption coincides with the suppression of urogenital tumors. I’m optimistic.

Finally, insulin isn’t bad in and of itself, as I’ve said time and time again. Insulin spikes are a normal part of eating. Without insulin, we’d have a hell of a time trying to build muscle or move glycogen into muscle stores. The whole premise of the post from last week was that insulin becomes problematic in the context of insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia. That’s it. Spikes, normal. Perpetual elevation, not normal. How does whey affect that?

In overweight and obese folks, whey protein reduces fasting insulin levels.

Fatty liver is a common cause of insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia. Taking whey improves it, reducing the accumulation of liver fat.

I’m open to having my mind changed, but I think the evidence stands for itself. Whey is probably safe and may even be one of the best weapons we have in the fight against cancer—on several fronts.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care, be well, and lend your input down below!


TAGS:  dear mark

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

21 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Insulin Response of Whey and Cancer”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. I get it that whey protein can help people with various health problems, but I don’t understand why real-food protein wouldn’t be just as beneficial for healthy people. In other words, why wouldn’t the protein in a nice medium-rare steak do everything that a highly processed lab product does? I’m not dissing whey protein for those who need it; I’m asking because my body won’t tolerate the stuff. It flat-out makes me sick. I’ve tried numerous different brands over the years, including the isolate, which is supposedly lactose-free. They all give me unpleasant GI issues, including nausea and stomach cramps. I can’t be the only one who reacts adversely to whey.

    1. Other than feeling a little cooling, I handle whey very well. Have you tried whey protein that includes an array of enzymes (lactase, etc)? How does Greek yougurt make you feel?

      1. I can do a little Greek yogurt now and then but not every day. Same with cottage cheese. Heavy cream and butter are about the only dairy products that don’t bother me. Thanks for the suggestion regarding enzymes. I’ll look into it.

        1. Diary used to bother me until I started making and drinking my own milk kefir. Now, I have no issues with dairy.

    1. It was posted, as always, on Sunday, so go down one blog to read it. Sunday was the 12th, today is Monday the 13th. 🙂

    2. I’m with Marc here, there was no sign of it at my end either. Got very bored of the success story picture. Thanks for the link though.

  2. A linked research paper from your blog:

    Eat Your Whey: It May Protect Against Prostate Cancer
    May 29, 2003
    Ohio State University

    Note this sourced article was funded by the J.T. Stubby dept. See quote from the direct link: “The researchers received financial support from the J.T. “Stubby” Parker Chair in Food Science and Technology for this project.” A quick search of the dept website found references to the Dairy Industry.

    A quick google search landed me to a quote:

    “J.T. Stubby Parker of Ft. Worth Texas was the manager of Pangburn Candy and Ice Cream Company. In 1930 he figured out how to package a sugar cone filled with ice cream and topped with chocolate nuts. He named it Drumstick because it looked like a fried chicken leg. In 1931 he formed the Frozen Drumstick Company to commercially manufacture his new product. In 1962 the company was merged to create Big Drum, Inc., a publically traded company. In the 1990s Big Drum was acquired by Nestle.”

  3. Interesting read as always, learn something new every article Mark writes, much appreciated. In an effort to stay away from anything dairy, based on a ton of research I’ve done re: PSA levels and prostate health, I switched from whey protein to an organic vegetable-based protein that has an excellent amino acid profile, although doesn’t have the IGF-1 that whey protein has. Not sure if that was a smart move on my part or not. One scoop a day of that on top of the bone broth, chicken, collagen, sardines, turkey and salmon I ingest … hopefully I’m good on the protein front.

  4. “Finally, insulin isn’t bad in and of itself,”

    Thanks. Hopefully some of your readers will finally understand that,

    Regarding the morning routine from Rob H, I ask myself what’s the point of taking 40g of whey right before breakfast ? Protein powder are convenient, when you can’t cook / have a normal meal.

  5. Hi Mark, I was hoping my question would pique your interest and that you would jump all over it – and you did not disappoint! I didn’t mention in my question, but I am looking after my 77 year old mother at the moment who is suffering from both metastatic cancer (breast and more recently bone) – thankfully only progressing very slowly now – but also sarcopenia/ cachexia and getting ever weaker and often eating very little. So I have been giving her 40g doses of whey protein isolate twice a day to try to improve her quality of life and to maintain some of her strength. But I was worried I was doing that at the expense of fuelling her cancer – so thank you so much for putting my mind at ease, that really means a lot to me.

    In answer to Mattieu’s comment about my breakfast routine below, I follow Dr Gabrielle Lyon/ Layne Norton/ Stuart Phillips/ Donald Layman’s advice and try to get at least 50g of protein at each of 3 x meals during daylight hours (on my non-fast days): so for breakfast after a long overnight fast I may hit 30g or 40g of whey plus 1 or 2 eggs to make up the protein. I know you don’t agree with a high protein approach Mark, but this is partly to complement the 3 x week strength training I am doing (Martin Berkhan’s clients seem to get great results from that) – that said though if anyone can show me any decent research showing the drawbacks of a high protein approach I’d be very interested to see it? Most of the drawbacks are myths after having listened to several podcasts with Professor Layman, Professor Phillips and Dr Jose Antonio who have spent much of their academic careers publishing in this area..

    Going back to Mark’s answer above, I am a big believer in acute large spikes of a stimulus as opposed to chronically and slowly introducing a stimulus, or in other words moving quickly between highly contrasting states as opposed to slow transitions. This works over more than you might imagine, for example: 16/18 hour fasts x 3 times a week to hit the AMP-K pathway followed by a big spike of insulin/ M-TOR when I break the fast with 40g or 50g of whey protein isolate, daily extremely cold showers for 2 minutes, high intensity ‘Body by Science’ style brief and intense strength training on 3 x non-fast days, and 1 x HIIT sprint session/ week – again very brief as per Martin Gibala’s 3 or 4 x 30 second all out sprints with 30 secs rest in between. My observation is that the more you get into this ‘high intensity’ lifestyle, the more you start to seek it out everywhere. Even finding it in very unusual places: for example until this year I was terrified of big rollercoasters etc, but have gradually acclimatised myself to the ‘acute stress’ of that this year, and we love it now! Similar acute stress (built up over time in a graduated fashion) could be sought from public speaking, attempting stand-up comedy etc. But all the while avoiding the chronic stress which messed me up in a big way a few years ago. Those who are familiar with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy will probably see where I’m coming from here. Hey, there must be a blog post in there somewhere!

    Anyway, Mark once again my heartfelt thanks go out to you for this potentially life-saving (or at least life-prolonging) advice..

    1. Read some Ron Rosedale for a different take on amounts of protein. Personally I think we should N=1 the amounts. For example, I used to eat between 90-130g a day avg.(I’m 5-9 and 158lbs.) and have slowly dropped it over the last couple years to between 60-100g a day, with absolutely zero change in weight or muscle mass. I work out like you do. Once you begin to assimilate those hard workouts, I think your body adjusts and you can get by with much less. As Mark always says, “what’s the minimum I can do to get the results I want”.

    2. Hi,
      I see no issue with the total protein of the meal, it’s just that I would prefer eating real food when I can cook, And use whey only on the road or short on time.

  6. Can’t help but think there are many ways to get one’s whey. Just sources alone bring up choices: Factory farm milk from pregnant cows with crazy hormones, or not? Pasture raised source, or not? Organic, or not? Bovine, or goat or sheep for those who can’t tolerate cow proteins? One size fits all never works when it comes to dairy,

  7. Being a type 1 diabetic, I can say, when I have a whey protein shake with two big scoops of whey, (Naked Whey) I don’t need more than 1.5 units of medium acting insulin (Humulin-R) to cover. There is nothing in the shake other than the whey and water. So, no insulin spike for me. Obviously.

  8. You speak of.whey as a food that Primal people eat…Then talk about whey powder. How is this processed dairy byproduct Primal??! Personally, I avoid processed foods in general, and denatured protein powders in particular.
    If I were going to eat whey, I would use FRESH whey, and preferably from cheese or yogurt, so that at least some of the lactose would have been reduced by lactobacillus fermentation.