Spirulina and Whey are two substances that will turn up frequently when starting your weight loss journey.
While the two are quite a bit different in terms of origins and properties — Spirulina is a blue-green algae commonly referred to as “seaweed” while Whey is the remaining liquid after milk is curdled and strained — they share at least one (obvious) commonality.
They can be great protein sources. They also contain other tremendous health attributes that can help you break bad habits, establish good ones, and be well on your way to the calorie deficits you are going to need to reach all of your weight loss goals.
Losing Weight 101
To lose weight, you must first determine where you are. That means knowing your base allowance for calories. Calculators like this one or apps like LoseIt usually offer a good enough depiction of what you need provided you enter all the inputs as honestly and accurately as possible.
A 6’2,” 180-pound man, 38 years of age, exercising three times per week, will have three options to choose from if he’s using a calculator like the one linked to above.
For maintenance, he will get 2,486 calories; for average weight loss, 1,986; and for extreme weight loss, 1,492. Assuming he hits the average weight loss number, he will be experiencing a calorie deficit of 500 calories per day.
Sticking to the plan could result in a pound per week of weight loss, provided he readjusts his daily caloric needs accordingly as the weight loss starts to occur.
To pull this off, he needs a few factors to be working in his favor:
- He needs to consume adequate protein.
- He needs to maintain his activity levels (no missed workouts).
- He needs plenty of Vitamin B to better metabolize fats and proteins.
- He will need to make good nutrition the rule.
Why does protein matter for weight loss?
My whole life, people told me the easiest, most surefire way to lose weight was to stop eating things that tasted good and to starve myself whenever possible.
This advice betrays the negative mindset from which it is given. Truth be told, the reason these sourpuss advice givers phrased their nuggets of knowledge in such a manner is simple.
They hadn’t found an adequate supply of protein to replace the reduction in red meats that inevitably comes with eating healthier.
You’re probably aware of the benefits of protein ad nauseam, but let’s not assume anything for those of you just starting out. Protein is an essential if you want to do this whole life thing. WebMD sums it up pretty well.
“Protein is an important component of every cell in the body. Hair and nails are mostly made of protein. Your body uses protein to build and repair tissues.
You also use protein to make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Protein is an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood.”
WebMD notes that protein, along with fat and carbohydrates, is a “macronutrient.” In other words, the body needs quite a bit of it as opposed to vitamins and minerals (“micronutrients”).”
But unlike fat and carbohydrates, the body does not store protein, and therefore has no reservoir to draw on when it needs a new supply,” the site notes.
Translation: without an adequate supply of protein, you’re going to think “dieting” sucks.
How much protein should you eat for weight loss?
My personal weight loss journey began about two years ago, and in the beginning, it was simple. At 40 pounds overweight, it was about nothing more than lightening the scale, and there isn’t a better way to do that than to eat fewer calories than you burn.
Forget all the systems you find on infomercials, bookstores, and well-SEO’d articles on the Internet. Just count the calories and get an accurate reading of how much you’re burning off each day.
For a while, that was good enough. But as the weight fell off, it became easier to notice areas where there was still too little progress. (Looking at you, midsection.)
Inevitably, the Internet searches became more specific.
- How much protein to eat a day?
- How much protein to lose weight?
- How much protein to gain muscle?
The results were tons of “experts” saying everything from 60 grams to one gram per pound of body weight. Having fallen from 240 pounds to 200, I started working under the assumption that I would have to eat 200 grams of protein each day.
The only problem with this: unless you are using the heck out of it (i.e., working out three hours per day) you convert a lot of it to sugar and fat, and you’ve got to drink an oceanful of water just to keep your kidneys functioning properly.
Another “problem” you’ll find in this scenario is that as your weight falls, so, too, does the allotted amount of calories you can have each day before you start gaining again.
When you’re working under the understanding that you need a ton of protein, you can blow through your caloric allowance in a hurry, consuming inordinate amounts of fat and too little fiber.
So, let’s review the problem:
- You have to eat fewer calories to keep losing or maintain.
- You have to consume more proteins, which are often high in fats and calories.
- Fiber intake suffers.
It’s a predicament, and a non-sustainable one at that. Luckily, you can avoid it by a) not believing every health guru on the Internet, b) sticking by the recommended daily protein amount (more on that below), and c) using a viable alternative protein like Spirulina or Whey in place of red meats and other things with parents.
(And no, this article is not going to tell you you’ve gotta go vegan/vegetarian.)
Recommended daily protein intake
Let’s hit on point b from two paragraphs up. How much is a “healthy” amount of protein to take in each day? According to this piece from Harvard University, your recommended dietary allowance for protein is about 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight.
One pound of body weight is equal to 0.453592 kilograms. Using a 200-pound man, the RDA of protein would be around 90.7184 grams per day, and we’re talking sedentary. If he’s an active 200-pound man, that can float upward.
Harvard Health Watch writer Daniel Pendick explains:
“For a relatively active adult, eating enough protein to meet the RDA would supply as little as 10% of his or her total daily calories. In comparison, the average American consumes around 16% of his or her daily calories in the form of protein, from both plant and animal sources.”
Pendick explains that 16% is “anything but excessive,” noting a report from the Protein Summit that states “Americans may eat too little protein, not too much.”
Unfortunately, the science is unsettled on this, so it becomes rather difficult to provide a definitive number, so start with 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight and see how you feel.
If you find yourself craving more, consider upping it by 20 grams until the cravings so away altogether.
And while you are at it, consider supplementing your protein from a non-meat source because, that’s right, meat is not the only viable option, nor is it even the best.
Spirulina and Whey: A Better Way to Protein?
Red meat often is considered the alpha of proteins, but when taking into account its full nutritional profile … not so much. That’s because of something called saturated fats.
Many red meats are high in the stuff, and that can lead to an increased risk of high cholesterol and heart disease.
If those terms are not scary enough for you, a National Institutes of Health-AARP study found that older Americans “who ate the most red meat and processed meat over a 10-year-period were likely to die sooner than those who ate smaller amounts.”
Eating just four ounces of red meat daily increased the odds of those early deaths being from cancer or heart disease, especially when compared to participants who ate about a half-ounce per day.
A second study following 72,000 women over an 18-year period found the Western-style diet (i.e., red and processed meats, desserts, refined grains, and French fries) increased the risk of heart disease, cancer, and death from other causes.
That should make you think twice before you consume a big ol’ juicy steak. Other people certainly have, and it has led to the rise of plant-based protein diets and consumption of protein supplements crafted from nutrient-rich alternatives like Spirulina.
Just how good of a protein source is Spirulina?
One tablespoon of Spirulina has 4 grams of protein and 20 calories. One cup (16 tablespoons) has 64 grams and 320 calories.
If you are operating under the assumption you need 200 grams of protein per day — most of you don’t — then you could get the full supply and still have 1,000 calories of a 2,000-calorie diet left over.
At the same time, you would be consuming only 8 grams of fat, 3.2 grams of saturated fat, 0 milligrams of cholesterol, 1,168 mg sodium, 1,520 mg potassium, and 27.2 grams of carbohydrates (4.8 grams fiber, 3.2 sugar).
Word of warning: don’t do this. Spirulina is not viable as a complete protein replacement for reasons we will get into in a moment. This is just to show you how much of a punch the ol’ seaweed is packing.
Whey and protein
Whey is immediately familiar to bodybuilders. After all, they do make powder out of the stuff, and while that’s also true of Spirulina, Whey is Whey more accessible (sorry) from a budgetary standpoint.
Because of that accessibility, people can fall under the false impression that it’s a better protein source, the same way people thought VHS was a superior home video format to Betamax.
But cheaper doesn’t always mean better, and gram-for-gram, there’s no comparison.
Remember the one-cup example above? If not, no need to scroll up. Quick reminder: a cup of Spirulina has 64 grams of protein. By comparison, a cup of Whey has 2.1 grams. That said, Whey is lower in calories at 66 compared to 320.
Consuming the same amount of Whey in calories would bump the protein intake up a little to 10.2 grams, but as you can see, it’s still only 16 percent of what Spirulina is packing.
However, that doesn’t mean you should turn a blind eye to it. There is the affordabilty, for one.
There also is the fact most Whey protein powders contain enriched (read: processed) proteins, so you’re going to end up with more content than if you were just going with the liquid.
One scoop of Whey powder, for example, packs around 24 grams of protein, but it won’t be as pure (as in, containing all essential amino acids) as Spirulina or the Whey concentrate.
That’s why, all things being equal, Spirulina is the preferred choice.
However, that does not mean you should refrain from putting Whey on your supplement shelf. After all, it has other solid attributes.
One cup, for example, has about 11 percent of your daily calcium needs following a 2,000-calorie diet, 5 percent of your Vitamin B-6, 5 percent magnesium, and 11 percent Vitamin B-12.
Price-wise, a two-pound/one-month container of Enriched Protein Whey powder can be purchased from a store like GNC for around $30. By comparison, a four-ounce container of Spirulina powder — one-eighth of the Whey amount — runs around $10.
The tradeoff is that one typically consumes Spirulina in smaller doses.
According to a report from the University of Maryland Medical Center, a standard Spirulina dosage for adults is four to six 500-milligram tablets per day. The research is not conclusive, and it can vary depending on age, gender, and body type.
That said, assuming 3,000 milligrams per day is the appropriate dosage, you can only take about one teaspoon per day per the UMMC. It takes three teaspoons to make up a tablespoon.
With 4 grams of protein per tablespoon, Spirulina would only net you a little over one gram of protein per day if taken in the recommended amount.
Therefore, if you plan on making increased protein intake a part of your weight loss goals, then Spirulina would not be the best choice.
But protein isn’t the only weight loss factor
Let’s remember the premise of this article is, which is better for weight loss — Spirulina or Whey?
Whey is a better choice for supplementing your protein and weening off the potentially dangerous red meats, but it does not have as full of a composition as Spirulina.
A single tablespoon of Spirulina features 11 percent RDA of Vitamin B1 (Thiamin), 15 percent of Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin), and 4 percent of Vitamin B3 (Niacin). It also contains 11 percent of the RDA on iron and 21 percent copper.
Copper and iron work together to help your body form red blood cells. Thiamin, Riboflavin, and Niacin help your body use fats, proteins, and carbohydrates from foods to make energy.
And last we checked, energy sort of came in handy when working out and burning off extra calories toward weight loss goals.
Therefore, Spirulina gets the nod over Whey in the Vitamin B department.
What are the disadvantages of Spirulina and Whey?
While you would be hard-pressed to make a case against incorporating Spirulina and Whey into your diet, it is possible to experience drawbacks. Let’s examine each one, starting with Spirulina.
Spirulina Side Effects: Allergic Reactions, Gout, Kidney Stones
Spirulina is loaded with nucleic acids, which can in turn produce uric acid when metabolized. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but if too much uric acid builds in the body, gout or kidney stones could possibly develop.
While this does not mean Spirulina will outright cause gout attacks or kidney stones — other factors outside the scope of this article could influence this — it could exacerbate the problems if you are susceptible.
Other factors to keep in mind: Spirulina contains cytotoxins, which can be harmful to cells if not properly refined; absorbs heavy metals easily, particularly concerning if you are going to be in contact with mercury and lead in large quantities; and features microcystins, which can be harmful to one’s liver if taken in too great of a dose.
Also, Spirulina is a plant, and as such, you could have or develop allergies to it, which means redness, itching, hives, and swelling (possibly). Lastly, pregnant women may wish to avoid taking it since we don’t have enough research to determine its effects on a fetus.
These are more reasons why you should not use Spirulina as a full protein replacement, and why you should stick to standard dose recommendations that we discussed earlier.
The good news: any potentially harmful effects have been contingent on taking exceptionally large quantities and questionable supplement manufacturers, and the oldest negative study that we know about was conducted in 2011. Subsequent studies have been more favorable as has production quality control of Spirulina supplements.
When choosing a supplement, you will want to look for labels that offer “Organic” Spirulina, and you will want to buy from reputable online and brick-and-mortar retailers only.
As a rule of thumb, the more information you can find about a company (and its product), the better.
Check ingredient labels and research the other nutritional components as well as the amounts. It may take a lot of Googling upfront, but it’ll be worth it to know that what you’re putting into your body is safe.
Whey Side Effects: Stomach Risks, Brittle Bones, Drug Interference
While the Mayo Clinic has ruled Whey “generally safe,” it does note potential side effects that one should be aware of before committing it to their diets.
For starters, it can interact with medications and antibiotics to reduce the effectiveness of drugs related to osteoporosis treatment or parasitic infection.
Additionally, Whey protein could cause abnormal heart rhythms, spikes in cholesterol levels, headaches, increased risk of diabetes, as well as fracture or osteoporosis, kidney dysfunction, and liver damage.
Some users have reported issues with acid reflux, bloating, constipation, cramps, gas, mobility problems, and excessive bowel movements.
However, it is important to note that these issues are the exception and not the rule. Furthermore, how you take Whey can influence its effects, both harmful and beneficial.
You don’t want to overdo it, and you don’t want to let other good diet and exercise decisions fall by the wayside under the false impression that Whey is some kind of a miracle substance.
As with Spirulina, the source of Whey is a major contributor to its effectiveness. Focusing on the most obvious form — Whey protein powders — watch for moisture and rancid odors. If something feels “off” about it from either of these vantage points, don’t take it.
Furthermore, if you have any degree of lactose intolerance, you may experience harmful effects since Whey is a milk product. As far as overdosing on Whey, you can’t really do that, but you can take too much. How much you take depends on your daily protein needs.
A good rule of thumb here is to follow the manufacturer’s recommended dose (generally one or two 8-ounce servings per day). It may not harm you to go above the recommended amount for heavier workout days, but listen to your body and don’t make a habit of it.
Also, do not let it become the bulk of your daily nutritional needs.
You still want to derive most of your protein and vitamin intake from food sources. Stick with grilled or baked chicken and plant-based proteins like soy, tempeh, and legumes for the bulk.
While sources of production should always be considered when looking for Spirulina and Whey supplements, the two sort of supplement one another when it comes to reaching weight loss goals.
Whey is a solid source to help hit protein targets. Spirulina is packed with more protein, but it cannot be consumed (realistically) in the same amounts, both from a recommended dosage and price standpoint.
What Spirulina can do, however, is help your body better metabolize fats and proteins. This can lead to increased calorie burns, better workouts, and wider calorie deficits at the end of the day.
Using Whey and Spirulina supplements together may be your best bet when chasing a weight loss goal. But do remember that no supplement is a substitute for eating right and exercising.