Walk into any supplement shop today and you’re likely to find a selection of whey protein supplements. These protein powders make big promises, but do they deliver? Read more to find out what whey protein has to offer, and when to watch out.
What is Whey Protein?
Whey is found in the liquid left over during the process of turning milk into cheese. It is dried out and turned into a powder before landing on store shelves as a supplement. Whey protein comes in a few different forms: concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate. The least processed form is concentrate – this form of whey contains some amount of other compounds from milk including lactose and some milk fat. Whey isolate is made by removing all of the milk fat and some of the other milk compounds from the whey.
Whey hydrolysate is the most highly processed of the bunch. In this type, heat is used to break down the whey protein into individual amino acids. It is less likely than other forms to cause an allergic reaction, and usually costs more. All forms of whey protein have benefits – let’s discuss them now.
1. Reduces Hunger between Meals
Whey protein helps to keep a person more satisfied between meals. The high protein content is one reason that it is so satisfying, but scientists aren’t exactly sure why it seems to be more satiating than other protein powders. Whatever the reason, adding some whey protein to a breakfast smoothie or drinking a whey-based shake with lunch can help to curb a mid-morning or afternoon snack attack.
2. Contains all 9 Essential Amino Acids
Unlike some other protein powders, whey protein contains all nine essential amino acids. These amino acids are essential because our bodies cannot make them from other compounds – we must get them from food. While grass-fed gelatin powder is another good choice for powdered protein, it does not contain the same amino acid profile that you get from whey protein.
3. Helps Maintain and Build Muscle
According to the Mayo Clinic, whey protein supplementation has been shown in scientific studies to help adults maintain muscle mass. It can be especially helpful for women and older adults, as well as people with HIV or other conditions where weight loss is common. In healthy young men, supplementation with whey protein has actually been shown to increase the generation of muscle protein. It’s important to remember, however, that more protein is not always better. In order to find out how much is right for you, it is recommended to keep a food diary for a few days, then use an online program to estimate how many grams of protein you are eating per day.
For most adults, it is not beneficial to eat more than 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For serious athletes looking to build muscle, it may be reasonable to eat up to 2 grams protein per kilogram body weight, but only in the setting of a balanced, healthy diet when drinking plenty of fluids. People with kidney problems or who are at risk for kidney disease should avoid excessive protein intake. If you want to use whey protein as part of an overall plan to build muscle, make sure you pay attention to how many grams of protein are in each scoop, and see how that amount fits into your daily protein needs.
4. Supports Steady Blood Sugar
Supplementation with whey protein has been found by some researchers to reduce blood sugar in both healthy people and people with type 2 diabetes. Whey protein has been shown to improve post-meal blood sugar levels when taken with a meal that usually raises blood sugar too high. More research is needed to look at the way in which whey protein supplementation might interact with certain diabetes medications.
5. Improves Athletic Performance
Taking whey protein after a workout increases the amount of essential amino acids circulating in the blood. It has been shown to increase muscle mass and strength in people who are training to build muscle. However, athletes supplementing with whey protein should keep track of how much they consume and be sure that this amount fits into their daily protein needs without being excessive.
6. Prevents Food Allergies
For infants who are not exclusively breast-fed and are at risk of developing food allergies, many studies have shown a benefit to using a baby formula made with hydrolyzed whey protein. Hydrolyzed means broken down into smaller parts like individual amino acids. Infants who were fed infant formula made with hydrolyzed whey protein were found to have a lower rate of allergies in general, and especially a lower rate of allergy to cow’s milk when compared to infants receiving a standard formula.
Beware, however, of giving a whey-based formula to an infant that already has a milk allergy. Whey is not useful in treatment of milk allergy – only in prevention.
7. Helps to Heal an Inflamed Gut
When the intestines are inflamed, they tend not to absorb nutrients as well as healthy cells. For people with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or other gastrointestinal system disorders, it can be frustrating to eat a “healthy” diet, only for the body to absorb just a fraction of what was eaten. During a flare of such diseases, it may be helpful to get your protein from highly digestible sources, especially whey protein.
But be careful – some whey protein supplements are packaged along with fibers and other carbohydrates that may be irritating during flares. Look for a formula that is pure protein with maybe a few vitamins and minerals added. This is not the time to get the whey protein formula that includes everything but the kitchen sink.
8. Boosts The Immune System
Glutathione is an important antioxidant in the human body that helps protect cells in a variety of ways, and one of these is helping the immune system fight infections. Supplementation with whey protein helps the body to replenish stores of glutathione when they are low. In addition, studies in rats have found that a diet supplemented with whey protein helped protect the rats from getting sick.
If everyone around you seems to be ill, it makes sense to whip up a smoothie containing whey protein and plenty of fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C and other nutrients. What a delicious way to boost your immunity!
A warning: whey protein concentrate contains bioactive compounds from milk that may boost the immune system too much in a person with an autoimmune disorder. If you have an autoimmune condition, stick with whey protein isolate or hydrolysate.
9. Helps Fight Cancer
Supplementing with whey protein may help people recover from some types of surgery used to treat cancer. Its ability to help replenish stores of glutathione might also help strengthen the body’s natural defenses against cancer growth. There is a lot more for researchers to learn about this connection, but what we do know is pretty exciting!
10. Better Fast Food
In an ideal world, a busy working adult would wake up with plenty of time to prepare a filling and balanced breakfast, and would have a healthy lunch packed and ready to go. But we don’t always live in an ideal world. Sometimes, breakfast or lunch ends up being whatever is lying around.
While it’s important to eat a variety of foods to promote optimal health, it’s ok to replace a meal here or there with a whey protein-based drink. A filling, whey protein-rich supplement, maybe paired with a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts, is a much better choice than the donut that might be tempting if you begin a morning meeting on an empty stomach.
Whatever the reason, just about everyone who does not have a milk protein allergy can benefit in some way from adding whey protein to their diet. With so many benefits, it makes sense to give it a try!