Whey protein contains an incredible range of essential amino acids, which are absorbed quickly. Numerous studies show that it can help you increase strength, gain muscle and lose significant amounts of body fat. However, whey is more than just protein. It contains many other nutrients, some with potent biological effects. Just like creatine it is one of the best-studied supplements in the world and is completely safe to use. This is a detailed article about whey protein — what it is, how it works and how it can help you achieve your fitness and health goals.
What Is Whey Protein?
Whey protein is a mixture of proteins isolated from whey, which is the liquid part of milk that separates during cheese production. Milk actually contains two main types of protein: casein (80%) and whey (20%). Whey is found in the watery portion of milk. When cheese is produced, the fatty parts of the milk coagulate and the whey is separated from it as a byproduct. It’s important to read the ingredients list, as some products may have unhealthy additives such as refined sugar. Ingesting refined sugar can add calories to your diet and this is especially detrimental when trying to lose weight or body fat. Consuming whey protein is a convenient way to add 25–50 grams of protein on top of your daily intake. This can be important for bodybuilders and gym enthusiasts, as well as people who need to lose weight or are simply lacking protein in their diet.
Whey Protein Supplements Can Help Boost Your Protein and BCAA Intake
Proteins are the main building blocks of the human body. They’re used to make various constituents of the body including tendons, organs and skin, as well as hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters and various molecules. Proteins are also the building blocks of the contractile elements in your muscles.
They’re assembled from amino acids which are smaller molecules that are linked together like beads on a string. The body produces some of the amino acids that it needs whilst many others are supplied from food (called essential amino acids). There are nine essential amino acids, namely: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Proteins that supply all nine essential amino acids are the best, and whey protein is loaded with them.
Whey protein is particularly high in important branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) such as leucine, and also contains a high amount of cysteine. Studies show that leucine is the most anabolic (growth-promoting) amino acid, and cysteine can help boost levels of the cellular antioxidant glutathione.
Types of Whey Protein: Concentrate vs Isolate vs Hydrolysate
There are several popular types of whey protein.
Their main difference is in the way they have been processed.
- Concentrate: About 70–80% protein; contains some lactose (milk sugar) and fat and has the best flavour.
- Isolate:90% protein, or higher; contains less lactose and fat and lacks a lot of the beneficial nutrients found in whey protein concentrate.
- Hydrolysate: Also known as hydrolyzed whey, this type has been pre-digested so that it gets absorbed faster. It causes a 28–43% greater spike in insulin levels than isolate.
The type of whey consumed is user dependent based on your goals. For example, if you are struggling to tolerate whey concentrate or perhaps you are a competitive athlete and need to intake as little fat as possible then whey isolate or whey hydrolysate would be preferred to whey concentrate. However, for the general population whey concentrate is the best option as it’s the cheapest and retains most of the beneficial nutrients found naturally in whey. Many people also prefer the taste, which is probably due to the lactose and fat.
Effects of Whey Supplementation on Muscle Mass and Strength
The best-known use of whey protein supplements is for the purpose of increasing muscle mass and strength. Whey protein is popular among athletes, bodybuilders, fitness models, as well as people looking to improve their performance in the gym.
The ways by which whey protein promotes muscle/strength gain include:
- Building blocks: It provides protein and amino acids, which serve as building blocks for increased muscle growth.
- Hormones: It increases the release of anabolic hormones that can stimulate muscle growth, such as insulin.
- Leucine: It’s high in the amino acid leucine, which is known to stimulate muscle protein synthesis at the molecular and genetic level.
- Fast absorption: Whey protein is absorbed and utilized very quickly compared to other types of protein.
Whey protein has been shown to be particularly effective at increasing muscle growth when consumed right before, after or during a workout. Muscle protein synthesis is usually maximized in the time period after training. However, a recent review of the evidence concluded that total daily protein intake is the most relevant factor in muscle growth. Whether protein is consumed around the workout or not doesn’t seem to matter much. In general, to maximize muscle hypertrophy during weight training, one must consume about 1.0-1.5 g/kg of protein. This can often be difficult to consume as protein-rich food such as chicken breast or salmon are dense and fill you up quickly. This is where whey protein comes in as it will help you reach your daily protein intake which in time will result in muscle gain. Keep in mind that if your diet is lacking in protein, supplementing with whey protein is unlikely to have a significant effect on your results – this means that you cannot be entirely reliant on whey protein as your protein source.
Whey Protein Improves Satiety and May Promote Weight Loss
It’s well known that protein can aid weight loss, as it’s by far the most satiating (the feeling of having the appetite satisfied) macronutrient. Protein can boost energy expenditure by 80–100 calories per day, and make people automatically eat up to 441 fewer calories per day. In one study, eating 25% of the daily calories in protein cut cravings by 60% and reduced the desire for late-time snacking by half. Studies have shown that replacing other sources of calories with whey protein, combined with weight lifting, can cause weight loss of about 8 pounds (3.5 kg) while increasing lean muscle mass. If you’re trying to lose weight, a whey protein supplement can help you both lose weight and hold on to your muscle.
Other Health Benefits of Whey Protein
Beyond just muscle, strength and leanness, whey protein may provide numerous other health benefits. This includes lowering blood pressure, blood sugar and reducing symptoms of stress and depression. It also protects against cancer, reduces symptoms of hepatitis, increases bone mineral density, improves immune function in HIV patients and increases the lifespan of mice. The fact that whey protein is very high in the amino acid cysteine seems to mediate many of these health benefits. Cysteine does this by raising levels of glutathione, the main antioxidant substance in your body’s cells.
Dosage and Side Effects
A commonly recommended dosage is 1–2 scoops (around 25–50 grams) per day, usually after workouts. It’s recommended that you follow the serving instructions on the packaging. Concerns about protein causing kidney damage and contributing to osteoporosis are unwarranted and completely unsubstantiated by empirical scientific evidence. In fact, protein has been shown to protect against osteoporosis, while having no impact on healthy kidneys. However, people with current kidney or liver issues may want to avoid whey protein or at least consult with a medical professional before taking it. Eating too much whey protein can cause digestive issues such as nausea, flatulence, diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramping. If you can’t tolerate regular whey protein concentrate, isolate or hydrolysate may be more appropriate. Alternatively, you could simply avoid whey protein and eat other protein-rich foods instead. However, generally speaking, whey protein has an excellent safety profile and most people can consume it without problems.
The Bottom Line
Whey protein is an exceptionally healthy way to add more protein to your diet. It’s a quality protein source that is absorbed and utilized efficiently by the human body. This is particularly important for athletes, bodybuilders or people who need to gain muscle mass and strength while losing fat. When it comes to muscle gain and fat loss, protein is the king of nutrients. Whey protein seems to be even better than other forms of quality protein.