9 Health Benefits of Whey Protein + How to Choose the Right Product
If you are looking to burn fat, build lean muscle, boost your immune system and prevent disease, then look no further than whey protein. Whey is so effective because it provides a more absorbable source of protein than any other type of food or supplement, and it’s easy to digest. No wonder it has become one of the most popular protein supplements on the market today.
If you’re still confused about the benefits of supplementing with protein powders like whey, remember that protein is absolutely essential to rebuilding your cells and tissues, keeping bodily fluids in balance, protecting enzyme functions, supporting your nerves and muscle contraction, and boosting the health of your skin, hair and nails. Clearly, getting enough protein in your diet is very important, and using high-quality protein powders is a great way to consume more protein without adding a lot more calories or carbohydrates to your diet.
Whey protein is one of the most popular proteins for athletes and bodybuilders because of its muscle-enhancing effects. Not only does it work to build muscle and enhance your body’s composition, but it also speeds up the recovery of broken down and stressed muscles after exercise. According to research published in the Journal of Food Science, whey protein is one of the highest-quality proteins because of its amino acid content and rapid digestibility. It works quickly to aid your muscles so they can heal, rebuild and grow. (1)
What Is Whey Protein?
There are two types of protein found in milk: whey and casein. Whey is the translucent liquid part of milk that remains after the cheese manufacturing process, after coagulation and curd removal. The term “whey” refers to a complex substance that is separated from the liquid and made up of a combination of protein, lactose, minerals, immunoglobulins and trace amounts of fat. But it’s primarily the protein and some highly bioactive peptides found in whey that make it a superfood for fat loss and building lean muscle. (2)
Here are some common questions regarding whey protein and how it can be used to benefit your body:
How do you use whey protein?
Whey protein is dried and sold in powder form, and it’s easily reconstituted by adding liquid. The best and least processed form is whey protein concentrate, which contains low levels of fat and cholesterol and higher levels of bioactive compounds in the form of lactose. To use whey protein, simply add one scoop (or about 28 grams) of a high-quality powder to any shake or smoothie. I like to have a whey protein shake for breakfast and another one after my workout. There are a ton of protein shake recipes that can be prepared with whey protein powder. Prepping protein shakes is an easy and portable way to increase your daily protein consumption, lose weight, build muscle mass and boost your immune system.
What is whey protein isolate?
Whey protein isolate is when the fat has been removed from the supplement, and it’s lower in bioactivated compounds. Although whey protein isolate is known to be the purest protein source available, containing protein concentrations of 90 percent of higher, the problem with isolates is that the proteins can often be denatured due to manufacturing, making it harder on your digestive tract. The denaturation process involves breaking down protein structures and losing their peptide bonds, thereby reducing the effectiveness of the protein. There’s also a type of whey called whey hydro-isolates, which is known to be less allergenic than whey protein concentrate or whey isolates, but it’s by far the most processed type of whey protein and the proteins in it have also been denatured.
Are protein shakes good for you?
Nearly everyone can benefit from consuming protein shakes. High-quality protein powders contain a number of beneficial nutrients, including antioxidants and amino acids. Athletes in particular need to increase their protein consumption in order to achieve muscle recovery after hard workouts. Plus, supplementing with natural protein powders can boost your energy levels and reduce hunger. But the efficacy of any protein shake depends on the quality of your protein powder, so opt for organic, grass-fed whey concentrate, and avoid whey isolates and powders made with artificial ingredients. (3)
Do protein shakes really work?
Protein shakes work to help you build lean muscle mass, reduce muscle loss, and ease hunger or cravings. Research shows that having a whey protein shake right before a meal will help regulate your blood sugar levels and reduce your hunger levels so you eat less. Many studies also prove that protein supplementation promotes the recovery of muscle function and athletic performance, and boosts energy levels. (4)
How is whey different than casein protein?
Whey and casein are both proteins found in milk. There’s about 3.5 grams of protein in 100 milliliters of cow’s milk, of which casein accounts for 80 percent and whey 20 percent of the protein. Whey has a higher percentage of branched-chain amino acids than casein protein, which allows whey to increase protein synthesis faster than casein. Studies show that whey protein also has greater solubility, and it’s more rapidly digested than casein protein. (5)
Whey Protein Nutrition Profile + What to Look for In a Quality Whey Protein
One scoop (28 grams) of whey protein powder contains roughly the following: (6)
- 100 calories
- 5 grams carbohydrates
- 20 grams protein
- 1.5 grams fat
- 1 gram fiber
- 3.5 grams sugar
- 94 milligrams calcium (9 percent DV)
- 140 milligrams sodium (6 percent DV)
The constituents of whey protein provide high levels of essential and branched-chain amino acids. It is the bioactivity of these proteins that gives whey protein its many beneficial properties. Cysteine is an amino acid that is amply present in whey protein. Cysteine is extremely beneficial because it enhances glutathione levels, an important antioxidant that can help reduce the risk of cancer and diseases caused by oxidative stress. The branched-chain amino acids in whey also play an important role in whey’s health benefits because they promote the maintenance of tissue and prevent muscle breakdown during exercise. (7)
In order to reap the benefits of whey protein’s constituents, you have to choose the best source that’s available. When purchasing whey protein, opt for whey concentrate that comes from grass-fed cows. Look for a whey protein powder that is natural or organic, and is completely free of hormones, pesticides, artificial ingredients, gluten and genetically modified organisms.
Avoid any whey protein that is processed, like whey protein isolate. Remember that certain isolates contain denatured proteins that make the supplement ineffective. Plus, cheaper whey protein isolates often contain added artificial sweeteners that can be hard on the digestive system and neurotoxic. Organic whey concentrate from grass-fed cows will give you the largest amount of compounds, like immunoglobulins and minerals that support many body functions.
9 Benefits of Whey Protein
- Increases Strength and Builds Muscle
- Burns Fat
- Reduces Cravings
- Stabilizes Blood Sugar Levels
- Improves Energy
- Boosts Glutathione
- Boosts Immunity
- Improves Heart Health
- Extends Life Span
1. Increases Strength and Builds Muscle
Whey protein is the most efficient way to add protein to your diet without extra calories from carbohydrates or fats. It typically contains 80 percent to 90 percent protein, which provides the body with what it needs to build muscle and strength, while recovering quickly after a workout.
According to research published in the Journal of Food Science mentioned above, whey protein stimulates muscle synthesis to a greater degree than both casein and soy protein products. Researchers noted that adding supplemental protein to your diet can help promote gains in muscle mass — especially when paired with resistance or burst training — maintain muscle mass even during caloric restriction and slow down the natural loss of muscle that occurs as you age.
A 2007 study conducted at Baylor University analyzed the use of supplemental protein and amino acids on 19 males who exercised four times per week. Researchers found that supplementing with 20 grams of protein, which was made up of 14 grams of whey and casein protein, and six grams of free amino acids led to greater increases in total body mass, fat-free mass, thigh mass and muscle strength compared to those taking the carbohydrate placebo. (8)
2. Burns Fat
A 2014 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition examined the effect of whey protein, with and without resistance exercise, on body weight and body composition. Researchers found that adults supplementing with whey experienced significant decreases in body fat and body weight. The results were even more significant among adults who combined whey protein supplementation with resistance exercise. (9)
A study published in Nutrition and Metabolism evaluated the effect of a specialized whey supplement when taken by participants who reduced their caloric intake by 500 calories per day. Compared to the control group participants who also reduced their caloric intake by 500 calories, both groups lost a significant amount of weight, but the group supplementing with whey lost significantly more body fat (6.1 percent of their body fat mass) and showed a greater preservation of lean muscle. (10)
3. Reduces Cravings
Whey protein seems to affect both ghrelin and leptin, two hormones that help regulate your appetite. Leptin primarily affects energy balance, which helps suppress food intake, while gherlin regulates hunger and plays a role in meal initiation. These hormones work together to tell your body when it needs to eat. Studies show that in obese patients, the circulating levels of leptin are typically increased, whereas ghrelin levels are decreased. Whey helps balance out leptin and gherlin secretion, thereby decreasing hunger cravings and helping you stop overeating. (11)
A 2013 study published in the Mediterranean Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism found that whey protein can help reduce caloric intake as a result of various physiological mechanisms. The amino acid content in whey protein is the main factor that influences satiety, according to researchers. Plus, whey’s effect on satiety and food intake is mediated by the release of ghrelin and other satiety-inducing hormones. These hormones are released in the gastrointestinal system after protein consumption, which may account for food intake suppression when supplementing with whey protein. (12)
4. Stabilizes Blood Sugar Levels
Whey is able to stabilize blood sugar levels when it’s consumed right before meals with a high glycemic index. It stimulates the production of insulin and prevents dramatic spikes in blood sugar levels.
According to research published in the World Journal of Diabetes, whey protein can be used for the management of diabetes symptoms. It slows gastric emptying, stimulates insulin and gut hormones like incretin, which is released after you eat, and works to decrease blood glucose levels. Whey protein can naturally reduce blood sugar levels after meals, especially when it’s consumed a few minutes before a meal. (13)
5. Improves Energy
Whey protein increases glycogen, which is a source of energy during exercise or heavy activity, and it enhances the effect of leptin, a hormone that affects energy balance. Plus, because whey is easily digested and accessed by the body, it is converted into energy quickly and can help naturally boost energy levels.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that females experienced an increase in performance markers when they consumed whey protein after resistance training. Some of the performance markers tested in the female basketball players included agility running, vertical jumping and muscle endurance. The improved energy levels and performance are due to the amino acids that are present in whey protein. When the body is lacking sufficient levels of amino acids, that’s when you experience muscle wasting and delayed exercise recovery after a workout. (14)
In a 2014 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, scientists evaluated the efficacy of whey protein on 40 mice during exercise training. They found that whey supplementation improved exercise performance, strength and body composition. (15)
6. Boosts Glutathione
Whey protein helps increase the production of glutathione, the master antioxidant that is found in every cell of your body. Research shows that whey protein is rich in cysteine, an amino acid that’s needed for the synthesis of glutathione. Scientists at Ohio State University found that supplementing with hydrolyzed whey protein isolate increased intracellular glutathione concentrations by 64 percent. (16)
Glutathione helps eliminate free radicals that cause cell damage, cancer and aging diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. It also helps protect your body from environmental toxins and drug resistance, and it’s critical for a strong immune system.
7. Boosts Immunity
Because whey protein promotes the synthesis of glutathione, it works to boost your immune system. Glutathione also boosts the efficacy of other antioxidants like vitamin C, CoQ10, ALA and vitamin E. Whey protein also contains a number of other proteins and vitamins, such as vitamin D, that positively affect immune function and demonstrate antimicrobial activity.
According to research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, whey protein helps the body recover after exercise, which is important for avoiding impaired immunity, oxidative stress and excessive inflammation. Not only does whey increase the production of glutathione, but it also contains L-arginine and L-lysine, amino acids that promote immune function. (17)
8. Improves Heart Health
Studies show that whey protein promotes a reduction in blood pressure and arterial stiffness and improves lipid profiles. It works to reduce cardiovascular risk factors by protecting your muscles and helping you lose weight. Reductions in body weight reduces obesity-related problems like heart disease. (18)
A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition evaluated the blood pressure of 42 participants who consumed whey protein powder or maltodextrin (the control) for eight weeks. Those who used whey experienced significant reductions in blood pressure and increases in blood circulation. Whey protein also lowered total cholesterol levels. (19)
9. Extends Life Span
Whey protein has been found to increase life span by reducing muscle wasting that’s associated with aging and increasing nutrient absorption without increasing hunger. This is important because as you age, you lose bone mass, cell function and your digestive function decreases. However, whey has been shown to reduce the loss in all of these areas, making it an incredible superfood that slows the aging process.
A study conducted in Germany found that when older adults supplemented with whey protein, it caused positive effects on muscle protein synthesis, muscle mass and muscle strength. (20)
A 2016 study published in Nutrients found that increased protein intake among the elderly improves muscle health, helps maintain energy balance and weight management, and supports cardiovascular function. (21)
Whey Protein Recipes
Looking for some easy and fun ways to use whey protein? Here are some of my favorite recipes:
- Dark chocolate protein truffles: These delicious truffles are made with vanilla whey protein powder, Medjool dates, steel-cut oats and dark chocolate. They don’t require baking, and they are the perfect little treat after a workout.
- Smoothie bowl recipes: Another great idea is to add a scoop of whey protein powder to a smoothie bowl. They are delicious and packed with nutrients.
- Healthy smoothie recipes: Adding a scoop of whey protein powder to any shake or smoothie is an easy way to use whey in between meals or after a workout.
Side Effects and Precautions
Despite the many health benefits of whey protein, it should not be consumed by people with a milk allergy or lactose intolerance. If you have a sensitivity to lactose, you may experience gas, bloating, cramps, fatigue, headaches and irritability after consuming whey protein. Whey products that contain artificial sweeteners, like isolates, may also lead to side effects because they can be more difficult to break down and can cause digestive discomfort.
If you don’t have a whey allergy, then make sure you are using the highest quality whey protein product out there. This will be easier to digest because it’s less processed and doesn’t contain added artificial ingredients or chemicals. People who are unable to use whey protein should consider trying a vegetable protein powder, like pea protein or sprouted brown rice protein powder, instead. Plus, eating high-protein foods can also be extremely beneficial for building muscle, improving energy and losing body fat.
- Whey is the translucent liquid part of milk that remains after the cheese manufacturing process, after coagulation and curd removal. It’s a complex substance that is separated from the liquid and made up of a combination of protein, lactose, minerals, immunoglobulins and trace amounts of fat.
- The constituents of whey protein provide high levels of essential and branched-chain amino acids. It is the bioactivity of these proteins that give whey protein its many beneficial properties.
- There are many benefits of whey protein, including its ability to increase strength, build muscles, burn fat, reduce cravings, stabilize blood sugar levels, improve energy, boost glutathione levels and immunity, and extend your life span.
- Look for a whey protein powder that is natural or organic and is completely free of hormones, pesticides, artificial ingredients, gluten and genetically modified organisms. Also, avoid any whey protein that is processed, like whey protein isolate.
Christine BabcockDr. AxeNovember 21, 2017