By Kimberly Visioni, MS, RD, LDN Contributing Blogger
If you ever visit a GNC or Vitamin Shoppe, you may feel a tad overwhelmed by the containers, or should I say barrels, of protein powder with “WHEY” splashed across the front. You may also be wondering why whey protein has become a staple in so many households and daily routines.
What is Whey Protein?
Whey is one of two main types of protein found in cow’s milk. Whey is the watery substance that naturally separates from the solid curds during the cheese making process (picture the liquid floating on top of your Greek yogurt). In order to produce whey protein powder, the liquid whey is separated from other proteins and then filtered, purified and dried into a powder. Whey naturally contains vitamins, minerals, fat and lactose. There are different processing methods to isolate the protein in whey, resulting in three main forms for you to purchase:
- Whey protein concentrate (WPC) – This is the most common and least expensive type found in stores and contains some fat, lactose and anywhere from 30% to 80% protein. The percentage of protein depends on how concentrated it is.
- Whey protein isolate (WPI) – This is good if you are lactose intolerant because the whey is processed to remove most of the lactose, fat and some vitamins and minerals. It contains at least 90% protein.
- Whey protein hydrolysate (WPH) – This is a “predigested” form, so it doesn’t need as much digestion as the other two forms of whey protein. It’s often used in medical supplements and infant formulas and is usually more expensive.
Why All The Hype?
Protein is a macronutrient that is necessary for building and repairing muscles, tissues and organs and carrying out many bodily functions. Did you know that bones, hair, skin, nails, muscles and hormones are made of protein? Many dietitians recommend consuming about 20-30 grams of protein at each meal, but not all proteins are created equal. Proteins are made of different combinations of amino acids, and 9 of these amino acids come only from food, aka they are “essential” to the diet. This leads us to whey protein’s redeeming qualities…
- Whey is a high quality or “complete” protein. It contains all of the essential amino acids. Research suggests that high-quality proteins have many health benefits such as contributing to satiety, weight loss and maintenance, muscle growth, and blood glucose control.
- Whey receives high scores for its bioavailability. This means it’s easily absorbed by the body and enters the blood stream faster than other forms of protein. This is good for rebuilding and maintaining muscle.
- Whey contains high levels of leucine, an amino acid proven to improve muscle protein synthesis and the growth of lean tissue mass. This is why all of those gym buffs supplement with whey, especially in conjunction with resistance training. Many whey protein powders will have upwards of 20-30 grams of protein in one serving so it becomes a convenient, and low-calorie source of protein after exercising.
Do you need whey protein?
It depends. There are many different protein powders out there derived from various sources like soy protein, casein protein and pea protein. Choosing the right one for you depends on your dietary restrictions and overall health goals. The fact that whey is a complete protein and easily digested makes it a useful supplement to help meet your daily protein needs. It can be added to shakes and smoothies as well as a variety of recipes. The National Dairy Council provides more information about whey protein and tips on how to boost protein at meals throughout the day.
If you decide to use whey protein, you can find it in most grocery stores, health specialty stores and supplement shops. It often comes flavored, so be sure to read the nutrition label to find a low-sugar version without a lot of additives. You’ll also want to read the ingredients to determine if the supplement contains a blend of different proteins or if it’s 100% whey protein concentrate or why protein isolate.
Although supplements, such as whey, can be useful in gaining essential nutrients for people with various dietary challenges, it’s best to get your nutrients from a variety of food sources whenever possible. You can meet your daily protein requirements from lean meats, seafood, eggs and poultry, low-fat dairy products and with a variety of plant-based foods like beans, nuts, seeds and soy products.
Toby AmidorToby Amidor NutritionAugust 28, 2017