What is whey protein?
Enriched in all 9 essential amino acids, whey protein is low in lactose; is easily absorbed, and can help to increase your strength and muscle mass, whilst helping you to shed body fat.
But what is it? What is whey protein made of?
The answer is simple: milk.
Milk is made up of two types of proteins, casein (80%) and whey (20%).
During the cheese making process, whey becomes separated from the curd to form a watery layer. It is this layer that is then extracted and processed to form whey protein.
If you still can’t picture it, think of the liquid you see floating on the top of most yoghurt pots. This is whey, and all that basically happens next is that this mixture of proteins becomes isolated from the whey to form the powder that you know and love.
So whilst in the dairy world it is considered just a by-product of cheese; in the bodybuilding/athletic world it is viewed very differently. In fact to many, whey protein is the key to strength building, performance enhancement and massive muscle gains.
NOTE: Yep, there is a bit of a disclaimer to whey protein. Like all products, it should be taken with a pinch of salt. You see, for every claim that exists about whey protein, the evidence supporting these theories is either limited, not enough or mixed. This means you should be careful when reading about its benefits and do your own research.
Whey protein facts:
- Most of the potential health benefits you hear about are based on a single study or piece of research. Before a definitive judgement can be made, more studies need to be done.
- Whey protein is made up of a mixture of beta-lactoglobulin, alpha lactalbumin, bovine serum albumin and immunoglobins.
- 25-50grams of whey protein a day can top up your daily protein intake.
- Whey protein is so good at stimulating growth that 60% of human breast milk is whey.
What are the benefits of whey protein?
It’s scary how dependent our bodies are on protein, but it’s true. Protein makes up the building blocks of our cells and is used in everything from your tendons, organs, muscles and skin to the creation of hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters and molecules.
Protein is very much a necessary part of our diets, because whilst our cells can produce some amino acids, we can only access others –the famous 9 essential amino acids – through dietary proteins.
This where whey protein comes in handy, as it contains all 9 of these bad boys. In fact, it is loaded with them.
So what are the benefits of adding whey protein to your diet?
- Leucine is the most anabolic (growth promoting) essential amino acid of the bunch and can boost muscle development, growth and fiber recovery.
- Cysteine can boost levels of cellular antioxidants helping to rid your body of harmful toxins.
- Whey protein can encourage weight loss. In a study published in Nutrition & Metabolism, of the 158 participants who took part, those given whey experienced higher losses of body fat and greater preservation of lean muscle tissues.
- It can lower bad cholesterol levels.
- It can improve immune response in children suffering with asthma (again there is only one study on this – found in the International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition – and more evidence is needed).
- It can reduce blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- It can lower your blood sugar levels.
- Can minimize symptoms of stress and depression.
- Can reduce weight loss in people with HIV – now we know this probably doesn’t apply to you, but it is an interesting fact to know.
- Can increase bone mineral density.
- Can protect against osteoporosis.
Now the following list consists of ‘possible’ benefits of whey protein. They are NOT guaranteed. However, research suggests they could ease or alleviate some of the following:
- Eczema and allergies– research suggests taking whey protein from the age of 3 months to 1 year can lower the chances of children developing eczema or allergies (by the age of 3 years old).
- Reduce psoriasis symptoms (red, scaly skin) – these symptoms can be reduced if you take whey protein extract every day for 8 weeks.
What are the possible dangers of whey protein?
Consuming too much protein is nowhere in the same league – in terms of negative side effects – as consuming excessive amounts of testosterone. However, it is important to bear in mind that you’re probably already receiving plenty of protein from your diet alone – especially if you’re bodybuilder.
All the best bulking diets encourage you to eat plenty of meat, legumes and grains – foods which are naturally enriched in protein – meaning having 25-50 grams of whey protein a day is most likely going to leave you in excess of protein. And this isn’t a good thing, as this excess protein doesn’t get used. It is useless.
Now, generally whey protein is relatively safe and won’t harm your body, but this doesn’t mean it is completely innocent either. Take too high a dose and it can lead to the following:
- Kidney and liver problems – some sites will claim whey protein can cause these issues, but there is no proof of that. What you do have to be careful of is taking whey protein if you’ve already got an existing kidney or liver issue. If you have, you need to speak to your doctor first or simply don’t use it.
- Digestive issues – the biggest downside to consuming too much whey protein is feelings of nausea, flatulence (very attractive), diarrhea, bloating, pain and cramping.
- Allergies – naturally if you’re allergic to whey or cow’s milk – remember whey is the liquid part of milk – you shouldn’t use it.
- Reduced appetite
- Acne – this is common if you consistently have too high a dosage of whey protein.
- Pregnant or breastfeeding – to be fair, we doubt you’d be bodybuilding in either of these situations, but still, due to there being little knowledge on how whey protein can affect pregnancy, etc. we suggest avoiding it.
Aside from these, whey protein is considered to be very safe. Just be careful to keep your dosages to only 25-50 grams a day. Any higher and you may experience some of the ‘fun’ side effects listed above.
Then you need to consider its possible interactions. For instance, if you’re taking any of the following medications shown below, doctors recommend not using whey protein at the same time:
- Levodopa – whey can decrease its effectiveness by reducing how much your body absorbs.
- Alendronate (Fosamax) – again whey can reduce how much your body absorbs and in turn limit its effectiveness. NOTE: don’t take whey protein within 2 hours of alendronate.
- Antibiotics (Quinolone) – whey can lower the amount of antibiotic absorbed, lowering its effectiveness in the body. It is suggested that you take whey at least an hour after this antibiotic. The calcium in whey can also affect Tetracycline antibiotics by attaching tetracyclines in the stomach. This can decrease how much of the antibiotic is absorbed. As a result, either take whey 2 hours before or 4 hours after tetracycline.
What are the types of whey protein?
There are three primary types of whey protein: whey protein concentrate (WPC), whey protein isolate (WPI), and whey protein hydrolysate (WPH).
Here is how they differ:
- Whey protein concentrate – with low levels of fat, lactose and carbohydrates; the amount of protein you receive will depend on how concentrated WPC is. Lower concentrates have around 30% protein, whilst higher concentrations can have as much as 90% protein. Typically, WPC has around 70-80% protein, and of the three has the best flavor.
- Whey protein isolate – this type of whey protein is further processed to eliminate all fats and lactose from the equation. As a result, WPI usually has at least 90% protein if not more. Yet there is a downside to all this processing… it will have lost most of its beneficial nutrients.
- Whey protein hydrolysate – this is a ‘pre-digested’ form of whey protein, as it has already undergone hydrolysis (a process that enables your body to absorb protein). This means WPH needs less digesting than the others and is quicker to be absorbed. And this makes WPH a great addition to medical protein supplements, as its improved digestibility and reduced allergen risks, makes it suitable for even infants. WPH can also cause a 28-43% higher spike in insulin than isolate.
Which is best?
When you compare the stats, whey protein concentrate can offer you the strongest results. Not only is it the cheapest, but it retains most of the beneficial nutrients found in whey. Its taste isn’t too bad either, as it contains more lactose and fat than the others.
Now, if your body is struggling to tolerate concentrate or you want to limit your carbs and fat intake – whilst still receiving higher quantities of protein – then whey protein isolate is your next best option (followed by hydrolysate).
What is whey protein used for?
Whey protein has got a lot of uses, but the main three you need to know about are muscle building, strength enhancement and weight loss. Each of these can feed into your bulking and cutting cycle, so it is important to know how whey protein can make this happen.
- Muscle mass and strength
Paired with resistance training and weight lifting, whey protein can improve protein synthesis and encourage greater levels of lean muscle growth in your biceps. These gains will naturally feed into an increase in strength too, as every time the fibers in your muscle tissues tear and repair themselves, they will enable you to lift more weight.
How does it work?
- Whey protein can provide your body with the protein and amino acids it needs to act as building blocks for muscle growth. By boosting your protein intake, this can supply your body with all the ingredients it needs to encourage muscle growth.
- Whey protein can boost the release of anabolic hormones e.g. insulin that are responsible for stimulating muscle growth.
- Whey is high in essential amino acid leucine. This particular amino acid can stimulate muscle protein synthesis (at a molecular and genetic level).
- Compared to other proteins, whey protein is quick to be absorbed and used by your body.
Protein synthesis is usually at its highest after exercise; however, you can easily take whey protein before, during or after your workout and still experience a decent amount of muscle tissue development.
NOTE: Whey is most effective over the short term when consumed with a diet rich in protein e.g. meat, fish, eggs and dairy. If you don’t eat enough protein in your diet, then using whey protein is unlikely to boost your results.
- Weight loss
There is a lot of speculation surrounding whey protein isolates ability to encourage losses in body fat. Obviously, it can’t happen on its own – it is important to pair whey protein with resistance training – but over a 10 week cycle, it is possible to increase your lean muscle mass whilst shedding fat.
Part of its ability to promote weight loss, is the fact that it is a satiating macronutrient. This combined with its ability to boost energy expenditure by 80-100 calories a day, means it can help you to eat up to 440 calories less a day.
In one study, it was discovered that if you make 25% of your daily calorie intake protein, this can cut your cravings by up to 60%. Whilst in another study, replacing other sources of calories with whey protein can help you to lose 8lbs, whilst enabling you to retain muscle and increase your lean muscle mass (when combined with weight lifting).
Whey protein – the verdict
As you can see, whey protein has got the potential to be a great protein source. Used correctly it can: boost your protein intake; supply you with all 9 essential amino acids and help to maximize your muscle mass gains.
The key to succeeding is to manage your dosage, and remember that your diet is probably already supplying you with all the protein you need.
Related: What Is The Best Plant Based Protein Powder? >>
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