Important information about whey protein and how it works

whey-proteinWhey protein is among the best sources of protein available, packed with essential amino acids the body can absorb quickly and use to build muscle and strength, as well as supporting weight loss. (1, 2, 3)

Among the potent biological agents in whey protein are substances that can help decrease blood pressure and blood sugar, and treat symptoms of cancer, HIV and depression. (4)

Tested extensively, the documented benefits of whey protein make it a great choice for overall health improvement.

Whey is the watery part of milk that’s left over during the cheese-making process. It accounts for 20% of the protein, with the remainder found in casein, the fatty and more solid parts. (5)

Before the value of whey protein was understood, this liquid was discarded. (6) Processing transforms it into whey powder that can be added to shakes and smoothies and used in meal replacement products or protein bars. (7)

It’s not much in the flavor department, so products are usually enhanced with additives; reading labels will help you avoid getting a ton of sugar you don’t want.

Whey protein is a great way to increase protein intake by 25 to 30 grams daily, especially for body builders and athletes; it’s not a good choice if you’re lactose intolerant, and some people may find they have an allergy to whey. (8)

Nutritional Benefits

You’ve probably heard proteins are the building blocks of our bodies; it’s needed to make everything from molecules, enzymes and hormones to tendons, skin, organs, and muscle tissue.

The building blocks of proteins are amino acids. Our bodies make some of these amino acids, but the ones we can’t make, called essential amino acids, must come from food.

Some foods have only some of the essential amino acids, but whey powder has all of them, which makes it a superior choice for protein needs.

Whey powder is rich in Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA) like leucine and cysteine. (9) Leucine is vital for promoting growth, and it also increase levels of glutathione, the antioxidant made in cells. (10)

Human breast milk is even richer in whey than cow’s milk at 60% (11), providing a growing baby with plenty of raw materials.

Of the types of whey powder available, whey concentrate may be the best choice, depending on needs. It usually has the best flavor and runs at between 70% and 80% protein. It has the highest fat content as well as more milk sugar (lactose).

Isolate can be 90% or higher in protein content with less fat and lactose, but some of the beneficial nutrients in concentrate have been removed.

Hydrolyzed whey, or hydrolysate, is actually pre-digested and absorbed much faster than isolate; this can cause blood sugar spikes. (12)

Concentrate is the most popular product, but people who have trouble tolerating it, or those who need to keep carbs low and protein high, may want to try isolate, which is what was used in the studies we’ll refer to below.

The Effect of Whey Protein on Strength and Muscle Mass

By far the most common use of whey protein is by body builders and athletes, but it can help anyone build muscle and increase strength.

Here’s how it works:

  • Because it’s so absorbed so quickly, it can be used as a protein source much faster than other types. (13)
  • Stimulates muscle protein synthesis; leucine works at a genetic and molecular level. (14)
  • Increases the release of anabolic hormones like insulin that stimulate muscle growth. (15)
  • Delivers protein and amino acids the body can use as building blocks for muscle mass.

The greatest amount of activity in building muscle occurs after a workout (16, 17), but the process is more dependent on total daily intake of protein. (18) As long as you’re getting the amount you need, take it whenever you like.

Whey protein stimulates the production of more muscle than soy protein (19) , but when it was compared to casein, results showed whey performs better in the short term and casein better over the long term. (20, 21)

Using whey protein makes a dramatic difference if the diet is lacking in protein, but won’t have a great effect if adequate protein is already included. One study of elderly subjects adding whey protein to a diet that contained plenty of protein showed no changes over a three-month period of resistance training. (22)

Protein is the most satisfying of the macronutrients, and can boost metabolism, help reduce cravings and cut calorie consumption by more than 400 daily, promoting weight loss. (23, 24, 25)

One study showed that replacing other calories in the diet with whey protein triggered weight loss of about 8 pounds when combined with weight lifting. (26)

Whey protein is an excellent choice for anyone on a weight loss diet, because it protects muscle mass; when the numbers on the scale go down, you can be sure it’s fat you’re losing, not muscle. (27, 28)

General Health Benefits

Not only can whey protein help you build muscle, strength and a lean body, it also provides a range of other health benefits.

Including it in your diet can improve circulation and lower blood pressure. (29) It may also drop cholesterol levels. (30)

Whey protein has been shown to reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes through improving blood sugar levels, and your chances of becoming obese fall dramatically. (31)

If you’re feeling stressed or depressed, whey protein decreases levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and jacks up serotonin levels in the brain, promoting mood elevation. (32)

Substances found in whey protein are believed to protect against some types of cancer, including colon and prostate cancer. (33, 34)

It can also be useful in the treatment of hepatitis C, as well as preserving bone density. (35, 36)

Whey protein has been used successfully to boost immune system function in HIV patients. (37, 38)

It may even support longevity. Laboratory studies show mice live longer when they eat whey protein. (39)

Summing It Up

Researchers believe the high amounts of cysteine may be one of the reasons whey protein has so many health benefits. This essential amino acid stimulates production the cellular antioxidant glutathione. (40, 41)

More is not necessarily better when it comes to protein, because your body can only utilize a certain amount. Most people should stick to the recommended dosage on package labels, which usually runs at 25 to 30 grams.

Summary: The range of bioactive compounds found in whey protein can help you build muscle and strength, reduce appetite and lose weight, as well as improving vital health markers like blood pressure and blood sugar levels.


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