Proteins are vital to the building, maintenance and repair of body tissues, serve as a structural component of enzymes, cellular receptors and signaling molecules and perform transport carrier functions within the body.
In recent years, I have discussed some of the most notable sources of protein. Whey protein in particular is highly talked about, and there are many questions surrounding its effectivity. This page will discuss what whey protein is, how it can improve your body's overall wellbeing, what science has to say about its capabilities and how much of it you should be taking daily.
What Is Whey Protein?
Whey protein is referred to as the gold standard of protein. This low-lactose option is a complete protein containing the nine essential amino acids, and is popular among athletes, bodybuilders and fitness models, as well as people looking to improve physical performance at the gym.1,2
Whey protein can either be formed as a byproduct of cheese making or separated from casein during milk production. There are numerous whey protein variants sold nowadays, and many of these are often flavored, with chocolate, vanilla and strawberry being the most popular.3
Apart from being added into protein shakes, whey protein powder is also used as an additive in beef, dairy, bakery and confectionery and snack products. There are also other varieties of whey protein powder, namely sweet whey, acid whey (seen in salad dressings), demineralized (primarily used as an additive in infant formulas) and reduced forms. In particular, demineralized and reduced whey protein are used in other products aside from sports supplements.4
Sources of Whey Protein
You may be wondering where whey protein comes from and how is it made. Whey is one of two major protein groups found in cow's milk, accounting for 20 percent of proteins, while casein takes up the remaining 80 percent.5 Once whey from the milk is gathered, this is processed and produced into different types of whey protein, as discussed below.6
However, not all whey protein is created equal. In fact, some of these might not be good for your health. I encourage you to take note of the qualities that separate good whey protein from its lackluster counterparts.
Whey Protein Isolates and Hydrolyzed Whey Protein: Avoid These Two Types as Much as Possible
What is common about whey protein isolates (WPIs) and hydrolyzed whey protein or whey protein hydrolysates (WPH) is that both underwent processing. However, there are particular factors in the processing methods that make a strong case as to why you should avoid these types of whey protein.
WPIs are processed to remove fat and lactose,7 and they contain around 92 percent protein (dry basis), allowing you to get more protein per equivalent dose.8 However, despite WPIs' high protein content, the manufacturing process often leads to denatured proteins. When proteins are denatured, this means that their structures are broken down, resulting in loss of peptide bonds and potentially reducing effectiveness of the protein.9
Meanwhile, WPH has gone through partial hydrolysis, a process needed by the body to absorb protein. WPH is said to be the "predigested" form of whey protein and doesn't require as much digestion compared to other types of whey protein.10
Hydrolysates have been partially broken down after exposing the protein to heat, acid or enzymes that break apart the bonds connecting amino acids. This causes the whey protein to taste more bitter, but allows it to absorb more substances rapidly compared to a concentrate or isolate.11 However, this benefit is only minimal and may not be worth the taste and tradeoff.
Whey Protein Concentrate Is the Best Choice
I highly recommend whey protein concentrate (WPC) because not only is it considered the most economical type of whey protein,12 but it often contains low levels of fat and carbohydrates, and more amounts of biologically active components and proteins. WPC is highly ideal if you're an athlete.13,14
Although WPC does undergo processing, the method usually involves removing water, lactose, ash and some minerals only. The percentage of protein present in WPC depends on its concentration, with lower end concentrates having 30 percent protein and higher end concentrates containing up to 90 percent protein.
The Best Type of Whey Protein Comes From Pasture-Raised Cows
I would also like to stress that getting whey protein specifically from organically raised pastured cows is very important. Organic grass fed whey protein comes from the milk of pasture-raised cows that were able to roam on pasture and consume a natural diet of grass, instead of being confined in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
What sets organic whey protein apart from other varieties is its production process that does not involve incorporating additives or chemicals, but relies on using 100 percent natural ingredients. As a result, you are able to get pure and healthy whey protein powder, which is a stark contrast from some conventional whey protein powders that are combined with cheaper ingredients like soy (in the form of soy lecithin).15,16
By choosing organic, grass fed whey protein, you are also promoting sustainable farming practices that's valuable to the animals and the environment, and are able to reap more naturally occurring branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) that can offer benefits that aren't found in processed whey protein powders. Other benefits linked to grass fed whey protein include:17
• Reduced methane production: CAFO cows often produce high amounts of methane that contribute to environmentally damaging greenhouse gases and even to climate change. Cows that consume a natural diet of grass, instead of genetically modified corn and other crops, tend to produce less methane.
• Lowered risk of chemical contamination: Grass fed cows that eat grass that's not sprayed with herbicides, insecticides or pesticides produce whey protein without traces of these substances, reducing the possibility of adverse health effects.
You should also pay attention to the ingredients list, because some brands may be pasteurized and/or are loaded with sugar and chemicals that do not belong in a healthy diet. So, to summarize, here are the characteristics of high-quality whey protein:
• Whey must come from organically raised and grass fed raw cows' milk (this will ensure that the whey is free of GMOs, pesticides and hormones)
• Whey is cold processed, since heat destroys whey's fragile molecular structure
• Must be whey protein concentrate (WPC), and ideally not protein whey protein isolates (WPIs)
• Naturally (not artificially) sweetened and low in carbohydrates
• Must be highly digestible — check for medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), not long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs)
Health Benefits of Whey Protein
There are four main benefits attributed to high-quality whey protein:
• Supporting good immune system health because of the presence of immunoglobulins
• Assisting in preservation of lean body tissue, particularly during exercise, because it delivers bioavailable amino acids and cysteine
• Maintaining blood pressure levels that are already within the normal range
• Promoting healthy vascular function18
Plus, high-quality whey protein from organically raised, grass fed cows is likely to contain these nutrients:
• Leucine: A known BCAA, leucine is helpful for weight loss and is responsible for signaling the mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin) mechanism to raise protein synthesis and promote muscle growth.
Whey protein contains far more leucine compared to food sources. This is crucial because you may need very high amounts of leucine (far more than the recommended daily allowance) to reap some of its benefits. Most of the leucine in the body ends up becoming used as a building block rather than a potent anabolic stimulus.
• Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA): This is a healthy type of omega-6 fatty acid, and research has highlighted that CLA may help with weight loss via these mechanisms:19,20,21,22,23
◦ Reducing food intake
◦ Increasing fat burning
◦ Promoting body fat breakdown
◦ Preventing body fat production while preserving muscle (the greatest improvements are said to occur among those who combine exercise with dietary intake of CLA)24
Plus, CLA can also be beneficial in combatting:
High blood pressure levels
High cholesterol and triglyceride levels
Immune system invaders
Food-induced allergic reactions
Insulin resistance (CLA's actions can mimic the effect of synthetic diabetic drugs)
• Glutathione: This is the body's most powerful antioxidant. Glutathione, which is a tripeptide found inside every single cell of the body, can enhance overall health by delivering protection to the cells and mitochondria against oxidative and peroxidative damage. Its ability to promote healthy mitochondrial function also makes it an important factor in energy utilization, detoxification and prevention of diseases linked with aging.
Glutathione is an intracellular antioxidant that is able to maximize the activity of vitamins C and E, CoQ10, alpha-lipoic acid and other antioxidants from fruits and vegetables that you might eat frequently. High-quality whey protein provides key amino acids essential for glutathione production, namely cysteine, glycine and glutamate, and it also contains glutamylcyseine, a unique cysteine residue that's highly bioactive in its affinity for converting to glutathione.
Furthermore, whey protein also delivers critical co-factors, immunoglobulins, lactoferrin and alpha-Lactalbulmin. Together, these assist in creating the right metabolic environment for high glutathione activity.
When you exercise, your body tends to synthesize adenosine triphosphate (ATP). However, glutathione production tends to depend on ATP synthesis, so low ATP levels can also lead to low glutathione levels. When you promote ATP synthesis by exercising, and consequently glutathione production, this can lead to a strengthened immune system.
A glutathione deficiency is linked to the onset of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, coronary and autoimmune diseases, arthritis, asthma and other inflammatory disorders, cancer and muscle weakness and fatigue.
Is Whey Protein Recommended for Women?
Many women shun the idea of taking whey protein over concerns that it will bulk them up. However, as personal trainer Taylor Ryan emphasizes, whey protein won't add "bulk" to women, because they don't have hormones that prompt the growth of large and padded muscles. Instead, whey protein will help women achieve an overall toned look.25
A woman can take whey protein safely, depending on how active she is and what her weight is. Before taking any type of whey protein, however, a woman should determine how much protein she needs in the first place. She can also consult a dietitian or physician to check if there is a need to take any type of whey protein to begin with.
Although whey protein can be taken before, during and/or after a workout, the best time to take it is within an hour after a workout to aid with muscle recovery.26 Meanwhile, women who exercise sparingly and use whey protein for weight loss may find it more effective when taken in the morning.27
Apart from helping improve physical performance during a workout and promoting weight loss, whey protein can be beneficial for women because there are instances wherein they do not consume enough protein daily. Some of the health risks linked to a protein deficiency include:
Increased risk for developing osteoporosis
Fragile fingernails and toenails
Possibility of eating more calories in high-carbohydrate foods to compensate for a lack of energy
Studies on Whey Protein
The potential of whey protein in providing significant benefits towards metabolism and weight were highlighted by these two studies:
• Whey protein against metabolic disorders and cardiovascular diseases:28 A systematic review published in 2011 sought to determine whether whey protein can reduce the risk for metabolic disorders and cardiovascular diseases because of the bioactive compounds and BCAAs in it.
The researchers identified 25 recently published intervention trials that examined the chronic and/or acute effects of whey protein supplements towards lipid and glucose metabolism, blood pressure, vascular function and enhancement of the musculoskeletal system.
The team discovered that whey protein may have a blood glucose- and/or insulin-lowering effect that's partly mediated by incretins, and the ability to help increase muscle protein synthesis. However, no clear-cut effects were shown towards blood lipids and lipoproteins, blood pressure and vascular function, while data regarding whey protein's effects on bone metabolism is scarce.
The researchers noted that evidence for a clinical efficacy isn't that strong to make final recommendations on dosage and duration of whey protein intake or supplementation.
Researchers also examined whey protein's potential in addressing certain diseases, as seen in these studies:
• Modulating response among children with atopic asthma:29 In this study published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 11 children (six girls and five boys) underwent a spirometry, methacholine provocation testing and blood testing for serum IgE lymphocyte glutathione (GSH) before and after a month of taking a whey-based oral supplement (a 10-gram dose taken twice a day).
The researchers chose to examine the effects of a whey-based oral supplement among children with atopic asthma because it is a T-helper type 2 (Th2) cytokine disease, and supplementation is said to help improve lung function and decrease atopy. Initially, the researchers discovered that GSH levels in antigen-presenting cells promoted a Th2 cytokine response in mice.
Results showed a decrease in IgE levels after supplementation, but there were no significant changes in lymphocyte GSH or baseline forced expired volume in 1 second (FEV1) levels for the group as a whole.
Based on this study, whey protein supplementation yielded a modest impact towards the cytokine response in atopic asthma, although the researchers suggested that supplementing for a longer period of time or taking more potent whey-based supplements can be more beneficial.
• Reducing blood pressure levels among pre-hypertensive and hypertensive young men and women:30 According to this 2010 study in the International Dairy Journal, whey protein decreased the blood pressure levels of young men and women in a six-week controlled intervention, and may potentially be used as a dietary treatment for prehypertension and/or stage 1 hypertension.
No differences in systolic blood pressure (SBP), diastolic blood pressure (DBP) or mean arterial pressure (MAP) were observed in groups consuming 28 grams per day of either hydrolyzed or non-hydrolyzed whey protein powder in a drink.
However, among adults with elevated SBP and DBP levels who consumed a whey protein beverage, SBP, DBP and MAP levels decreased by 8.0, 8.6 and 6.4 mm Hg. In subjects with elevated SBP levels only, SBP was reduced by 3.8 mm Hg after drinking the whey protein beverage. Plus, whey protein beverages were revealed to have lowered total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol concentrations.
• Improving condition of type 2 diabetes patients:31 This involved eight type 2 diabetes patients who took 350 milliliters of beef soup 30 minutes before consuming a potato-based meal. Fifty-five grams of whey protein was added to the soup (whey preload) or the potato-based meal (whey in meal), or no whey was given.
The researchers discovered that gastric emptying (a test measuring the time it would take for food to empty from the stomach and enter the small intestine32) was slowest after whey preload. Plus, incremental area under the blood glucose curve was reduced after whey preload and whey in meal than after no whey.
Furthermore, plasma glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide, insulin and cholecystokinin concentrations were higher on both whey days compared to no whey, while glucagon-like peptide 1 was greatest after the whey preload. Whey protein consumption before a carbohydrate-loaded meal was revealed to help stimulate insulin and incretin hormone secretion and slow down gastric emptying, eventually leading to a marked reduction in postprandial glycemia in type 2 diabetes.
• Improving condition of Parkinson's disease patients:33 Published in 2016 in the Journal of Neurological Sciences, this placebo-controlled and double-blind study investigated the effects of undenatured whey protein isolate supplements for six months on plasma glutathione, plasma amino acids and plasma homocysteine (Hcy) levels in Parkinson's Disease (PD) patients.
PD is an oxidative stress-mediated degenerative disorder, and levodopa-treated PD patients usually have elevated Hcy levels. High Hcy levels are associated with disease progression and are a marker for oxidative stress. Because whey protein is a good source of cysteine and BCAA, whey protein supplements may boost glutathione synthesis and muscle strength.
Fifteen subjects received whey protein, while 17 subjects received soy protein and served as the control group. Clinical assessments were done before and after supplementation, namely the unified Parkinson's disease rating scale (UPDRS) and striatal L-3,4-dihydroxy-6-(18)F-fluorophenylalanine (FDOPA) uptake.
Subjects in the whey protein group had significant increases in plasma concentration of reduced glutathione and in ratio of reduced to oxidized glutathione, but not in the control group. This result is linked to a reduction in plasma levels of Hcy. Outcomes also showed that plasma BCAA and essential amino acids (EAA) increased in the whey protein group.
Unfortunately, UPDRS and striatal FDOPA uptake among PD patients in both groups didn't improve greatly. However, a significant relative correlation was recorded between the UPDRS and plasma BCAA and EAA among the pre-supplemented PD patients.
The researchers noted that while this particular study yielded positive results on whey protein's ability to lower plasma Hcy levels and increase plasma reduced glutathione and reduced to oxidized glutathione ratio, BCAAs and EAAs in PD patients, no significant changes were recorded in clinical outcomes. Long-term and large randomized clinical studies were suggested to fully determine whey protein supplements' benefits in managing PD.
What's the Ideal Dosage for Whey Protein?
Taking whey protein on top of your current protein intake, especially if the amount is already high to begin with, is unnecessary. Exceeding the maximum amount of protein your body can handle may activate the mTOR pathway and prompt the development of aging problems and other disorders, such as a higher risk for cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.
Most adults would need a gram of protein per kilogram of lean body mass (not total body weight), or 0.5 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass. However, elderly people, pregnant women and people who are aggressively exercising or competing may exceed this requirement (they would typically need around 25 percent more protein).
There is a formula that can help you determine your lean body mass. Begin by subtracting your body fat percentage from 100. For example, if you have 30 percent body fat, then you have 70 percent lean body mass. Multiply lean body mass by your current weight to determine lean body mass in pounds or kilos. Lastly, multiply lean body mass by 0.5 grams if you're calculating in pounds, or 1 gram if you're calculating in kilos. Here's how this formula looks like:
100 – % of body fat = % of lean mass X actual weight X 0.5 gm/1 gm protein = total grams of protein recommended
You can also consult a physician or a dietitian before taking whey protein. This way, he or she will be able to determine if you would be needing to take whey protein in the first place and the type of whey protein that would be fit for your condition.
Whey Protein Recipes to Try
There are many whey protein shake recipes that you can try, such as this Super Shake recipe:
Super Shake Recipe
• 4 to 6 ounces of water
• 1 scoop of Pure Power Protein Powder
• 1 tsp. organic extra virgin coconut oil or MCT oil
• 1 scoop Organic Greens powder
• 2 to 3 scoops Organic Whole Husk Psyllium
• Optional: 1/2 to 1 avocado
1. Add 1 scoop of Pure Power Protein Powder and water in a glass or blender bottle.
2. Add a heaping teaspoon of organic extra virgin coconut oil or MCT oil.
3. Add 1 scoop of Organic Greens powder.
4. Add the optional 1/2 to 1 avocado.
5. Finish the mixture with 2 to 3 scoops of Organic Whole Husk Psyllium.
6. Blend and enjoy!
You can add whey protein powder to some of your favorite meals, too. A 2015 Greatist article listed down 41 ways to use whey protein for every day meals, and here are good examples of foods that you can add whey protein into:34
• Breakfast: banana bread and protein crepes or waffles
• Main Dishes: soups, quiches, burgers and meatballs
• Snacks: protein balls, granola and crackers
• Desserts: protein smoothie pops and fudge truffles
Side Effects of Whey Protein
Some experts believe that nutritionally refined foods like whey protein have health risks as the balance is heavily tipped towards protein. While it doesn't trigger side effects when consumed in moderate doses, whey protein may pose dangers and side effects if taken in high doses35,36
Cramps and bloating
Acne (if whey protein is consumed in consistently high doses)
Increased bowel movements
Fatigue and tiredness
Migraines and headaches (although some experts believe that these arise because of monosodium glutamate [MSG] that may be hidden in whey protein)
People with milk allergies may also be allergic to whey protein. In the long run, lactose-intolerant people must consult their physician prior to using any form of whey protein or any other supplements or vitamins.
In summary, the possible health benefits of whey protein aren't just limited to athletes, bodybuilders and/or fitness models, but towards "ordinary folk" too, especially if they know how much whey protein they should be taking and select the right type of whey protein. However, take note that despite some of its benefits for your health, whey protein is not meant to be the sole solution that'll solve health problems, especially those involving daily protein requirements and weight loss.
Frequently Asked Questions About Whey Protein
Q: What does whey protein do?
A: Whey protein can be good for you as it can help support good immune system health, preserve lean body tissue (especially during exercise), regulate blood pressure levels that are already within the normal range and promote healthy vascular function.37
Q: What is the difference between soy and whey protein?
A: Whey protein is made from cow's milk once it's separated from another type of protein called casein. Afterwards, the whey undergoes processes that remove carbohydrates, fats and excess water. Soy protein is made from grinding soybeans, which are legumes that are low in fat but high in protein, into a meal without hulls and fat. This meal is processed into soy protein isolate and sold in powder form.38
Q: Is whey protein good for women?
A: Yes. Although women may be worried that whey protein can bulk up their body, personal trainer Taylor Ryan notes that women don't have the hormones that can promote development of large and padded muscles seen in men. In fact, because women often lack protein in their diet, whey protein can help them fulfill their daily protein requirements, if calculated correctly.39
Q: Is whey protein gluten-free?
A: Generally, whey protein is gluten-free and doesn't contain traces of gluten. According to the group Beyond Celiac, whey protein concentrates, whey protein isolates and whey protein hydrolysates are gluten-free and are safe for people with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity.40
However, it's still advisable to check the ingredients of a particular whey protein powder. Not all whey protein powders are gluten-free, especially if these are flavored, because manufacturers use various ingredients to create flavored whey protein powders. An ingredient to watch out for is glutamine, which is derived from wheat protein. If you or someone you know is diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, avoid taking whey protein powders containing this ingredient.
Q: When is it ideal to take whey protein?
A: While health experts, personal trainers and whey protein manufacturers all have their own takes on when you should take whey protein,41 I advise taking whey protein usually an hour after a workout.
After a workout, the body needs protein to build muscle. Whey protein is able to assimilate quickly and goes to the muscles within 10 to 15 minutes after swallowing it, eventually supplying muscles with the right food at the right time to inhibit the catabolic process, promoting a shift in the process and encouraging muscle repair and growth.42
Q: Is whey protein bad for you?
A: Whey protein isn't entirely bad for you, as evidenced by some of the health benefits mentioned. Moderate doses of whey protein have not triggered adverse side effects either.
Q: What are the potential side effects of taking whey protein?
A: If you or someone you know consumes too much whey protein, this can lead to side effects like cramps and bloating, nausea, fatigue and tiredness, reduced appetite and migraines and headaches.43,44