Protein plays a key role in the human body. Protein is used by the body to make and support the organs, skin, tendons, and muscles. This is why taking a whey protein supplement can be so beneficial for athletes, fitness enthusiasts and people looking to increase muscle and burn fat.
14 Potential Benefits of Whey Protein
- Improves Strength
- Aids Muscle Growth
- Improves Body Composition
- Helps with Weight Loss
- Boosts Metabolism
- Aids Muscle Recovery
- Prevents Muscle Loss
- Prevents Diabetes
- Reduces Inflammation
- Antioxidant Defense
- Improves Digestive Health
- Lowers Cholesterol
- Boosts Cognitive Functioning
- Cost and Convenience
Linked together like a string of small pearls, amino acids are what assemble proteins. Proteins that can only be obtained by foods are called essential amino acids. Other amino acids are created by the cells in your body.
To get the most benefit from proteins, you should supplement with proteins that supply your body with all nine essential amino acids. Whey protein is chocked full of amino acids. BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids) are found in large numbers in whey protein. For example, cysteine and leucine can be found in high amounts in whey protein supplements.
Cysteine and leucine are important. Leucine is the most anabolic of all amino acids. This means that it promotes the most muscle growth. In fact, human breast milk is comprised of 60% whey protein in comparison to cow’s milk which is only 20% whey. Cysteine also helps your body boost its levels of glutathione (a cellular antioxidant).
Types of Whey Protein
Whey protein comes in various forms. The way that whey protein is processed is what accounts for the different types of protein. The three main forms of whey protein are:
- Whey Concentrate: This is the most flavorful form of whey because whey concentrate contains some lactose (which is milk sugar) and fat, and is around 70% to 80% protein.
- Whey Isolate: At 90% protein or higher, whey isolate lacks a lot of the nutrients found in whey protein concentrate. It is also lower in fat and lactose.
- Whey Hydrolysate: Better known as hydrolyzed whey, this form of whey protein is pre-digested. This causes the protein to be absorbed more quickly into the body. Hydrolysate can cause a 28% to 43% bigger spike in insulin levels than whey isolate.
Of the three options, whey protein concentrate is, overall, the best option and you can find many variations of this supplement online. Not only is whey concentrate the cheapest option, but it also retains more of the nutrients that are beneficial to our bodies. Because of the fat and lactose, most people prefer the flavor over Isolate and hydrolysate.
If you are trying to keep your carbs and fat low while taking protein, or if you simply cannot tolerate whey concentrate, then whey protein isolate or hydrolysate would probably be a better choice.
Strength and Muscle Growth
Whey protein supplements are most commonly used by people who want to increase their strength and muscle mass. Whey protein is used by fitness models, athletes, bodybuilders and people who are hoping to improve their performance in the gym.
Whey protein supports both muscle strength and muscle growth in the following ways:
- Whey protein contains the amino acids and protein necessary for muscle growth.
- Whey protein increases the release of insulin and other anabolic hormones that stimulate muscle growth.
- The fat in whey protein is absorbed very quickly, which means it is utilized quickly.
- Whey protein contains a high amount of leucine, an amino acid known to not only kick start muscle protein synthesis at the molecular level, but at the genetic level as well.
Whey protein is very effective, when consumed the night before, or during or after your workout, at increasing the growth of muscle and protein synthesis.
However, most muscle protein synthesis happens during the period after training. With that being said, a recent review of evidence shows that your daily total of protein intake is actually the most relevant factor when it comes to muscle growth. So, whether you consume protein before, during or after a workout, or anytime during the same day is still beneficial.
When other types of protein, like soy protein, are compared to whey protein, it has been shown that whey protein usually performs slightly better as seen in research published in the Journal of Nutrition.
The findings are more mixed when comparing whey protein to casein. Casein promotes muscle growth over a longer period of time compared to whey protein, which is more effective as a direct hit of protein to the body.
It is important to keep in mind that whey protein will likely have a minimal effect on your results unless your body and diet is lacking protein.
The University of Iceland conducted a 12-week study of older adults who had adequate protein intake and also partook in resistance training. The study found that people who supplemented with whey protein and carbohydrates had the same muscle growth as those people who ate regular protein based meals.
For those of you that already eat a lot of foods high in quality protein, such as fish, meat, dairy and eggs, you will likely see minimal results by adding whey protein to your diet.
On the opposite side of this spectrum, if you have a protein deficient diet, adding a whey protein supplement will prove to be beneficial (especially if you are an athlete, bodybuilder, or trying to cut fat).
It is no secret that protein lends a hand in weight loss. It is the most satiating macronutrient, by far. In fact, one study published in the Obesity journal found that simply eating 25% of your daily calorie intake in protein can cut cravings by 60%. What’s even better, it found that the desire to have a late night snack was cut in half.
Supplementing with whey protein is a fantastic way to aid weight loss by adding essential proteins to your diet. For example, studies show that if you replace other sources of calories with whey protein, along with lifting weights, you can lose approximately eight pounds of fat.
What’s more, you will increase your lean muscle mass. So, with whey protein, you don’t have to worry about losing muscle while losing weight.
Muscle Growth and Recovery
Because of its amino acid composition, whey protein supplementation is beneficial for muscle protein synthesis. Because protein molecules are built with amino acids, you cannot form every tissue in your body without amino acids.
Amino acids are split into two categories: essential and non-essential. You get your essential amino acids through your diet, and your body synthesizes non-essential amino acids. Whey protein contains all nine essential amino acids, so it is called a complete protein.
Now, when we talk about muscle growth and repair, it is the BCAAs, or branched chain amino acids, that do most of the work. This is why whey protein supplements are so beneficial for exercise recovery; they are rich in BCAAs like valine, leucine and isoleucine.
Because whey protein is so high in the BCAA leucine, people who supplement with whey versus a carbohydrate or soy supplement had much more lean muscle mass.
Researchers at the University of Toronto looked at the effects whey had on short-term recovery. By giving 12 young men either a carbohydrate supplement or a whey protein supplement before lifting weights, and measuring muscle strength and recovery at both 12 and 24 hours after a workout.
The researchers found that the group that was given the whey supplement recovered not just faster, but better and stronger than the group that didn’t take a whey protein supplement.
Research published by the ISSN discovered that a combination of protein mixed with carbohydrates helped cyclists perform better on tests of endurance.
This protein/carb combination improved cycling performance and recovery rates, and also reduced muscle soreness. In this case, protein intake reduced muscle soreness by suppressing a rise in plasma proteins associated with myofibrillar damage.
Another interesting study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition examined 11 cyclists who took whey protein. The study found that whey protein supplements improved cycling performance and muscle recovery when consumed alone or with carbs.
Burning Fat with Protein
Now, we all know that whey protein is useful when it comes to building muscle, but what if you are simply trying to lose a few pounds so you can stay slim and lean?
Well, don’t worry. Whey protein is also a supplement that is great for staying lean as well as muscle building. In fact, whey protein can help you lose fat, while you preserve muscle.
Put simply, supplementing your diet with whey protein will improve your overall body composition and health. Purdue researchers recently compiled 13 studies on women and how whey protein supplementation affected these women. The primary measurement in this study was body mass index, or BMI.
After all of the data was calculated, it was found that body composition was improved across the board for all women. When women used whey protein supplements, they were shown to have more lean muscle mass than the women who didn’t use a whey protein supplement. The most significant effects were shown in the studies conducted with some type of calorie restriction involved.
Another study, published in the journal Obesity Surgery, examined 34 women who were all recovering from gastric bypass surgery. The study split the women into two groups, one group on a low calorie diet without whey supplementation, and the other group on a low calorie diet with whey supplementation.
While all of the women actually lost weight, it was the group that had whey supplementation that maintained their lean muscle mass. Now, whey protein supplementation doesn’t actually stimulate weight loss itself, but it will help you consume less calories due to helping you feel full, and it will also help you to maintain your lean muscle mass.
Whey Protein and the Ketogenic Diet
A ketogenic diet is high in fat and low in carbohydrates. It stimulates weight loss, but why? Keto is a fat burning diet. Your body switches gears and goes from burning glucose for energy to burning fat. Sure, dietary fat will be burned, but so will stored fat over time. Another word for your stored fat is adipose tissue.
Your appetite is decreased on a keto diet and you naturally eat less food. Your appetite is lowered by: Decreasing ghrelin, the hormone responsible for hunger; decreasing neuropeptide Y, the brain’s hunger chemical; and increasing CCK, a stomach peptide that reduces hunger.
Insulin levels drop when following a keto diet You can avoid high blood sugar by consuming less carbs. When you follow a keto diet, you are actually helping your body prevent insulin resistance.
Insulin resistance happens when your body stores fat rather than burn it because you have too much insulin. Insulin is the hormone that causes fat storage, so it only stands to reason that you would want to avoid carbs in order to lower your insulin levels.
MCT oil, olive oil and nut butter are healthy, high fat options for those following a keto diet. However, the keto diet isn’t only about fat intake. You must also maintain a healthy protein intake; it is important if you want to maintain your lean muscle mass on a keto diet.
In 2016 researchers placed 25 healthy people on two different diets. The first was a keto diet with whey supplementation, and the other was a low-calorie diet, both with the endpoint being body composition.
At the end of the study, the group who followed a keto diet with whey suplementation had better body composition than the group simply on a low-calorie diet. Both groups did lose weight, but it was only those on the keto diet with added whey that kept their lean muscle mass. This shows that whey protein is beneficial even to those following a strict ketogenic diet.
Improves Insulin Efficiency
A diet high in carbohydrates can promote metabolic disorders. So, yes, what you eat will affect your metabolism. When you’re healthy and eat a high-carb meal, this happens:
- Your blood sugar (glucose) goes up.
- The glucose is then moved into your cells by the insulin released by your pancreas.
- Your blood sugar drops back to normal, healthy levels.
However, should you continue to eat meals high in carbohydrates, that process changes to the following:
- Your blood sugar spikes right after each meal.
- In order to handle those spikes in blood sugar, your pancreas will release large amounts of insulin.
- Insulin resistance begins in your cells, causing them to stop taking in glucose.
- Your risk for chronic disease increases because your blood sugar continues to stay elevated.
- You increase your risk for chronic disease because your insulin levels also stay elevated.
- Your body begins to store more fat because of the high levels of insulin.
- You become stuck in a state of insulin resistance.
When you consider obesity, you should really think about not just diet, but insulin levels and glucose, as they are all tied together. Whey protein has been found to improve insulin function, leading to better blood sugar regulation.
In another study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers gave casein, whey protein and glucose to people suffering from obesity for 12 weeks. The study found that the group that was given whey as a supplement showed more effective insulin function over the 12 weeks.
Another study was conducted where whey protein was given to people with Type 2 diabetes along with a breakfast high in carbohydrates. After breakfast, those who were given whey showed insulin sensitivity improvement and blood sugar levels lower than those in the placebo group.
Just so it is understood, the studies were conducted on people with existing disorders of the metabolic system. It isn’t clear as to whether whey protein supplementation holds the same benefits for healthy people. However, it is very clear that whey is perfect for muscle growth and recovery in just about everyone.
Age Related Muscle Loss Prevention
Whey’s BCAAS aren’t only for people who go to the gym. BCAAs also prevent age related muscle loss. It is a common misconception that the body must naturally deteriorate with age.
Now, it is true that a lot of people lose muscle as they get older, but they don’t have to. Sarcopenia, also known as muscle loss, can cause issues such as increased risk of chronic disease, weakness and nerve damage.
Muscle loss can be avoided by doing, at the very least, these two things: (1) weight lifting and (2) consuming enough protein, especially protein like whey protein that is high in BCAAS. Resistance training and protein intake are both very important if you wish to maintain lean muscle mass well into your later years.
In a study published in the journal Nutrients, a group of 70 older women were given either a placebo (no whey protein) or whey protein (at the beginning and the end of their weight training over a 12 week period).
This study was a randomized controlled trial, and the women who consumed whey protein had more lean muscle mass and functional strength than the control group at the end of the study.
This shows that older adults can prevent muscle loss by taking whey supplements before and after a workout. Aside from improved body composition, weight loss, metabolism, muscle growth, recovery, and age related muscle loss, whey protein supplementation is beneficial to other areas of health as well.
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 Diabetes is a chronic disease tied to high blood sugar and poor insulin function. Insulin is a hormone, and stimulates the uptake of blood glucose into your cells in order to keep your blood sugar at a safe and healthy level.
Whey protein moderates your blood sugar. It increases not just the levels of insulin in your body, but the sensitivity to the effects of insulin as well. People with Type 2 Diabetes, as well as those who are perfectly healthy, will benefit greatly when it comes to moderating blood sugar by taking whey protein before or during a meal high in carbohydrates.
Your body responds to damage by becoming inflamed. While inflammation in the short-term is beneficial, inflammation can become chronic under certain circumstances. Chronic inflammation is often harmful and can cause many diseases. Inflammation can be a sign of either bad lifestyle habits or an underlying health issue.
One study published in Nutrients found that if you consume high doses of whey protein supplements, you can reduce the number C-reactive proteins, also known as CRPs, which are the key components of inflammation in your body. So, the next time you find you are suffering from inflammation, try adding a whey supplement to your diet.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Characterized by chronic inflammation in the lining of the digestive tract, inflammatory bowel disease is simply a collective term for ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
Supplementing with whey protein has been shown to have beneficial effects on inflammatory bowel disease, both in rodents and humans. Although beneficial effects were found, further studies will need to be conducted before strong claims can be made due to the weakness of available evidence.
Cutting oxidative stress and the risk of chronic diseases, antioxidants are substances that fight against oxidation in the body. Glutathione is one of the most important of the antioxidants in humans.
Glutathione is produced within the body, unlike most antioxidants we receive through food. How your body produces glutathione depends on your supply of multiple amino acids like cysteine.
Cysteine can often be found in limited supply in your body. That is why foods high in cystein can raise your body’s naturally occurring antioxidant defenses. And wouldn’t you know it, whey protein just happens to be high in cystein.
There have been multiple studies, not just on humans, but on rodents as well, that show whey protein reduces the oxidative stress the your body and increases levels of glutathione––one of your body’s most important antioxidants.
A risk factor for heart disease is high cholesterol, especially LDL cholesterol (also known as “bad cholesterol”). A study of overweight people showed that when given 54 grams of whey protein every day for 12 weeks, the overweight participants had a large reduction in cholesterol as a whole, and especially in LDL cholesterol.
Yet, other studies did not find such an effect on blood cholesterol. This could be due to study design differences. Before any firm conclusions can be made, there will need to be further studies on the effect of whey protein supplementation and high cholesterol.
Whey protein is very satiating. The term “satiety” is the feeling of being full that we get after eating a meal. It truly is the opposite of hunger or appetite. Satiety knocks down our cravings for food and our overall desire to eat. Obviously, there are some foods that are more satiating than others.
This is partially due to a foods macronutrient makeup. For example, proteins, carbohydrates or fats. Proteins are the most filling of the three macronutrients by far.
That being said, whey protein seems to be more satiating than casein and soy. Because of this satiating factor, whey is definitely the way to go if you want to lose weight and eat fewer calories.
Improves Cognitive Health
Every brain contains chemicals known as neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters help determine how we feel, think and act… every moment of every day of our lives.
One neurotransmitter is serotonin. Serotonin regulates our mood. Depression and impaired cognitive performance are indicators of lower levels of serotonin.
There is one thing that hinders cognitive health and depletes serotonin, and it’s present in all walks of life––that one thing is stress. Keeping this in mind, researchers decided to try improving serotonin levels in one study by giving people a supplement high in tryptophan. They believed that this would improve brain function in people who were stressed out.
The tryptophan supplement they decided to use was alpha-lactalbumin. It actually accounts for 36% of the protein found in whey protein. Guess what? It worked. Supplementation with alpha-lactalbumin not only boosted tryptophan levels in stress-prone people, but it also improved their memory.
In a study with mice, whey supplementation lowered the oxidative stress in significant amounts. Whey supplementation also improved the brains mitochondrial function. It’s these factors that are linked to age-related decline in neurodegenerative disease and age-related decline in cognition in humans.
Improves Gut Health
One health issue we have not addressed is “leaky gut”. Your “gut” is basically a long tube that runs from your mouth to your anus. When all is well with your digestion, you break food down in your stomach, you absorb nutrients in your intestines, and then you release the toxins in your stool.
However, inflammation, food allergies, infection, antibiotics and more can cause your intestinal wall to become damaged. Your intestinal wall is only one cell thick, after all. When the wall of your intestines becomes damaged, you have what is called “leaky gut”. The following is a simple breakdown of what happens:
- You suffer damage to your intestinal wall.
- Food and/or toxins begin to leak through the damaged area of your intestine, then flow into your bloodstream.
- Your immune system kicks into high gear, attacking the particles, which causes inflammation.
- Inflammation further damages the intestine, causing it to leak even more.
- The cycle continues.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease can be linked to leaky gut. If you improve your leaky gut, you will improve your defense against these diseases.
In fact, one study proved just that. Patients who suffered with Crohn’s disease showed improvement of their leaky gut symptoms in just two months after taking whey protein supplementation.
What’s more, this improvement was actually similar to those people who were given glutamine. Glutamine is a known building block for intestinal cells.
Not only are proteins a source of amino acids, but they are also a great source of peptides. Peptides are small chains of amino acids that your digestive enzymes can’t completely break down.
Bioactive peptides count for some of those peptides, and can have physiological effects. A peptide only becomes bioactive after being freed from larger protein strands. This is accomplished by your digestive enzymes.
This process can act in the gut or be absorbed into your bloodstream. From the bloodstream, this process can affect tissues throughout the body in a variety of ways.
Whey protein is rich in bioactive peptides. These bioactive peptides benefit your immune system and your cardiovascular system. It is thought that these peptides are a big reason why infants who were breastfed have a lower risk of developing diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular diseases than babies fed formula as infants.
Infant formula isn’t always made with dairy, and when it is, we know that cow’s milk has less whey than human milk. The whey that formula does have could very well have been denatured during processing.
Cost and Convenience
Generally speaking, protein powder is cheaper than whole foods. Obviously, protein foods take time to cook, and you must also take more time to consume whole foods.
Protein powder is convenient in that you can take it on-the-go because it is quick, portable and ready for consumption. With that being said, consuming whole foods also means you are consuming fats and carbohydrates. When this happens, you reach your optimal daily caloric intake before reaching your optimal daily protein intake.
By using protein powders, you will actually bypass multiple issues during whole-food digestion that affects the bioavailability of protein. Now, this doesn’t necessarily count when talking about animal-based foods. Meat and dairy foods have consistently demonstrated that they have a digestibility rate that is over 90%.
However, plant based proteins only have protein digestibility rates reaching 60% to 80%. In other words, your body is able to use the protein from supplement powders in a much more effective way than plant based proteins.
Important Study Findings
McMaster University scientists analyzed multiple research studies and found that adults consuming protein supplements (who are not only healthy but also lift weights) show significantly improved muscle strength, size, and fat loss.
However, some supplement companies want you to believe that the effects are greater than they actually are cautions researchers out of McMaster University. That same published study also suggests that protein supplement benefits increase when resistance training is added, but these benefits become less effective in older adults.
This shows that there is a need for further supplementation if we want optimal results as we age. Now, there is a limit to how much consumed protein is beneficial. That limit is about 1.6 grams of dietary protein for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight. That amount is daily, not per serving or meal.
Effectiveness of Whey Protein
Are all proteins created equal? The answer is no. However, we know that whey protein is more effective than most other forms of protein, as whey protein provides the body with a fantastic array of essential amino acids.
Whey protein can help people gain muscle, increase strength, and lose significant amounts of body fat. Whey protein also contains many other nutrients (such as lactoferrin and immunoglobulins) with potent biological effects.
With so much support in the way of studies, if you struggle to get enough protein from food, there’s no doubt that whey protein (or other protein supplements) should be an essential part of your diet.