Whey Protein 101 : The Ultimate Beginner’s guide


All proteins are not created equally. Forms of protein named whey is better than others as it contains an incredible range of vital amino acids which are absorbed rapidly (1).

A number of studies have proved that it helps us to increase strength, gain muscle and lose a larger amount of body fat (2). However, whey is more than just a protein as it contains tons of other nutrients in it and quite with potent biological effects.

Whey protein is also beneficial in depression, blood pressure, blood sugar and even helps in treating symptoms of HIV and cancer (3). In fact, whey protein is one of the best studied supplements in the world.

In this article, you’ll get to know about whey protein…what is it, how it works and how it can help you achieve your fitness and health goals.

What is Whey Protein?

Whey protein is a mixture of proteins isolated from whey. It is basically the liquid part of milk that gets separated at the time of cheese production.

Milk actually contains two main types of protein named casein(80%) and whey (20%). Whey is found in the watery portion of milk. At the time of cheese production, the fatty part of the milk thickens and whey gets separated from it as a by-product (4).

After opening the yogurt container, the liquid floating on top is whey. Cheese makers used to discard it before they discovered its commercial value (5). After being separated during cheese production, whey passes through a series of processing steps to form what people generally recognize as whey protein…basically a powder which is added to shakes, meal replacements and protein bars (6).

Whey protein is not good at taste when consumed on its own and therefore it is flavoured. A variety of flavoured powders like chocolate, vanilla and strawberry are well-known. Some of the whey protein powders can have unhealthy additives like refined sugar and so it is very important to read the ingredients list prior purchasing it.

Consuming whey protein is an easiest way to add 25-50grams of protein on top of your daily intake. This can be important and useful for bodybuilders and gym enthusiasts and also for people who need to lose weight or if they lack protein in their diet.

Many of the flavoured whey proteins are pretty delicious and can be used in preparing healthy recipes like smoothies which really taste good.

Whey is usually well tolerated, but people with lactose intolerance need to be careful with it. There are also some people who are allergic to whey (7).

Whey Protein Supplements Can Help Boost Your Protein and BCAA Intake

Proteins are indeed the main building blocks of the human body. They help us to make various important things, both large as well as small. This comprises of tendons, organs and skin as well as hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters and all sorts of tiny molecules.

Proteins are also the building blocks of the contractile elements in muscle.They are assembled from amino acids, smaller molecules that are linked together like beads on a string. Some of the amino acids are produced by body’s cells, while the rest which are termed as “essential” amino acids are obtained from foods.

Proteins that supply all the essential amino acids are the best and whey protein is loaded with them. It is rich in essential Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) like Leucine, and also contains Cysteine in a large amount (8). Studies display that Leucine is the most anabolic i.e growth promoting amino acid, and Cysteine helps in boosting levels of the cellular antioxidant Glutathione (9,10).

Whey protein is likely to be effective at stimulating growth in humans. Human breast milk is actually 60% whey, compared to 20% in cow’s milk (11).

Types of Whey Protein: Concentrate vs Isolate vs Hydrolysate

Numerous popular types of whey proteins are available and the main difference between them, is the way they have been processed.

* Concentrate: About 70-80% protein. Contains some lactose (milk sugar) and fat, and has the best flavor.

* Isolate: 90% protein, or higher. Contains less lactose and fat, and is missing a lot of beneficial nutrients found in whey protein concentrate.

* Hydrolysate: Also known as hydrolyzed whey, this type has been pre-digested so that it gets absorbed faster. It causes a 28-43% greater spike in insulin levels than isolate (12).

Whey protein concentrate is the best option as it is the cheapest and contains most of the advantageous nutrients found naturally in whey. Many people also like the taste, which may be because of the small amounts of lactose and fat.

Whey protein isolate or even hydrolysate may be a better option if you have problems tolerating concentrate or if you are trying to emphasize protein while keeping carbs and fat low.

Remember that despite concentrate being the most popular form, numerous studies used whey protein isolate.

Effects of Whey Supplementation on Muscle Mass and Strength

For the purpose of increasing muscle mass and strength the whey protein supplements are preferred . Whey protein is popular among athletes, bodybuilders, fitness models, as well as people who wish to improve their performance in the gym.

The main effects of whey on muscle/strength are:

Building Blocks: It provides protein and amino acids, which serve as building blocks for increased muscle growth.

Hormones: It increases release of anabolic hormones that can stimulate muscle growth, such as Insulin (13).

Leucine: It is high in the amino acid Leucine, which is known to stimulate muscle protein synthesis at the molecular and genetic level (14,15).

Fast Absorption: Whey protein is absorbed and utilized very quickly compared to other types of protein (16).

Whey protein when consumed right before, after or during a workout is particularly effective at increasing muscle growth, but muscle protein synthesis is usually maximized in the time period after training (17,18,19,20).

However, after a recent review of the evidence it has been concluded that total daily protein intake is the most relevant factor in muscle growth. It doesn’t matter much whether protein is consumed around the workout or not (21).

In comparison to other types of protein, such as soy protein, whey protein has usually performed a little better (22,23).

The evidence is more mixed when compared to casein. Whey seems to be effective in the short-term, but casein stimulates muscle growth over a longer period, so the net effect appears to be the same (24,25,26,27,28).

However, one has to keep in mind that unless your diet already lacks protein, supplementing with whey protein is improbable to have a enormous effect on your results.

In a study of elderly individuals who were already consuming protein in sufficient quantity, there was no difference in growth of muscle between whey and carbohydrate, in the course of 12 weeks of resistance training (29).

Hence, the evidence of whey protein on both, muscle and strength is mixed, and the results may greatly vary between individuals.

If you are already eating plenty of meat, fish, eggs and dairy which are all high in quality protein then the benefits of adding whey will probably be minimal.

Whey Protein Improves Satiety and May Help Weight Loss

It is well known that protein can help in losing weight. It is the most fulfilling macronutrient, by far (30). Protein helps in boosting metabolism by 80 to 100 calories per day, and make people automatically consume up to 441 fewer calories per day (31,32,33,34).

In one of the studies, eating protein at 25% of calories cut hunger by 60% and reduces the desire for late-time snacking by half (35).

Consuming whey protein is an excellent way to increase your protein intake which should have major benefits for weight loss.

Studies have proved that if one replaces other sources of calories with whey protein in combination with weight lifting, can lose weight up to 8 pounds, while increasing lean muscle mass (36). Therefore, if you want to lose weight, then whey protein supplement may help you with both, lose weight and also holding on your precious muscle (37,38).

Other Health Benefits of Whey Protein

Whey also contains many other beneficial nutrients like lactoferrin, beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin and immunoglobulins and therefore, it is more than just a high quality protein source (39).

Beyond just muscle, strength and leanness, whey protein can provide many other health benefits like lowering blood pressure, blood sugar and reducing symptoms of stress and depression (40,41,42,43).

It has also been shown to help protect against cancer, reduce symptoms of hepatitis, increase bone mineral density, improve immune function in HIV patients and also increase lifespan in mice (44,45,46,47,48,49,50,51,52,53,54).

Whey protein in known to be very high in the amino acid Cysteine seems to mediate many of the health benefits. Cysteine does this by raising levels of Glutathione, which is the main antioxidant substance in the body’s cells (55,56).

Dosage and Side Effects

It is recommended to take 1-2 scoops i.e around 25-50 grams per day, usually after workouts. One thing that is to be kept in mind is that if your protein intake is already high, adding whey protein on top of your current intake may not be required.

Despite concerns about protein causing kidney damage and contributing to osteoporosis is untrue. In fact, protein protects against osteoporosis without affecting the healthy kidneys (57,58,59,60). However, people suffering with current kidney or liver issues may want to stay away from whey protein, or at least consult a medical professional before consuming it.

Eating protein in larger amount can result in digestive issues like nausea, flatulence, diarrhea, pain and cramping. Some people are also allergic to whey and so they should avoid consuming it.

If regular whey protein concentrate is unbearable then one can go for isolate or hydrolysate or simply avoid whey protein and start eating other protein rich foods instead.

But generally speaking, whey protein has an excellent safety profile and most people can include it in their diet without any problems at all.

Take Home Message

At the end of the day, whey protein is an exceptionally healthy way to add more protein to your diet. It is a quality protein source that is absorbed and utilized efficiently by the human body.

This is particularly important for athletes, bodybuilders, or people who need to gain muscle mass and strength, while losing fat or if you get less protein via your diet.

When it comes to muscle gain and fat loss, protein is the king of nutrients… and whey protein seems to be even better than other forms of quality protein.

At day end, whey protein is an extraordinarily healthy way to add more protein to your diet. It is an excellent protein source that is absorbed and used in an efficient way by the human body. It has proven to be important for athletes, bodybuilders, or people who wish to gain muscle mass and strength, while losing fat.

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Written by Rishi Modi