Whey protein has become an exceptionally popular health food product in recent years, largely for how it can help users meet their fitness and nutrition goals. Whey is incredibly high in protein content, which means that whey protein is useful as a supplement for helping people achieve their recommended daily protein intake levels. It is popular among athletes and bodybuilders trying to cut body fat, build muscle mass or increase strength. It is also beneficial for vegetarians, or people who don’t eat a lot of meat, eggs, dairy or other common sources of protein. In most cases, whey protein is mixed into drinks or smoothies and consumed that way.
What Is Whey Protein?
If you heard much about whey before whey smoothies became popular, it was probably in relation to milk and other dairy products. Indeed, whey is a protein that is found in milk – one of the two proteins found in milk, to be exact.
The first of these two proteins is called Casein protein, or curds. It’s the curds in milk that are used to create cheese. In the process of cheese making, the curds and whey in milk are separated out from one another. The solids that remain are the curds; the liquid is the whey. It used to be that cheesemakers would discard the whey that they produced by coagulating milk. Nowadays, though, with the benefits and popularity of whey protein both well-known, cheese processors will send the whey off to be turned into whey protein.
What we purchase as whey protein obviously isn’t the same thing as what cheesemakers see after separating it from the curds in milk. Whey protein comes as a powdery concentrate that can be mixed into drinks or smoothies. Following the coagulation process, whey is a liquid. It has to go through a few more steps of processing and refinement to be turned into the protein powder that we know and consume today.
Why Incorporate Whey Protein into Your Diet?
Why has whey protein become such a popular dietary supplement? More importantly, why should you consider adding whey protein to your diet? The scope of the health benefits that whey has to offer will vary somewhat depending on the person. For instance, if you already get a lot of protein from other sources, then the effects of drinking whey smoothies might be more or less negligible for you. However, for most of the population, whey offers many health benefits that are just waiting to be unlocked. Here are eight of them:
1. Whey protein is a source of all nine essential amino acids
Your body is incapable of producing essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. As a result, if you aren’t getting enough essential amino acids in your diet, then the proteins in your body will start to break down. This process leads to decreased muscle mass, among other problems. Finding foods with essential amino acids – preferably foods that provide all nine essential amino acids at once – is a must to keep your muscles robust and maintain your body’s overall health.
Whey protein is one of the food types that provides all nine amino acids – a distinction that earns it a place in the category known as “complete proteins.” Other complete proteins include meat (including fish and poultry), eggs and – as you might expect – dairy. Other sources of protein, meanwhile – like nuts, beans, tofu or lentils – are known as “incomplete proteins” because they do not provide all nine essential amino acids. Thus, whey protein will be especially beneficial in your diet if you don’t eat much or any meat, eggs or dairy. It is one of the only true substitutes for those complete proteins.
2. Whey protein helps you shed body fat and gain muscle
As you can surmise from its amino acid content, whey protein is an effective dietary supplement for building or retaining muscle mass. This benefit is probably the number one reason that whey protein has become so popular among bodybuilders, gym enthusiasts and athletes – as well as one of the top reasons to add it to your diet. Increasing your protein intake and getting those essential amino acids will protect your muscles and prepare your body for more muscle growth. In most cases, combining a daily whey protein shake with strength training at the gym will increase your muscle mass and strength faster than gym training could do by itself.
What’s less known is that studies have also shown that whey protein helps athletes lose body fat even as they gain muscle. Higher protein intake kicks your metabolism into high gear and helps you burn more calories faster. As a result, if you are trying to achieve the leanest and fittest body possible, having whey protein somewhere in your pantry will almost certainly help you get there. Studies have also shown that whey protein is more effective than other types of protein supplements – such as soy – at promoting muscle growth.
3. Whey protein helps satiate your appetite
A big reason that whey protein helps users shed body weight probably has to do with its satiety. Protein is just naturally a very filling nutrient – much more so than carbohydrates or fat. Since whey protein smoothies and shakes are so high in protein content, they tend to be very satiating. You can drink a whey protein shake in the morning and go until lunch without feeling cravings to eat again. When you have fewer cravings to snack or eat between meals, you will be able to establish a more regular and moderated diet. In turn, these factors can help with weight loss and overall body health. Studies once again show that whey is more effective in this regard than soy protein.
4. Whey protein might help to prevent cancer
One of the most notable health benefits of whey protein is its potential to help prevent cancer. The key to whey protein’s cancer-related benefits is, once again, due to its amino acid content. One of the essential amino acids that is found in whey protein, cysteine, helps to build glutathione. Glutathione is a vital amino acid that, if found in high concentration in the body’s tissues and cells, can keep the levels of free radicals low. Free radicals are known to morph into cancerous cells, which means that whey protein and the amino acids it contains may just help you avoid cancer.
5. Whey protein helps prevent other health issues, too
Whey protein’s cancer-fighting potential is probably its biggest revelation as far as preventing life-threatening health concerns. However, studies have shed some light on the other health problems that whey protein can help to prevent as well. For instance, research has shown that the ACE-inhibitors featured in whey protein (also found in dairy products) contribute to lower blood pressure and protect the heart. Other studies have suggested whey protein as a beneficial dietary supplement for managing blood sugar levels and treating diabetes, managing cholesterol levels and reducing the inflammation that leads to IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). Not all of these suggestions are backed by a lot of research, but there is at least some evidence on the table at this point.
6. Whey protein can help with stress management
If you struggle with a lot of stress due to work or other day-to-day responsibilities, then you might be interested to know that whey protein has been shown to help some individuals cope with stress. The reasoning behind this benefit once again relates back to the essential amino acids that are found in whey protein. Tryptophan – found in high quantities in turkey and other types of poultry – is one of the nine essential amino acids. When consumed in bulk quantities, tryptophan is known for making people feel relaxed, serene and sleepy.
There probably isn’t enough tryptophan in your whey protein shake to make you feel like you do after a turkey feast. However, there is enough tryptophan to kick-start your brain’s serotonin production. Higher serotonin levels in the brain make it easier to cope with stress and help prevent other issues—like depression and anxiety—that often accompany chronic stress.
7. Whey protein helps to keep the immune system strong
Are you one of those people who gets a cold or two every fall and catches the flu every winter without fail? If so, then adding whey protein to your diet might help. Indeed, while whey protein has a reputation for its fitness and muscle-building capabilities, it is also a powerful immune booster.
The reason that whey protein can help you improve your immune system is essentially the same explanation for how it helps prevent cancer. The antioxidant glutathione, which whey protein helps the body build, is essential for fighting free radicals. Free radicals can become cancerous cells, but they can also just damage or destroy your healthy cells, which hurts your immune system and makes your body more vulnerable to threats.
Whey protein isn’t only important because it helps give you more glutathione, but also because many people use it to replenish the glutathione they’ve lost. Intense exercise can significantly lower your body’s levels of glutathione. To exercise well without risking impairing your immune system, then, it’s important to replenish your antioxidants through dietary means. What better way to do that than by drinking a post-exercise whey protein shake?
8. Whey protein can prevent muscle loss in the elderly
As we grow older, we lose muscle mass. Indeed, most people peak in terms of muscle mass in their 30s or 40s. From that point forward, it’s common to lose a small but notable percentage of muscle mass every single year (usually 3-5% a year). This age-related loss of both muscle mass and strength is called sarcopenia. For elderly adults, failing to retain muscle mass is often accompanied by sharp declines in quality of life and drastic increases in frailty. As a result, seniors who are less active and lose their muscle mass more quickly tend to have shorter life expectancies.
Encouraging older adults to stay active and keep up with their exercise routines is one way to stave off sarcopenia. However, consuming more protein as part of their diet is another effective way to slow or halt the advance of age-related muscle loss. Older adults who consume whey protein on a regular basis may benefit by retaining their muscle mass and their strength for longer. In turn, this increased muscle retention helps preserve mobility and self-sufficiency, leading to higher quality of life.
A Word about Side Effects
The good news is that whey protein has no serious health risks. However, there are side effects that you should be aware of before you start adding whey protein into your diet.
The first of these side effects relates to dosage. More is not always better with whey protein, so when you buy a protein package and start mixing your first shake or smoothie, pay attention to the recommended dosage amount. Giving yourself too much whey protein can lead to cramping, diarrhoea, nausea and other bowel-related symptoms.
The second side effect related to whey protein’s dairy roots. When curds and whey are separated, most of the lactose content stays with the curds, while whey gets most of the protein. With that said, there may still be lactose content in your whey protein product. If you are lactose intolerant, it is a good idea to consult a doctor before incorporating whey protein into your diet.
On the whole, though, whey protein is an incredibly beneficial dietary supplement with limited side effects or special considerations. Whether you are striving for greater strength and fitness and want to give yourself a boost or you are just trying to keep your body as healthy as possible as you grow older, whey protein will make for a healthy addition to your diet. Some form of whey protein should be available at most grocery stores, as well as at health stores and in numerous places around the internet.