Whey Protein: Health Benefits And Considerations

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Written by Karolina Zaremba, CNP

Whey protein supplement seems to have been the hallmark protein in the fitness industry for decades. There’s a reason it’s so popular! Whey protein nutrition provides a full spectrum of amino acids and is considered one of the best protein sources for muscle building and workout recovery.

Whey protein goes by many names: concentrate, isolate, hydrolysate… But what is it? This protein supplement is derived from dairy, most often from cow’s milk. The whey is separated from casein (another protein type) in the milk and is dehydrated. The final product is a fine powder —whey protein powder— that you can mix into water, juice or any drink of your choice for additional protein in your diet.

There are many benefits to supplementing with whey protein beyond just supporting your gym routine. Here’s what you should know about whey protein nutrition facts.

vanilla milk based drink with whey protein powder next it in a glass bowl

Whey protein can be added to a smoothie to make a nutritional meal replacement.

Whey protein types – what’s the difference?

You may have seen different types of whey listed on the ingredient panel for supplements. These all still come from milk but are processed differently and have a different breakdown of macronutrients (1).

Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC): it undergoes a process that removes water, lactose (milk sugars), and some of the minerals. What’s left is approximately 25-89% protein, 10-55% lactose, and 2-10% fat content.

Whey Protein Isolate (WPI): the isolate is further processed to remove more of the sugar and fat from the whey. The breakdown is over 90% protein, with less than 1% each of lactose and fat. This is considered the purest form of whey supplement, and can often be consumed even if you’re lactose intolerant.

Whey Protein Hydrolysate (WPH): also known as hydrolyzed whey protein, it’s been processed one step further to be partially hydrolyzed. This is the same step in digestion your body takes to absorb the protein. It may be right for you if you have impacted digestion or specifically, a hard time breaking down protein.

woman working out, focus on shoulder and arm muscles

The amino acids in protein are used to build muscles, skin, bone, hormones, and more.

Healthy reasons to use whey

Why try whey? For one, it’s quite versatile because of its light, creamy flavor, and ability to dissolve well in liquid. Having the powder as a shake can be a great choice for recovery post-workout. You can also use it in a smoothie as part of a meal replacement, along with fruit or veggies and a source of healthy fat. Best of all, there are many evidence-based health benefits to supplementing with whey protein powder.

Building and repair

Your body uses the amino acids found in whey protein as building blocks. These help you to make skin, bone, muscle, hormones, neurotransmitters, enzymes, and more. Certain groups who benefit from additional protein are athletes, elderly, those in post-surgery recovery, and cancer patients, who often experience muscle wasting as a symptom.

The group of amino acids called Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) are tied to processes for muscle growth, building, and repair. You can take BCAA supplements that contain these specific nutrients, which are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. If you’re using BCAAs to support your workout, it’s commonly suggested to drink 15-30 minutes after exercise, or even during training for intensive exercising.

Improving metabolic disease

Protein can help with diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension. One randomized, controlled study (2) found that overweight and obese individuals following the whey protein treatment had a 2% lower body weight than the group consuming the carbohydrate treatment. This included a decrease in fat mass, without lowering lean body mass. They also measured levels of ghrelin, a hormone which increases your appetite and promotes fat storage (among other functions). The whey protein group had lower fasting ghrelin than the soy protein and carbohydrate control groups.

A review study (3) found that patients with insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes that ate whey protein paired with a carbohydrate source had lower blood glucose levels post-meal than the other control groups. This suggests that whey protein can play an important role in stabilizing blood sugar levels. If you have type 2 diabetes, you may want to speak with your practitioner to see if it can be worth trying whey protein to help improve your blood sugar or blood pressure levels.

Immune actions and whey protein

The beneficial immune properties of whey protein are thanks to substances in milk called immunoglobulins, which make up about 10-15% of whey protein. A review article (4) in Frontiers in Nutrition shows that these compounds have been studied for successfully treating infections in infants, children, and adults. This includes infections such as Clostridium difficile, rotavirus, and E. coli. Immunoglobulins also show promise in helping prevent infections of the upper respiratory tract and the gastrointestinal tract.

Other considerations to weigh whey

  • Do you have a sensitivity to dairy or lactose? It can be worth trying a whey protein isolate to see if you tolerate it better. If you want to learn more about alternate protein sources, check out our post on plant-based protein!
  • As with the food in your diet, the quality of your supplements matters. Most conventionally-raised dairy cows are fed a diet that includes grains, corn, and soy. Whey protein from grass-fed cows means that the dairy cows were fed a natural diet of grass. The content and quality of the cow’s diet will affect the quality of its milk. Grass-fed whey is considered to be less inflammatory and better tolerated by sensitive individuals.
  • What about denatured protein? Denatured protein means the protein structure has been altered by something like heat or a change in pH level (the acid-alkaline balance). In this case, undenatured whey protein is simply separated from the dairy curd, filtered, and dehydrated into powder. Undenatured whey protein could be your best bet if you’re looking for a whey protein option that’s less processed.

Have you used whey protein to support your health goals? Let us know in the comments below, we’d love to hear about it!