Remember Little Miss Muffet, sitting on her tuffet? It turns out that she was probably a prototypical bodybuilder, downing whey before it was cool.
Whey protein is a fundamental part of milk. Specifically, it is the watery part of milk that separates from the curds. We use those curds, which are incredibly fatty (and ultimately delicious) to make cheese. But what do we do with the whey?
Whey Protein Today
Whey is one of the most common supplements going. I drink it every day, taking in roughly 40% of my protein intake from it. This is because it is a very beneficial, very accessible, very cheap form of high-quality protein.
Protein is very important. It lies behind the healthy functioning of many of our key bodily processes. Healthy hormonal responses rely on taking in adequate quantities. It is an energy source. And, most importantly in an athletic setting, it forms the building blocks of muscle. Hypertrophy (muscle growth) and attendant strength gains would be impossible without large quantities of protein in your daily diet.
Milk is comprised of two proteins and lots of fat, broadly speaking. The two proteins are casein and whey. This whey can be formed as a by-product of cheese, as mentioned above. It is, in effect, going spare, which is why it makes such economic and ecological sense to use it as a supplement (it would mostly otherwise simply be going to waste).
It is also a complete protein, with all nine essential amino acids, and is low in lactose and fat, giving it a low-carb, low-calorie profile that is relatively easy for most people to digest. It comes powdered, and you simply mix it with water or milk, and anything else you fancy, to make a palatable, healthy shake.
As such, it is easy to drink plenty of whey every day, gaining the many benefits it has to offer (see below) at a relatively mild caloric load, at a relatively low cost (it is about the cheapest protein source going).
Whey Protein: The Benefits
The main reason anyone would include whey protein in their diet is as a ready source of good quality protein. The main reason for doing this is to aid in muscle building. To hit hypertrophy, you will need to take part in several intense sessions of resistance training per week and eat something like 2g of protein for everyone 1kg of your own bodyweight.
For example, I weigh 90kg. I lift weights three times per week and practice yoga on my off days. I eat around 170-190g of protein per day, depending on my goals at any single point.
This is a hard ask. For perspective, a single, medium egg contains around 6g of protein. It also contains plenty of fat. Outside of lean meat, all natural protein sources come in small portions, accompanied by excess carbs and fat. This means that it would be hard, expensive, and unsustainable to eat 190g of protein per day solely from regular food. It also means it would be hard to eat this much without overeating fat and carbs, which would cause me to gain fat as well as muscle.
On the other hand, it’s easy enough to eat 100g of protein per day, with a top up in the form of a supplementary protein shake. Whey is one of the best, and cheapest, forms of protein shake going.
There are more benefits to be gained from whey than simple protein intake, however.
It can, of course, aid in fat loss, as you maintain a high protein intake, feeding your muscles and improving satiation whilst allowing for a caloric deficit. Regular whey consumption can also lead to lowered LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), as judged by markers such as lipid and insulin levels.
Regular whey consumption has also been linked with reduced blood pressure and a decreased risk from cardiovascular disease. Risk levels from stroke can also be diminished.
High protein diets, with which the best whey protein can obviously help, can also prevent muscle wastage (atrophy), particularly in those suffering from wasting diseases such as HIV.
There has also been some tentative research to suggest that regular whey protein consumption can form a solid basis for cancer treatment, and that it can improve the immune response in children with asthma. More research is needed before anything certain can be taken from this, however.
The Downsides Of Whey
There are some possible downsides that can come with whey consumption, including possible dangers and side effects.
If you’re allergic to milk, there is a chance that it is the whey, rather than the lactose, that you react against. Obviously, whey will not be for you – you will likely experience the same symptoms as milk consumption gives you.
Whey can also be hard to digest, leading to stomach cramps, upsets, acid reflux, and bloating, though this is typically only when lots is taken in at once (I’ve experienced some of these before, but only when I’ve drunk 90g or so in one go. More moderate intakes have been absolutely fine).
Some people may experience a loss of appetite, a sense of fatigue, nausea, and headaches. Again, these are rare.
If you experience any side effects when using whey, try a different type of protein and speak to your healthcare provider.
Types Of Whey
All whey isn’t created equal. There are many different types, with three showing up most commonly in dietary supplements:
- Whey protein concentrate (WPC)
- Whey protein isolate (WPI)
- Whey protein hydrolysate (WPH)
WPC can be a very low-fat, low-carb, and thus ‘pure’ form of whey. However, this can be variable. Lower concentrations can sit at around 30%, with higher ones reaching 90%. Always check the label and work out what will best fit in with your macronutrient needs when buying WPC.
WPIs, on the other hand, are always very heavily processed to remove all the fat and lactose. This gives an incredibly high protein content, usually at 90% or above.
WPH is often labelled as a “pre-digested” form of whey protein. It undergoes partial hydrolysis – a process necessary for the body to absorb protein – during manufacture. For this reason, WPH can be great for those who struggle with any digestive issues when taking whey, such as the above-mentioned bloating or nausea.
Any and all of the above will aid with muscle growth. Realistically, total protein intake is the most important dietary factor that comes into play in exercise recovery and hypertrophy. As long as you can get up to your recommended intake (as above, usually around 2g for every 1kg of bodyweight, or thereabouts), you should be able to grow muscle.
However, if you’re looking to keep lean – keeping your non-lean bodyweight down (i.e. your bodyfat) – then you will want as large a percentage as possible of your whey protein shake to be actual protein.