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Whey Protein Evidence-Based Health Benefits – Is It Good for You?

Whey Protein Evidence-Based Health Benefits – Is It Good for You?

Get the facts on whey protein to find out if you should blend up a whey protein shake for your health.

whey protein

You may find yourself standing in front of rows of protein powders wondering if it is worth your hard-earned dollars. or is it just the latest hyped-up product designed to empty your wallet?

What Is Whey Protein?

Whey protein is one of many protein supplements you will find on store shelves. Whey is a protein found in milk. It is not found on its own in foods naturally. You will only find whey protein in fortified foods and supplements including protein powders.

Originally, whey was a byproduct that was thrown away when making cheese and yogurt. Now, it is a popular choice for supplements which is marketed as having many health benefits.

Whey is a liquid substance that has protein, lactose, calcium, and some B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, and pantothenic acid). Whey has a higher protein quality than eggs, meats, soy, or casein, which is the other main protein in milk. It is a complete protein and it contains the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs): leucine, isoleucine, and valine[1].

Processing of whey results in whey protein concentrate which has 34% to 85% protein and whey protein isolate which has more than 90% protein[1]. If you see the words hydrolyzed whey protein, that just means the protein has already been broken into smaller pieces which let it get into your system faster[2].

How Much Protein Should I Eat?

The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein intake for adults is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. That equals about 55 grams a day for a 150-pound adult. You use the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) which recommends 10-35% of total dietary intake (how many calories you eat in a day)[3].

Protein recommendations, however, are a controversial topic. You will find recommendations of up to 1.2 to 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. This amount may be more beneficial for those trying to lose weight[4]. This gives you a wide range of 90 to 150 grams a day, which is much higher than the RDA.

Other studies indicate eating 25-30 grams at each meal to build muscle. Here’s the catch though, your body can only use 20-25 grams of protein at one time. Eating more does not lead to faster results or greater health benefits[5].

Health Benefits of Whey

Whey protein claims many benefits.

  • Build and maintain muscle mass
  • Increase strength
  • Repair muscle faster after strength training
  • Lose fat and manage weight
  • Help control hunger
  • An antioxidant to reduce cell damage and promote immunity
  • Manage blood sugar control and increase insulin sensitivity
  • Reduce blood pressure
Many of the studies on whey protein use a large range of doses from 10 grams up to 55 grams with a meal.

Let’s explore these claims.

  • Muscle Building and Repair

  • Just taking whey without adding strength training will not get you results in terms of improving muscle mass or strength. However, if you are willing to do the exercise, then whey protein can maximize your results.

    It helps build strength and muscle mass better than non-whey proteins[6]. Your body can break down the amino acids (BCAAs) in whey more easily than other types of protein because of their branched formation.

    BCAAs can also get to your muscles faster because they skip the normal route through your liver[5]. Whey protein has glutamine, arginine, and lysine which stimulate growth hormones and help with increasing muscle mass[1].

    BCAAs may also help reduce muscle damage from strength training[7] which can reduce soreness after workouts.

  • Weight Loss and Appetite Control

  • It may help improve your body composition and lose weight. Some studies show that it helps reduce body weight, specifically body fat when it replaces other types of foods[8].

    Results from studies vary and no definite claims can be made. This is because weight loss depends on many factors and many studies combine whey protein with exercise and other dietary controls.

    Whey can help you control your appetite. Protein, fats, and foods with fiber are known to help you feel satisfied from eating; but proteins have the biggest effect. Whey specifically has been shown to slow gastric emptying.

    In other words, food stays in your stomach longer. This keeps you feeling full longer. Whey protein also has a greater impact on suppressing your appetite than other types of proteins[9].

  • Antioxidants and Immunity

  • It contains antioxidants that can help reduce cell damage[10] and prebiotics[11] which are food for probiotics, which are your healthy gut bacteria like bifidobacteria and lactobacilli[11].

    These play many roles in your body. They can reduce constipation and diarrhea. They can improve your immunity. They may lessen the incidence of intestinal cancers[12].

    Some studies indicate that the antioxidant properties of whey may help protect from breast, colon, and prostate gland cancer[13].

    In addition, it appears whey may help reduce the size of tumors, but these results are not consistently seen with everyone[14]. Whey is not a substitute for medical treatment for cancers.

  • Blood Sugar & Insulin Sensitivity

  • Another benefit of protein slowing down the digestion is that it helps with blood sugar control. This slow-down gives your body more time to take up the sugar from your bloodstream and your blood sugar does not go up as much.

    Whey also has been shown to trigger hormones that help with blood sugar control. When it is eaten before or during the meal, blood sugar is stays lower after the meal[15][16].

  • Blood Pressure Control

  • Whey protein may help with blood pressure control. Multiple studies have found blood pressure goes down when supplementing with whey protein. The results vary with some studies showing blood pressure going down overall and others only finding a reduction in systolic blood pressure[13][14][17].

A Few Considerations Before You Use Whey Protein

Many people believe more protein is better. Remember, your body can only use about 20-25 grams at one time. Anything over this will either be used immediately (if your body needs it) or stored as fat. If you are using whey protein for weight loss, spread it out over the course of the day.

  • Too much whey protein may have some unpleasant side effects. Reports include cramps, headache, bloating, thirst, nausea, and spending more time in the bathroom.
  • It may not be an appropriate protein source for pregnant or lactating women[14].
  • Food Allergies and sensitivities may be a concern.
  • If you have a milk allergy, you should avoid whey since it is made from milk.
  • If you have lactose intolerance, you may want to choose whey isolate as it has less lactose than whey concentrate. Since lactose is a natural sugar, you can check the nutrition facts panel to see how much is in the supplement.

Bottom Line

Whey protein is a popular protein supplement that has a variety of benefits for your health and few concerns for certain people. It has been shown to help to maximize your results in the gym and it may help improve certain health conditions.

Be mindful of how much you use at one time. More is not always better and too much whey protein could have a bigger impact on your wallet than your muscles.

Feedback:

17 sources

Health Insiders relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references. You can learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate and current by reading our editorial policy.

[1] United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service. 2015. Available at: https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Whey%20Protein%20Concentrate%20TR.pdf. Accessed November 20, 2019.
[2] Whey Protein Institute. Whey Protein Types. http://wheyproteininstitute.org/facts/wheyproteintypes.Accessed November 20, 2019.
[3] The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes: Macronutrients. 2015. http://www.nationalacademies.org/hmd/~/media/Files/Activity%20Files/Nutrition/DRI-Tables/8_Macronutrient%20Summary.pdf. Accessed November 20, 2019.
[4] Rodriguez NR. Introduction to Protein Summit 2.0: continued exploration of the impact of high-quality protein on optimal health, Am J Clin Nutr.2015 June; 101(6): 1317S–1319S. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.114.083980.
[5] Clark N. (2014). Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook, 5th edition. Newton, MA. Human Kinetics.
[6] Naclerio F, Larumbe-Zabala E. Effects of Whey Protein Alone or as Part of a Multi-ingredient Formulation on Strength, Fat-Free Mass, or Lean Body Mass in Resistance-Trained Individuals: A Meta-analysis. Sports Med.2016 Jan; 46 (125): 125-137. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-015-0403-y
[7] Foure A, Bendahan D. Is Branched-Chain Amino Acids Supplementation an Efficient Nutritional Strategy to Alleviate Skeletal Muscle Damage? A Systematic Review. 2017 Sept; 9(10), 1047; https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9101047
[8] Miller PE, Alexander DD, Perez V. Effects of Whey Protein and Resistance Exercise on Body Composition: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. JACN. 2014 Apr; 33(2), 163-175. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07315724.2013.875365.
[9] Mignone LE, Wu T, Horowitz M, Rayner CK. Whey Protein: The "Whey" Forward for Treatment of Type 2 Diabetes? World J Diabetes. 2015 Oct; 6(14), 1274-1284. `https://www.wjgnet.com/1948-9358/full/v6/i14/1274.htm
[10] National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Antioxidants: In Depth. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/antioxidants/introduction.htm. Accessed November 20, 2019.
[11] National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Probiotics: What You Need to Know. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/probiotics/introduction.htm. Accessed November 20, 2019.
[12] Picard C, Fioramonti J, Francois A, et al. Review article: Bifidobacteria as Probiotic Agents – Physiological Effects and Clinical Benefits. Aliment Pharmacol Ther.2005;22(6):495-512. Accessed November 20, 2019. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16167966
[13] Khan IT, Nadeem M, Imran M, et al. Antioxidant Properties of Milk and Dairy Products: A Comprehensive Review of the Current Knowledge. Lipids Health Dis.2019 Feb; 18(41), https://lipidworld.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12944-019-0969-8
[14] S. National Library of Medicine. Medline Plus. Whey Protein. https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/natural/833.html. Accessed November 20, 2019.
[15] Pasin G, Comerford KB. Dairy Food and Dairy Proteins in the Management of Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review of the Clinical Evidence. Advances in Nutrition.2015 May; 6(3), 245-259. https://academic.oup.com/advances/article/6/3/245/4568651.
[16] Adams RL, Broughton KS. Insulinotropic Effects of Whey: Mechanisms of Action, Recent Clinical Trials, and Clinical Applications. Ann Nutr Metab.2016; 69, 56-63. https://www.karger.com/Article/FullText/448665
[17] Fekete AA, Giromini C, Chatzidiakou Y, et al. Whey Protein Lowers Blood Pressure and Improves Endothelial Function and Lipid Biomarkers in Adults with Prehypertension and Mild Hypertension: Results from the Chronic Whey2Go Randomized Controlled Trial. Am J Clin Nutr.2016, Oct; 104(6), 1534-1544. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/104/6/1534/4564684
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Alexia Lewis, MS, RD, LD/N, CHC, CPT

Alexia is a registered dietitian nutritionist, certified health coach, and a certified personal trainer. Alexia is a published nutritio...

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