Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey…
The popular “Little Miss Muffet” nursery rhyme, which first appeared in print in the early 19th century, demonstrates how long whey protein has been part of a healthy diet. Indeed, whey protein is one of the most well-known, ubiquitous dietary supplements. While particularly popular among active men and women, whey protein is an excellent source of protein for individuals of all ages, as it can provide tremendous support to anyone who values a healthy lifestyle.
What is Whey Protein?
The two major components of (cow’s) milk protein are whey, which is rapidly digested, and casein (also known as “curds”), which is digested much more slowly. Whey makes up 20% of the proteins in milk and is the liquid portion of milk. It is separated from the curd, which comprises the remaining 80% during the cheese-making process. Whey contains 5 major peptides (including β-lactoglobulin, α-lactalbumin, and glycomacropeptide) and hundreds of low-abundance peptides (including lactoferrin), which together provide a host of benefits.
What Are the Benefits of Whey Protein?
1. Protein Quality
Protein quality refers to the balance of amino acids, the digestibility of the protein to release amino acids for absorption, and the availability of the absorbed amino acids for protein synthesis.1 Protein quality is also often defined as a protein’s capacity to provide essential/indispensable amino acids, arguably the most important of which is leucine.2
Traditionally, there have been several measures to assess protein quality, including Protein Efficiency Ratio, Biological Value, Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS), and most recently, the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score, or DIAAS, which has been suggested to be “ostensibly superior” to the previously more commonly used PDCAAS.3
Regardless of which scale is used, animal-based proteins, such as milk (e.g., whey), eggs, and beef) rank at the top with the highest scores. For instance, DIAAS scores for whey, eggs, and beef are all above 100% whereas plant-based proteins typically fall below 80%. Whey is an ideal source of protein because it is rapidly-digesting, and it contains the highest concentration of leucine (13.6%).4,5
2. Muscle Recovery, Growth, and Strength
Two primary factors governing muscle recovery and growth are muscle protein synthesis (MPS), or the rate the body rebuilds muscle, and muscle protein breakdown (MPB), or the rate the body breaks down muscle. Whey protein is an abundant source of essential amino acids (particularly leucine), the “building blocks” of muscle. It’s rapidly digested, making it an excellent protein source for increasing MPS and regulating muscle mass.
When whey protein is consumed after resistance training, there is a synergistic effect on MPS along with a complete abolishment of MPB, which leads to muscle gain over time. Numerous studies have confirmed that whey protein is effective at increasing muscle mass, improving recovery, and increasing strength.3,6,7 A good rule of thumb is to consume 20 – 25 grams of whey protein within a couple hours before and/or after exercise.
3. Appetite Control
Consumption of whey protein can have a powerful effect on appetite, which can help control cravings and food intake. While it’s commonly accepted that protein in general increases satiety, some research suggests whey may have specific advantages. For instance, whey protein has been shown to decrease hunger to a greater extent than other sources of protein (such as soy, tuna, turkey, and eggs). Whey (perhaps through glycomacropeptide) consumption leads to an increase in hormones like GLP-1, GIP, and CCK, which suppress appetite and promote satiety, and a decrease in levels of the “hunger hormone” ghrelin.8,9
4. Body Composition and Weight Management
In general, high-protein, reduced-calorie diets promote healthy weight management, and compared to normal-protein diets, they tend to accelerate fat loss, help maintain calorie-burning lean muscle mass, and prevent weight regain. In a recent meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials published in The Journal of the American College of Nutrition, researchers concluded, “The current body of literature supports the use of WP [whey protein], either as a supplement combined with resistance exercise or as part of a weight loss or weight maintenance diet, to improve body composition parameters.”10
While most people focus on weight loss, fat loss combined with muscle gain/maintenance (“quality weight loss”) is ideal, as it is key to achieving a lean, toned appearance and promoting long-term weight maintenance. Because muscle is metabolically active, a loss of muscle mass—from dieting or being sedentary—is a major risk factor for weight regain. This is not only because of the impact on metabolic rate, but also because the body compensates by driving overeating—a phenomenon referred to as “collateral fattening.”
5. Healthy Aging
As we get older, we tend to experience a slow and inevitable decline in muscle mass along with significant reductions in strength. This can have tremendous consequences, adversely affecting mobility and physical function, leading to a greater incidence of falls, contributing to several age-related health conditions, reducing independence, and overall decreasing quality of life.
Certainly, a sedentary lifestyle (“use it or lose it”) plays a substantial role. Yet inadequate consumption of protein can accelerate age-related muscle loss. Conversely, regular resistance training combined with adequate protein intake can help limit muscle loss and promote healthy aging.
6. Immune Support
Compared to other protein sources, whey protein is unique in its ability to optimize immune function. On one hand, whey protein can boost levels of glutathione, commonly referred to as the body’s “master antioxidant.”11 Glutathione supports immunity by replenishing the body’s primary defense system. It is also a natural detoxifier, helping to eliminate potentially harmful toxins.
Whey is also rich in the amino acid glutamine, which is required for optimal immune system function. Whey protein also contains immunoglobulins and lactoferrin, which are established immune-enhancing constituents.12
7. Carbohydrate Management
Numerous studies have shown that high-protein diets lead to significant improvements in glycemic (the effect of food on blood sugar levels) control and metabolic function in as little as 5 weeks. In particular, the addition of whey protein to a carbohydrate-containing meal has been shown to significantly reduce the glycemic response. This acute improvement in metabolic function seems to be related to whey’s influence on insulin.13
8. Cardiovascular Health
Generally speaking, research suggests that milk consumption and intake of dairy proteins are associated with reduced blood pressure.14 Of course, maintaining healthy blood pressure is imperative for cardiovascular health. β-Lactoglobulin, the most abundant protein in whey, inhibits angiotensin-I-converting enzyme (ACE), which in turn has a beneficial effect on blood pressure.15 Whey protein may also support healthy levels of blood cholesterol and triglycerides, suggesting additional heart health benefits.
Buyer Beware: Not All Whey Protein is Created Equally
Figuratively speaking, you may already have one foot out the door looking to add whey protein to your arsenal. And with all those benefits in mind, we wouldn’t blame you. However, as is the case with supplements in general, not all whey protein supplements are created equally. In fact, there are a few important things to keep in mind when searching for a top-quality whey protein.
Finally, the addition of digestive enzymes to a whey protein supplement may significantly improve digestion and absorption. On one hand, digestive enzyme capabilities and production decrease as we age.24; this may be one explanation as to why we need MORE protein as we get older. In addition, one of the factors that may contribute to limiting how quickly the body can digest and absorb protein is saturation of the body’s limited supply of digestive enzymes.
Indeed, research has shown that the addition of protein-digesting enzymes (i.e., proteolytic enzymes) to whey protein results in a substantial increase in protein absorption and utilization.25 In other words, digestive enzymes can help give you more bang for your buck. That’s precisely why we include the patented, research-backed digestive enzyme blend ProHydrolase® in our BioTrust Low-Carb whey protein powder. The latest research shows that ProHydrolase is more than twice as effective at delivering protein to your body than any other enzymes used in other protein products. That means it delivers more protein to muscles per serving than most protein powders you may find online or on supermarket shelves.26,27
What about Plant-Based Proteins
Certainly, you have a choice when it comes to choosing a protein supplement, and plant-based proteins are available. As mentioned above, there’s no question that whey is superior in terms of protein quality, digestibility, and amino acid profile.
What’s more, concentrated plant-based proteins have not been shown to have the same laundry list of health benefits associated with whey, nor do they contain the same beneficial bioactive peptides, which have immune boosting, antioxidant, antimicrobial, and health-promoting other properties.
Certainly, eating a diet rich in plant-based foods is important for overall health, and there some good plant-based proteins available for folks (e.g., plant-based eaters) who are looking for options besides whey or animal-based proteins. However, to claim that plant-based proteins are somehow superior to whey and other animal-based proteins is simply not true; it’s a claim unsupported by research.
In conclusion, whey protein is lauded for its benefits—and rightly so. Having said that, not all whey protein supplements are the same, and there are important considerations when choosing a natural and quality whey supplement and how you use it as part of an overall healthy lifestyle.