Whey protein is the protein contained in whey, the watery portion of milk that separates from the curds when making cheese.
Whey protein is commonly used for improving athletic performance and increasing strength, but evidence to support these uses is mixed. Whey protein is also used to reverse weight loss in people with HIV and to help prevent allergic conditions in infants.
How does it work?
Whey protein is a source of protein that might improve the nutrient content of the diet. Whey protein might also have effects on the immune system.
Uses & Effectiveness?
Possibly Effective for
• Athletic performance. Most research shows that taking whey protein in combination with strength training increases lean body mass, strength, and muscle size in healthy young adults. Taking whey protein also appears to improve running speed and recovery from exercise in untrained adults. Whey protein seems to work as well as soy, chicken or beef protein for increasing muscle strength.
• Eczema. Research shows that infants who consume whey protein by mouth during the first 3-12 months of life have a lower risk of developing red, itchy skin by the age of 3 years.
• A condition associated with an increased risk for developing allergic reactions (atopic disease). Research shows that infants who consume whey protein by mouth during the first 3-12 months of life are less likely to be prone to allergies and allergic reactions compared to infants who receive standard formula. However, taking why protein might not be helpful for treating atopic diseases once they develop.
• Weight loss in people with HIV/AIDS. Some research shows that taking whey protein by mouth can help decrease weight loss in people with HIV.
• Red, scaly skin (plaque psoriasis). Some evidence shows that taking a specific whey protein extract daily for 8 weeks can reduce psoriasis symptoms.
Possibly Ineffective for
• A lung disease called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Some research shows that taking a specific whey protein supplement daily for 6 weeks can improve shortness of breath but not lung function or quality of life in people with COPD. Other research suggests that taking whey protein supplements does not improve lung function, muscle function, or exercise in people with COPD.
• Osteoporosis. Research suggests that taking a drink containing whey protein daily for up to 2 years does not improve bone density in postmenopausal women with osteoporosis.
Insufficient Evidence for
• Muscle loss in the elderly. Adding whey protein to exercise seems to increase muscle in older people. However, it also works when it is taken with other compounds like creatine, fats, vitamins, or minerals.
• Asthma. Early research shows that taking a specific type of whey protein daily for 30 days does not improve lung function in children with asthma.
• Cancer. There is some evidence that taking whey protein might help reduce tumor size in some people with cancer that has spread.
• Memory and thinking skills (cognitive function). Early research shows that taking a small amount of whey protein does not improve memory or thinking skills in older adults. However, it might improve memory in older adults that are very tired.
• Cystic fibrosis. Early research suggests that taking whey protein daily for 28 days improves lung function in children, but not adults with cystic fibrosis.
• Diabetes. Early research shows that consuming a specific drink containing whey protein concentrate immediately before a meal decreases blood sugar in people with diabetes. However, taking whey protein daily and exercising daily does not seem to lower blood sugar over a longer time period.
• Asthma caused by exercise. Early research suggests that taking whey protein daily for 10 days improves lung function in people with asthma caused by exercise.
• Muscle damage caused by exercise. Whey protein might improve recovery from exercise and muscle damage from exercise. However, it does not seem to work for everyone.
• Liver disease (hepatitis). Early research suggests that taking a specific type of whey protein daily for 12 weeks can improve liver function in some people with hepatitis B. However, it does not appear to benefit people with hepatitis C.
• HIV/AIDS. Early research suggests that taking whey protein for 4 months does not improve immune function in children with HIV.
• Infections developed while in the hospital. Early research suggests that taking a specific whey protein supplement daily for up to 28 days has a similar effect on the rate of hospital-acquired infections as taking a combination of zinc, selenium, glutamine, and metoclopramide.
• High cholesterol. Early research suggests that taking whey protein daily while participating in weight lifting exercises does not reduce cholesterol levels or body fat in overweight men with high cholesterol.
• High blood pressure. Taking 28 grams of whey protein or 20 grams of hydrolyzed whey protein daily for 6-8 weeks can lower blood pressure in people with high blood pressure. But taking low amounts of whey protein (2.6 grams daily) doesn’t have any benefit.
• Muscular disease (mitochondrial myopathies). Early research suggests that taking a whey protein supplement daily for one month does not improve muscle strength or quality of life in people with mitochondrial diseases.
• Liver disease not due to alcohol use (nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, NASH).Early research suggests that taking whey protein daily for 12 weeks can improve liver function in patients with NASH.
• Parkinson’s disease. Some research shows that taking whey protein doesn’t help Parkinson’s disease symptoms.
• An ovary disorder known as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Early research suggests that taking a supplement containing whey protein daily for 2 months can reduce body weight, fat mass, and cholesterol in people with ovarian cysts. However, whey protein does not improve blood sugar and seems to decrease high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good”) cholesterol.
• Aching and stiffness caused by inflammation (polymyalgia rheumatica). Early research suggests that taking whey protein in a dairy product twice daily for 8 weeks does not improve muscle function, walking speed, or other movement tests in people with polymyalgia rheumatica.
• Weight loss. The effects of whey protein on weight loss seem to vary depending on whether it is used alone or along with dieting or exercise. Taking whey protein along with dieting might prevent the loss of lean muscle and increase the loss of body fat in people who are obese or overweight. This might improve overall body composition. But taking whey protein while dieting doesn’t seem to increase overall weight loss in most people who are obese or overweight. It’s too soon to know if taking whey protein without dieting improves weight loss. When used along with exercise, whey protein doesn’t seem to improve weight loss compared to exercise alone. In overweight teens, drinking a whey protein beverage for 12 weeks seems to increase weight and body mass index (BMI).
Whey Protein Supplements Can Help Boost Your Protein and BCAA Intake
Proteins are the main building blocks of the human body.
They’re used to make various important things, including tendons, organs and skin, as well as hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters and various molecules.
Proteins are also the building blocks of the contractile elements in your muscles.
They’re assembled from amino acids, smaller molecules that are linked together like beads on a string.
Some amino acids are produced by your body’s cells, while others are supplied by the food you eat. The ones that you must get from foods are termed essential amino acids.
Proteins that supply all nine essential amino acids are the best, and whey protein is loaded with them.
It’s particularly high in important branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) like leucine, and also contains a high amount of cysteine.
Studies show that leucine is the most anabolic (growth-promoting) amino acid, and cysteine can help boost levels of the cellular antioxidant glutathione.
Whey protein appears to be particularly effective at stimulating growth in humans. In fact, human breast milk is 60% whey, compared to 20% in cow’s milk.
SUMMARYThe proteins in whey are of a very high quality. They’re loaded with essential amino acids, including leucine and cysteine.
Types of Whey Protein: Concentrate vs Isolate vs Hydrolysate
There are several popular types of whey protein.Their main difference is in the way they have been processed.
• Concentrate: About 70–80% protein; contains some lactose (milk sugar) and fat and has the best flavor.
• Isolate: 90% protein, or higher; contains less lactose and fat and lacks a lot of the beneficial nutrients found in whey protein concentrate.
• Hydrolysate: Also known as hydrolyzed whey, this type has been pre-digested so that it gets absorbed faster. It causes a 28–43% greater spike in insulin levels than isolate.
Whey protein concentrate seems to be the overall best option. Many options are available online.
It’s the cheapest and retains most of the beneficial nutrients found naturally in whey. Many people also prefer the taste, which is probably due to the lactose and fat.
If you have problems tolerating concentrate, or you’re trying to emphasize protein while keeping carbs and fat low, whey protein isolate — or even hydrolysate — may be a better option.
Keep in mind that even though concentrate is the most popular form, most studies have examined whey protein isolate.
SUMMARYThe main types of whey protein are concentrate, isolate and hydrolysate. They can vary in protein content, taste, digestibility and price.
Effects of Whey Supplementation on Muscle Mass and Strength
The best-known use of whey protein supplements is for the purpose of increasing muscle mass and strength.
Whey protein is popular among athletes, bodybuilders, fitness models, as well as people looking to improve their performance in the gym.
The ways by which whey protein promotes muscle/strength gain include:
1. Building blocks: It provides protein and amino acids, which serve as building blocks for increased muscle growth.
2. Hormones: It increases the release of anabolic hormones that can stimulate muscle growth, such as insulin.
3. Leucine: It’s high in the amino acid leucine, which is known to stimulate muscle protein synthesis at the molecular and genetic level.
4. Fast absorption: Whey protein is absorbed and utilized very quickly compared to other types of protein.
Whey protein has been shown to be particularly effective at increasing muscle growth when consumed right before, after or during a workout. Muscle protein synthesis is usually maximized in the time period after training.
However, a recent review of the evidence concluded that total daily protein intake is the most relevant factor in muscle growth. Whether protein is consumed around the workout or not doesn’t seem to matter much .
When compared to other types of protein, such as soy protein, whey protein has usually performed slightly better .
When compared to casein, the evidence is more mixed. Whey appears to be effective in the short-term, but casein stimulates muscle growth over a longer period, making the net effect similar.
Also, keep in mind that unless your diet is already lacking in protein, supplementing with whey protein is unlikely to have a significant effect on your results.
In a 12-week study in older adults with adequate protein intake, who did resistance training, there was no difference in muscle growth when supplementing with whey protein or carbohydrates.
Therefore, the evidence of whey protein on muscle and strength is mixed, and the results may vary greatly between individuals.
If you’re already eating plenty of meat, fish, eggs and dairy — all high in quality protein — the benefits of adding whey will probably be minimal.
SUMMARY There is a lot of evidence that whey protein is effective at increasing muscle and strength gains, though some studies find no effect.
Dosage and Side Effects
Whey protein is LIKELY SAFE for most children and adults when taken by mouth appropriately. High doses can cause some side effects such as increased bowel movements, nausea, thirst, bloating, cramps, reduced appetite, tiredness (fatigue), and headache.
A commonly recommended dosage is 1–2 scoops (around 25–50 grams) per day, usually after workouts.
It’s recommended that you follow the serving instructions on the packaging.
Keep in mind that if your protein intake is already high, adding whey protein on top of your current intake may be completely unnecessary.
Concerns about protein causing kidney damage and contributing to osteoporosis are unwarranted.
In fact, protein has been shown to protect against osteoporosis, while having no impact on healthy kidneys.
However, people with current kidney or liver issues may want to avoid whey protein or at least consult with a medical professional before taking it.
Eating too much whey protein can cause digestive issues such as nausea, flatulence, diarrhea, pain and cramping. Some people are also allergic to whey.
If you can’t tolerate regular whey protein concentrate, isolate or hydrolysate may be more appropriate. Alternatively, you could simply avoid whey protein and eat other protein-rich foodsinstead.
But generally speaking, whey protein has an excellent safety profile and most people can consume it without problems.
SUMMARY Whey protein is very safe. A commonly recommended dose is 1–2 scoops (25–50 grams) per day.
The Bottom Line
Whey protein is an exceptionally healthy way to add more protein to your diet. It’s a quality protein source that is absorbed and utilized efficiently by the human body.
This is particularly important for athletes, bodybuilders or people who need to gain muscle mass and strength while losing fat.
When it comes to muscle gain and fat loss, protein is the king of nutrients. Whey protein seems to be even better than other forms of quality protein.