When it comes to health and fitness supplements, some categories are more straightforward than others.
Here, we’ll cover all you need to know about one of the tricker ones – Whey Protein.
- What it is
- What it does
- Why you need it
- What to look for when buying
When we’re done, you can decide whether to take the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ advice to give it a whey, give it a whey, give it a whey now!
(Guys, I’ve got a ton of these. A TON. If you’re very lucky my editor will take pity on you and cut me down to double figures.)
[Editor: Let’s roll with these whey puns, it’s my whey or the highwhey – Rob]
The whey it is
Even if you don’t think you know what whey is, in actual fact, chances are your body is already pretty famillar with it. That’s because cow’s milk contains two main proteins, 80% casein and 20% whey.
It’s the liquid part of milk separated out during cheese making. This is distilled to remove fat and carbohydrate, then put through other more complex processes that result in the popular product currently flying of the shelves.
The actual protein content varies depending on the kind of whey you opt for, but we’ll get to that later.
So originally it was thought to be just a byproduct of another process. Written off as useless and ignored until it was revealed to have amazing abilities.
What are these now not-so-hidden talents? Well there’s plenty. It’s importance to our development is shows in the fact that human breast milk contains 3 times the whey protein of it’s brother from an udder mother, at 60%.
Whey is a complete protein, meaning it contains all 9 essential amino acids to keep us fit and healthy, but also a lot of other useful nutrients too. Studies show it can help lower blood pressure, reduce stress, even ease depression. It may also be useful in supporting treatments for conditions as serious as cancer, hepatitis and H.I.V.
As you probably guessed though, we’re interested in two areas: muscle building and fat burning.
A whey better body
Your muscles are made up of protein, and whey triggers incredibly fast protein-synthesis.
As it’s so easily digested, as soon as you ingest whey its amino acids (the building blocks of protein) are absorbed into the bloodstream – which is also strengthened by whey, helping energy levels – and carried directly to your muscle tissue to begin work.
Of all the things whey is rich in, the branched-chain amino acids valine, isoleucine and leucine are standouts. Leucine in particular is among the best for protein-synthesis. It also stimulates more anabolic hormones than any other protein.
A noteable French study in 1997 found that subjects taking whey protein shakes saw their muscle building protein-synthesis increase by 70%. Compared that to just 30% for those taking casein. Researchers believe fast absorption made the difference.
A 2002 a study from Victoria University in Australia reported that volunteers taking whey protein while undergoing resistance training saw much bigger improvements than those taking casein. The whey group had greater power output in all three exercises tested and body fat was ‘significantly reduced.’
A randomized double blind U.S study in 2008 also found that participants on a low calorie diet who took whey protein lost a significant amount of weight and held on to much more muscle mass than those on the diet alone.
There are a few different types of whey available. Here’s a quick run down of the various types and what you need to know:
- Concentrate – About 70 to 80% protein. Processed only to the point where it still contains some lactose and fats, which means it tends to have the best taste. Plus it’s generally the cheapest option.
- Isolate – Less of the filler, more of the killer (not literally.) Around 90% protein. Doesn’t go down quite so easy, but it’s worth mentioning most of the whey research you’ll read tests isolate.
- Hydrolysate/Hydrolyzed – Roughly the same level of protein as isolate, but this has been pre-digested (yummy) to be faster acting. Can cause as much as a 43% higher spike in insulin than the other types.
How much should I take?
You should always strive to get a healthy amount of protein from diet but if this is difficult, a good baseline is 0.4g per pound of bodyweight.
Beyond that it really depends on your goal. If you’re a casual exerciser, then 0.5-0.7 g/lb, in endurance training 0.5-0.8 g/lb, doing serious strength work 5-0.8 g/lb, or a calorie restricted athlete 0.8-0.9 g/lb.
The right whey
If you’re looking to lose fat or gain serious muscle mass you should be looking for at least 80% whey protein in any product you buy. Isolate and hydrolysate are the best bet for this. Isolate is also safest for those who are lactose intolerant because it contains very little lactose.
A good way to work out the % is on offer is to divide the grams of protein per serving by the serving size in grams.
Most companies get their raw, unflavoured whey from a few sources which specialize in filtering. After that the manufacturers add extras to draw you in. Deciding whether these extras add anything or get in the way of, uh, whey is important when choosing a brand.
A few things to be aware of:
There are 20 amino acids in total and a quality whey will feature them all, named and dosed. However some brands boost this profile by adding amino blends. That’s fine as long as they’re topping up the right ones. L-Leucine (highest), L-Isoleucine and L-Valine are what you’re looking for.
Other amino acids are less important and may be added for nitrogen content to make it appear the protein content is higher.
Avoid brands with added sugars. Okay so whey is good for every part of you apart from your taste buds and it may be a rough ride on the way down, but any additives take up space in the mix and dilute potency. Remember, a moment on the lips, a lifetime of being ripped!
Anywhere there are supplements there will be the dreaded proprietary blends. This is a loophole that allows makers to avoid giving individual dosages. They just have to give names and an overall volume. There’s ZERO REASON you shouldn’t have all the info. Blends are often to cover up weak formulas, so beware of those.
Lastly, price. Whey protein ranges between $30 and $70, for 100-200 servings. Much higher than that and it’s not worth it, much lower and think twice about the quality of the product.