Where it comes from: Remember Little Miss Muffet who sat on her tuffet? The children's nursery rhyme is a testament to the long-standing health benefits of curds and whey. Curds are a dairy product that comes from coagulating milk and edible acidic substances, and whey (or milk plasma) is the liquid remaining after the curdle has been strained.
Whey has several commercial uses but you may be more familiar with whey protein, a mixture of proteins isolated from whey. Whey protein comes from cow's milk, is a rich source of the body's essential amino acids, is efficiently digested and absorbed and is the most nutritious protein available.
We should, however, point out that there are two common types of whey protein, which you typically see as a powder mix: isolate and concentrated. Whey protein isolate is the most pure form (it contains 90 percent or more protein) and it has little to no fat, lactose or cholesterol. Whey protein concentrate has anywhere between 29 to 89 percent protein, and as the protein level decreases, the amount of fat and lactose increases.
What it'll do for you: As you probably already know, protein is an important nutrient needed on a daily basis. "It's made up of essential and non-essential amino acids, which are the building blocks for healthy bodies," explains registered dietitian and American Dietetic Association spokesperson Jim White. Protein has a number of different roles in the body such as repairing cells, building and repairing muscles and the production of energy. Here, a look at the benefits of whey protein:
- Helps repair body cells, muscles and bones
Whey protein is a rich source of naturally occurring branched chain amino acids, which are important for those who have an active lifestyle. The body requires higher amounts of these amino acids during and after exercise because they quickly become in high demand throughout the body. Low BCAA levels contribute to fatigue and should be replaced in one hour or less—hence the popularity of those post-workout shakes at your gym. "Whey protein shakes do serve a purpose, plus they taste great," adds White. "However you'd get more nutrients—and save money—if you just ate a turkey sandwich or made your own protein shake with milk, yogurt and fruit." A 2009 study at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada found that, despite being at rest, subjects who consumed whey had nine times greater muscle repair and growth than those who ate other types of protein (casein and soy). After exercise, the same whey group saw a 122 percent greater muscle protein synthesis compared to the casein group and 31 percent greater than the soy group.
- May posses anti-inflammatory or anti cancer properties
Some preclinical studies in rodents have suggested that whey protein may offer the same anti-inflammatory relief as certain prescription medicines. Other studies have found that whey protein concentrate might reduce some tumor cells, But human data is lacking and much more research is needed.
- Can help dieters loose weight
Adding whey protein to your diet can help jump-start a weight loss program. It's a key ingredient in many weight loss and meal replacement products because it has little fat or carbohydrates. A double blind 12-week study performed at the Minnesota Applied Research Center tested two groups of patients, each cutting out 500 calories per day. The subjects who consumed a whey protein isolate drink 20 minutes before breakfast and 20 minutes before dinner lost significantly more body fat compared to those patients who did not have protein shakes. Other studies have found that subjects who combine protein-rich foods and exercise increase their metabolic rate and naturally burn more calories each day. Whey protein is also proven to help manage weight by curbing hunger and creating a feeling of food satisfaction.
Suggested intake: "The first source of protein should always be from real foods such as chicken, turkey, lean beef, egg whites and fish," begins White. Healthy diets should regularly include high quality low-fat sources of protein. "Compared to other proteins, on a gram-to-gram basis whey protein isolate delivers more essential amino acids to the body but without the fat or cholesterol."
If you are not getting enough protein, are participating in intense exercise, are a vegetarian, or have special medical needs such as cancer or HIV, whey protein is recommended. "Most people need at least 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight to meet basic protein requirements," says White.
Males who endure intense workouts may benefit from a whey protein supplement, as its properties can speed workout recovery time. Below, a handy chart to help you figure out how much whey protein you need based on your level of physical activity.
- Recreational exerciser: 0.5-0.7 g/lb
- Endurance exerciser; 0.5-0.8 g/lb
- Strength training athlete: .5-0.8 g/lb
- Calorie restricting athlete: .08-0.9 g/lb
Associated risks/scrutiny: Whey protein is likely safe for most adults. High doses can cause some side effects such as increased bowel movements, nausea, thirst, bloating, cramps, reduced appetite and tiredness. Migraines and headaches are also commonly listed but many experts blame the MSG that is sometimes hidden in whey protein as the trigger.
If you have a lactose intolerance, you should certainly opt for a whey protein isolate (over a concentrate), which has less than 0.1 gram of lactose per tablespoon. Research has shown that this small amount has little to no effect on lactose intolerant patients. But lactose intolerant or not, it's always suggested to check with your doctor before starting on any supplement or vitamin routine.