Whey Protein 101: Everything You Need to Pick the Right Protein
Protein is the basic building block of cells throughout the body. So it makes sense that protein powders and shakes are the most popular nutritional supplement among the fitness-minded. Perhaps the most common type is whey protein.
Here’s a crash course in this popular protein option, so you can decide if whey is the shake for you.
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What is Whey Protein?
Whey protein is derived from cow’s milk, which contains two main types of protein:
- Casein (which accounts for about 80 percent of milk’s total protein).
- Whey (which is about 20 percent).
Whey is essentially nutrient-dense liquid that is separated from milk during cheese processing. That watery part that sits on top of yogurt when you peel back the lid? That’s whey.
Liquid whey is “spray-dried” (meaning exposed to a super-hot gas that — poof! — turns it into powder) to create the powdered supplements you see on store shelves.
Unlike most plant proteins, whey contains adequate levels of all nine essential amino acids, which are the ones your body can’t produce on its own. As a result, whey is a particularly good source of the building blocks your body needs to perform key functions, such as muscle repair and growth.*
Types of Whey Protein
There are three main types of whey protein. The differences between them concern the amount of processing they undergo and, subsequently, their prices.
1. Whey concentrate
Whey protein concentrate contains up to 80 percent protein by weight. The other 20 percent is mainly carbohydrates and fats.
2. Whey isolate
Whey protein isolate is formed from more extensive processing than concentrate, and it can contain up to 90 percent protein by weight.
Because it contains more pure protein, it’s a bit more expensive than concentrate.
3. Whey hydrolysate
Whey protein hydrolysate is processed even further, making it “high-tech.”
Some of its amino acids are partially broken down by enzymes during production so they are “bioavailable.”
And this is the most expensive.
Benefits of Whey Protein
1. Muscle building
“Whey protein continues to stand out above others for its ability to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis — in other words, most effectively help repair and build muscle — following exercise,” says Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, a registered dietitian in Philadelphia. “This is likely due, in part, to its high leucine content.” Leucine is an amino acid that’s particularly effective at triggering the body to build new muscle and repair damaged muscle.*
2. Hunger control
Protein is more satiating than fats and carbohydrates. If you consume protein, you may be less hungry and, therefore, inclined to eat fewer calories.
3. Weight loss
Because building lean muscle is key to burning fat — and consuming fewer calories helps prevent you from packing on additional pounds — protein’s assistance in those areas may help you with weight maintenance overall.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
In general, men and women should consume a baseline of 0.8 grams of protein per day per kilogram of body weight. So if you weigh 150 pounds, your basic protein intake for the day should be 55 grams.
According to a 2018 review of studies published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, to effectively build muscle, you need to consume about double that recommended daily allowance of protein — about 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight.
You don’t have to get super-micro and obsess about decimal points to achieve your goals, though. As long as you aim for 25 to 30 grams of protein per meal, plus additional protein in snacks (including perhaps a whey protein shake), you’ll be fine.
When to Take Whey Protein
Whey protein is a healthy snack or addition to any meal, but it’s particularly effective shortly after a workout, when your body shifts muscle repair and growth into high gear.
If you eat a protein-rich meal within a couple of hours of working out, you likely have enough amino acids in your system to fuel your gains. But it’s a good idea to hedge your bets by consuming a protein shake when you finish exercising. Plus, many active people don’t consume enough protein anyway, so a post-workout shake is a smart move.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
- Comparison of Different Sources and Degrees of Hydrolysis of Dietary Protein: Effect on Plasma Amino Acids, Dipeptides, and Insulin Responses in Human Subjects pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/jf101912n
- Branched-chain amino acids and muscle protein synthesis in humans: myth or reality? jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-017-0184-9
- Protein-induced satiety: effects and mechanisms of different proteins pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18282589/
- The role of protein in weight loss and maintenance pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25926512/
- International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
- Protein for Life: Review of Optimal Protein Intake, Sustainable Dietary Sources and the Effect on Appetite in Ageing Adults www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5872778/