Whey protein has become one of the most popular protein supplements used by athletes, bodybuilders and anyone looking to improve their health and fitness. Whey comes from milk during the process of making cheese. The liquid part that separates from the curds is called whey. This whey liquid contains proteins, fats, carbs and various micro nutrients.
Whey protein is considered a complete, high-quality protein as it contains all 9 essential amino acids needed by the body. The most common types of whey protein you’ll see are whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate. Let’s take a deeper look into what whey protein is, the differences between concentrates and isolates and the multitude of health benefits these proteins provide.
What is Whey Protein?
Whey protein comes from cows being milked for dairy production. As the milk is turned into cheese, whey proteins are separated from the curds. This whey liquid is then processed and dried into whey protein powders and supplements used by athletes and fitness enthusiasts.
The main proteins found in whey are:
- Beta lactoglobulin – makes up about 65% of whey proteins
- Alpha lactalbumin – makes up 25%
- Bovine serum albumin – makes up about 8%
- Immunoglobulins – antibodies that provide immune system support
In addition to these quality proteins, whey provides bioactive peptides that serve many functions related to health, fitness and anti-aging. Next we will explore the differences between whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate.
Whey Protein Concentrate vs Isolate
Whey concentrate is produced by selectively removing the non-protein components like fats and lactose from whey. Some concentrates retain more of the fat and lactose while the higher concentrate grades have less. They range between 29-89% protein by weight. The other 11-71% is made up of fats, carbs like lactose and minerals.
Whey isolates go through additional filtration processes to remove more non-protein components. This raises the protein level to 90% or higher protein content. The additional processing also serves to virtually eliminate the fat and lactose content found in whey concentrates. Less processing means whey concentrates retain more biologically active peptides. But whey isolates tend to have higher amounts of essential and branched-chain amino acids.
Major Health Benefits of Whey
Decades of scientific research demonstrate the wide-ranging health benefits provided by whey protein supplementation:
Muscle Growth & Recovery
Whey stimulates muscle protein synthesis necessary for recovery and growth. It does this by increasing absorption of amino acids and raising insulin more than other proteins. The amino acid leucine is primarily responsible, as it activates mTOR pathways involved in building muscle proteins. Just 20 grams of whey has been shown to maximize the muscle building response from exercise.
Weight & Fat Loss
By improving body composition, whey makes it easier to lose fat while retaining lean muscle mass. Whey increases satiety resulting in eating less. The bioactive peptides promote the release of hormones like cholecystokinin that reduce appetite. By replacing calories from carbs and fat with whey, the total daily is reduced.
Immune System Support
The immunoglobulins and amino acid cysteine in whey boost glutathione and immune cell activity. Glutathione is the body’s master antioxidant that protects cells from damage and infection. Clinical trials show less respiratory tract infections from supplementing with whey during training.
Whey peptides lower blood pressure by inhibiting ACE enzymes. Branched-chain amino acids from whey improve blood vessel function and flow. By lowering inflammation, bad cholesterol, blood pressure and triglycerides, whey protein protects cardiovascular health.
Other Key Benefits of Using Whey
In addition to the major health aspects discussed above, research has uncovered benefits in many other areas:
Bone density – The amino acids and peptides in whey boost calcium absorption and activate cells involved in bone formation. Older adults taking whey had improved bone mineral density.
Brain function – Whey provides amino acids that readily cross the blood-brain barrier and raise neurotransmitters. Better cognition, mood and stress response have been noted with consistent whey intake.
Anti-aging – Increased glutathione levels from whey supplemention promotes antioxidant capacity and protects cells throughout the body from oxidation. This is key to preventing age-related chronic disease.
Diabetes – Though dairy can spike blood sugar, whey blunts glucose response. The high leucine content also prevented insulin resistance in mice fed a high-fat diet. Whey manage blood sugar in healthy and diabetic individuals.
Cancer – Whey protein provides glutathione to fight inflammation and cellular mutations involved in cancer initiation and progression. Many studies cite the chemopreventative effects of daily whey intake against prostate, breast and colorectal cancers.
Optimal Whey Intake and Usage
Since research typically uses 20-30 grams of whey protein to provide benefits, aim for that as a daily goal. Have a whey shake once a day as a snack or with breakfast to meet your needs. Look for cold-processed microfiltered isolates to avoid excess processing and retain bioactive peptides. Use concentrates if you don’t have issues with lactose intolerance or need higher protein content per serving.
Whey is very versatile. It can be used to enhance smoothies, yogurt, oatmeal and baking recipes. For exercise nutrition, have whey 30 minutes before training or immediately after for optimal muscle repair and growth. Avoid sugary, high calorie whey products with extra fillers and ingredients. See if you continue to see improvements combining daily whey protein with resistance exercise and healthy nutrition.
|Whey Protein Concentrate
|Whey Protein Isolate
|At least 90%
|Up to 10%
|Less than 1%
|Up to 75%
|1% or less
|40-60mg per serving
|Depends on the extent of processing
|Cost per pound
The key differences:
- Whey protein isolate has higher protein content per gram, less fat, less carbs/lactose and little to no cholesterol
- Concentrates have more bioactive compounds retained compared to isolates
- Isolates tend to be richer in the amino acid leucine
- Additional processing and filtration drives up costs of whey protein isolates
So whey protein concentrates provide cost and nutrition advantages, while isolates have purer protein content and higher levels of muscle-building amino acids like leucine. Choose the option aligned with your budget, protein intake goals and dietary preferences.
Which One is Good for Me?
Choosing between whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate depends on your individual needs and preferences:
Best for Building Muscle/Strength Training:
- Whey isolate is generally considered better. The higher protein and leucine content makes isolates ideal for maximizing muscle protein synthesis.
If you Have Lactose Intolerance:
- Go with whey isolate. The additional filtration removes most of the lactose, making isolates easier to digest.
- Whey concentrate is cheaper per pound than isolate due to less processing. If budget is a main factor, concentrate provides quality protein at affordable price points.
If Avoiding Fat & Carbs
- Whey isolate is over 90% protein by weight. The fat and carb content is negligible in quality isolates.
Best If you Want Higher Bioactives
- Less processing in concentrates means more naturally occurring bioactive peptides are retained. These provide added health benefits.
How To Use?
Here are some tips on how to use whey protein powder effectively:
When to Use:
- First thing in morning – Kickstart protein intake and muscle recovery from sleeping
- Post workout – Take within 60 minutes after training to rebuild muscles broken down during workout
- As a snack – Mix a quick shake to curb hunger between meals
- Before bed – Feed muscles overnight and avoid catabolism during sleep
How Much to Use:
- 20-30g serving size delivers ample quality proteins and amino acids
- Maximum muscle protein synthesis occurs with about 25g whey in one serving
- Can adjust serving amount based on your needs: more for heavy weights, less if smaller body size
How to Mix:
- Use a blender or shaker bottle for quick protein drinks
- Start with 6-8oz cold water or non-dairy milk
- Add 1-2 scoops whey powder based on serving size
- Shake or blend until fully mixed, at least 30 seconds
Enhance the Shake:
- Fresh or frozen fruit to improve flavor
- Peanut butter or healthy oils give a smooth, creamy texture
- Flaxseed, chia or nuts to add healthy fats, fiber
- Oats, bran or yogurt to increase thickness
Whey is considered the gold standard for protein quality and contains all the essential amino acids. It’s efficiently absorbed and utilized by the body to stimulate muscle growth.
Drink a whey shake just before or immediately after working out for best muscle building results. Also first thing in morning and as a snack between meals.
Yes. Whey supports fat loss by boosting metabolism and preserving lean muscle mass when cutting calories. It also reduces hunger.
Some people experience gas, bloating, headaches, cramps, fatigue and reduced appetite initially. See if isolate may be easier to digest.
Consult your physician first. If approved, whey can supply needed protein requirements but watch overall intake.
There are mixed opinions. Whey causes an insulin response which may contribute to acne. But research hasn’t found a direct causative effect yet.
Yes, whey protein is gluten free. Look for third party certification to ensure no cross contamination with gluten sources during production.
Unopened whey protein lasts for 12-18 months. Once opened, use within 3 months. Store in cool, dry place to prevent clumping and degradation over time.
Whey protein gained it’s popularity due to the muscle building and fat loss benefits. But the health enhancing aspects of whey make it an important protein source for far more than physical performance. Make whey protein supplements part of your daily nutrition to take advantage of this superfood. Consume 20-30 grams per day by itself or with meals to see improvements in body composition, immunity, cardiovascular health, exercise recovery and protection against aging and chronic disease.