Whey Protein: A Complete Guide

Should I take Whey Protein?

You don’t need to take whey protein.

If you train hard and you want a high quality protein fix to enable protein synthesis and adequate recovery you should. But if you prefer getting your protein fix from whole, nutrient dense foods, then I wholeheartedly recommend that.

If you prefer convenience and are typically rushed for time, then getting 30-40g of protein from a high quality source of whey is a surefire win.

You really don’t have to take whey. or any other protein supplement. But I’d recommend it!

Chocolate whey protein in a glass
Chocolate whey protein powder in a glass

What is Whey Protein?

Whey is one of two types of protein found in milk (casein being the other), created as a byproduct of the process transforming cow’s milk into cheese.”

If you’ve ever opened a tub of Greek of natural yoghurt and you’ve seen the clear liquid on top – that’s whey.

Definitely a high quality protein as we’ll come on to later, it can certainly have it’s place as a protein rich supplement in anyone’s diet (not vegans). Especially popular with bodybuilders and now advertised everywhere it’s a world-renowned supplement.

But how effective and nutritious is it?

Are Whey Protein Shakes Safe?

As long as you aren’t lactose intolerant*, then whey protein in recommended doses is great for increased bone density and in reducing sarcopenia, whilst helping you recover efficiently.

There have been reports that increased protein intake can negatively impact renal function and health. However this recent study debunks the myth that changes in kidney function differ between healthy adults consuming higher- compared with lower- or normal-protein diets.

*There are many alternatives to whey protein, but none have the same quality or bioavailability of it

Can Whey Protein Increase Cholestrol

There have been numerous studies done on the topic and findings have been inconsistent, but the most recent study suggests that moderate whey protein usage can decrease TG (triacylglycerol), significantly so in those with a low BMI.

These highly concentrated stores of metabolic energy are derived from fatty acids and include all vegetable oils, animal fats etc. An increase in TG’s can begin to form as fatty deposits that your body will struggle to burn as energy, turning into fat.

Overall it was concluded that moderate whey supplementation had little or no effect on TC (total cholestrol), LDL-C(low-density lipoprotein cholestrol) and HDL-C (high-density lipoprotein cholestrol), so is indeed safe.

Does Whey Protein have Side Effects?

Whey is a safe protein source for anyone who doesn’t suffer from dairy / lactose related intolerances. If you’re pregnant or unsure, then definitely ask your doctor whether it’s suitable for you.

When you start taking protein, I’m not going to lie to you, you will fart. A lot. Your stomach isn’t used to the type of protein you’re putting in your body (in quite large doses) and will react accordingly.

High doses can generally cause:

  • Bloating
  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea
  • Farts

But for the vast majority of us it’s completely harmless.

Now Read: The 7 Best Whey Protein Powders

How much Whey Protein should I take a day?

Typically your body can only absorb use around 35 grams of protein every 2-3 hours.

You can absorb a lot more than that, but your body can’t use it.

Amino acids, unlike carbohydrates and fat need to be used or nitrogen is removed, forming and excreting urea.

35 grams of protein in one sitting is around 5-6 ounces of steak or 1 – 2 scoops of whey protein. Not a lot is it…

In my opinion protein shakes are a useful boost when you need a quick hit of protein. After the gym or as part of a snack. It’s not (and shouldn’t be used as) a meal replacement because it isn’t a complete protein and doesn’t contain all the essential amino acids your body can’t produce.

Now Read: The Best Supplements for Weightlifting

Is it better to have a Protein Shake Before or After your workout?

Honestly, it doesn’t really matter. In terms of protein intake, it depends on what type of workout you have had.

An energy sapping HIIT workout or something that has drained your glycogen stores, then fast acting carbohydrates are more essential than additional protein the short term as you’ll need energy quickly.

If you’ve just finished a powerbuilding or bodybuilding style workout, then protein is going to be a more effective (and satiating) recovery drink.

I find protein most useful straight after the gym. But you can use it at anytime of day without any negative impact.

Carbohydrates a most people’s energy source of choice, so if you have a taxing workout ahead, you’ll need sufficient fuel and replenishment. So carbs before and after.

Whey vs Vegan Protein

As the vegan diet has soared in popularity in recent times, vegan protein sources have been on the rise as an alternative to whey.

I feel good quality whey protein has been slightly demonised by the anti-dairy brigade.

Which is a shame as good quality whey is an incredibly effective whey (shite, I apologise) to take on protein and essential amino-acids.

A good quality vegan protein powder is typically a blend of brown rice protein, pea, soy etc. because (when combined correctly) that provides most of the essential amino acids your body needs.

Albeit in lower quantities than a good quality whey protein. This is where whey really comes out on top.

A good quality whey protein (80%+ protein that’s full of essential amino acids and low on unnecessary artificial ingredients) has more protein and BCAA’s gram for gram than any vegan blend can do. It’s also more easily digestible.

The other major benefit whey protein has is that there are years of research behind it to ensure it’s effectiveness. Vegan protein is a relatively new and untrodden path we are yet to fully explore.

Overall whey is a little cheaper, more effective* (as it’s a more complete protein) and based on years of research.

Whey vs Vegan Protein infographic
Whey vs Vegan Protein

But if you’re lactose intolerant or find whey hard to digest, vegan protein is a good alternative providing you buy a good quality one. If it’s made without soy, then it’s probably allergen free too.

On average vegan protein is typically lower calorie than whey, but it’s more expensive.

*However this study on the effectiveness of brown rice and whey protein on body composition and exercise performance resulted in no difference between the two after an 8 week study

The Importance of Quality Protein

Proteins that are of inferior content and digestibility are important to recognise and restrict or limit in the diet, if you’re someone who breaks your muscles down consistently. As a healthy adult you works out, it is recommended that you eat 1.2 – 1.8g of protein / kilogram of bodyweight.

Traditionally, sources of dietary protein are seen as either being of animal or vegetable origin. Animal sources provide a complete source of protein (i.e. containing all essential amino acids), whereas vegetable sources generally lack one or more of the essential amino acids.

Pills in a jar representing Amino Acids

According to this NCBI study, There have been 20 amino acids identified that are needed for human growth and metabolism. Twelve of these amino acids (eleven in children) are termed nonessential, meaning that they can be synthesized by our body and do not need to be consumed in the diet.

The remaining 8 amino acids cannot be synthesized in the body and are described as essential meaning that they need to be consumed in our diets.

Athletes and individuals who consistently lift weights with the express intention of building muscle and strength are sold a lifestyle of supplementation to improve their performance, recovery and physique. Because whey has a higher proportion of essential amino acids (specifically leucine*), it’s sold as the protein of choice.

Now Read: How to Bulk for Beginners

As you can see in the table below, whey’s protein quality is undeniable and this study showed that using whey protein (when also supplemented with casein) helped improve the individual’s training adaptations and recovery process.

But is it truly an effective way to ingest protein, essential amino acids and provide sustenance in a way that meat or eggs can?

Now Read: How to Cut for Beginners

*Leucine is vital in protein synthesis and is used by the liver, fat and muscle to increase energy. Read more about protein synthesis in this need-to-know weightlifting post

Comparison of Protein Source Quality

Table comparing quality of different protein sources

Whey Protein vs. Meat and Fish

The major difference between the two protein sources is that whey isn’t a ‘complete’ food. It doesn’t possess vitamins, fibre or essential minerals (however these are usually added to supplements). Although lean meat doesn’t contain any carbohydrates and very little fat; this tiny amount of fat is home to essential minerals and nutrients espoused by whey.

This study compared the quality and effectiveness of whey protein, beef and carbohydrates in master triathletes over a 10 week period. It was designed to compare the effect of investing hydrolysed beef protein, whey and carbohydrates on performance, body composition, muscular thickness and blood indices of health.

Marbled Steak draped in Rosemary and Chillies

Only beef significantly reduced body mass, with a trend of preserving or improving thigh muscle mass and blood health improvements were noted in the form of ferritin (the major iron storage protein in the body) changes. Both whey and carb source reduced the muscle thickness of the anterior thigh (vastus medialis) and made no impact on blood health.

In this case, muscle thickness, preservation and blood health can all be improved when using beef rather than whey as a primary protein source.

Traditional fish protein sources (like salmon) have a comparable amount of protein to it’s beefy counterpart whilst also possessing extremely high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

The benefits of eating fish are well-known and there are even studies that suggest salmon protein could help prevent Parkinson’s, as the protein parvalbumin helps prevent neurological degeneration.

Salmon cooking covered in herbs

In a 100g serving of salmon, you roughly gain 20g of high quality protein, 2-3g of omega-3 fatty acids and a host of B vitamins and minerals. These omega-3’s may even play a beneficial role in muscular health, bone density and cognitive decline in older adults according to this study.

Salmon is also a complete protein, meaning it has all the essential amino acids present in the correct proportions – it actually received a protein quality score of 148 and any score over 100 according to this source is defined as a complete protein.

Now as true whey doesn’t contain the additional minerals, nutrients and amino acids oily fish does, it can’t be considered equal in that department.

However it is much higher in actual protein than salmon and beef and is particularly fast-acting, so there seems to be a place for both in a healthy diet. But that still doesn’t mean whey is necessary.

Useful certainly, but not necessary.

Whey Protein vs. Eggs

In terms of quality of protein, eggs are consistently ranked up with milk protein types in terms of amino acid profiles and digestibility. Now although the yolk contains less than half the protein and the majority of the calories, if you want to gain all the minerals and nutrients you need to eat the whole egg.

This study by the University of Illinois found that the muscle building response of eating whole eggs vs just the egg whites was 40% greater. Substantially superior!

Fried Eggs cooking on a diner style stovetop

The whites are low calorie and high protein sure, but they taste disgusting and have almost zero nutritional benefit. The yolks do have high cholesterol, but individual factors like ethnicity, hormone functioning and gender have a much greater impact on your cholesterol levels than foods.

The aim of this particular study was to evaluate the effectiveness of egg white protein vs carbohydrates intake prior to exercise on lean muscle and mass production. Both groups consumed the same amount of calories, but one group had a higher protein intake due to the egg white consumption.

Neither group experienced changes in body composition (as you would expect from almost exactly the same calorie consumption) and actually there were no significant differences in terms of 1RM max strength.

However if the calorie consumption was to be increased further and protein supplementation was to be a major part of that, the difference in training, recuperation and body composition changes (via protein synthesis) may have been very different.

A whey protein intake (1.5 g/kg BW, ~30 g) during a 14-day period on muscle force recovery after eccentrically-induced muscle damage in healthy individuals, found that whey protein supplementation reduced muscle force impairment that occurs during recovery from exercise-induced muscle injury.

So eggs need to be ingested yolks and all for their full muscle building capabilities! Whey is a great supplement and can help in injury rehabilitation, but eggs are far superior in terms of nutritional value.

So which Whey Protein is the best for Beginners?

There are a wide variety of protein types available, all of which vary in quality and your ability to digest them.

As a beginner, it doesn’t really matter which of the below types of protein you use as long as you are getting an adequate amount of protein and amino acids from easily digestible, high quality protein sources.

Whey protein isolate typically has the highest concentration of protein per 100g, which makes it the most effective in terms of protein consumption per gram. But it’s typically more expensive.

Hydrolysed whey protein is more easily digestible than isolate, but it doesn’t contain quite the same concentration of protein.

Concentrate is the cheapest, but typically the lowest quality.

Honestly I just go for whichever I deem the best value as long as the product tastes good and is of high enough quality.

As long as it’s 80% protein and above I am happy.

Types of Whey Protein Protein Content Common Uses and Format
Whey Protein Isolate 90 – 95% WPI is the purest form of whey protein available and. It is a good whey protein source for those with lactose intolerance as it contains little to no lactose.
Hydrolysed Whey Protein 80-90% The long protein chains in whey protein have been broken down into shorter chains called peptides. This makes this type of whey protein more easily digested and absorbed by the body. Ideal for us in sports performance and recovery nutrition.
Whey Protein Concentrate 25-90% The amount of protein in whey protein concentrate can vary wildly. The whey protein powder supplements that you find in health and nutrition stores often list whey protein concentrate on the label. This type of whey protein is usually c. 80% protein but can be highly variable and of a worse quality.

What happens if you lift Weights but don’t eat enough Protein

If you consistently breakdown your muscles and don’t get sufficient protein (and amino acids) to fuel repair and growth, then it’s all largely been a waste of time.

Your body, craving essential nutrients that you aren’t giving it, will begin breaking down your muscle fibres to supply the rest of your tissues with amino acids.

If a lack of dietary protein continues, then the cannibalisation of your muscles continues, causing the mass of your muscular tissue to reduce even further.

Essentially, protein below 0.8g / lb of bodyweight for an individual who trains hard can be a problem. Especially for those looking to gain size and strength.

So should you be using whey protein?

Both whey protein and whole foods are fantastic sources of protein that deliver high amounts of all the necessary amino acids, although they tend to be added to the whey, rather than occurring naturally.

A natural diet, however, offers a wide range of food options, contributing a variety of flavors, nutrients, and phytochemicals to the diet.

For me, I like using whey occasionally. Good quality powder (not the Colombian kind) tastes good, is a great snack replacement and anything that’s saves me time I love! So I use it, but not religiously and I’ve never seen or felt any difference.

If you struggle with getting enough protein (which you can find out in this post about how to stimulate hypertrophy and muscle growth), it’s clearly a useful substitute, but as the whole egg vs egg white study shows, whole foods are king and recovery via nutrition is more important than just a macronutrients level.

What protein types do you use? Let me know in the comments if you find one more effective

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