Protein powder is arguably the most popular dietary supplement you’re likely to ever come across. Commonly used on a daily basis by athletes and fitness enthusiasts of all levels, it even appears to be one of the first supplements of choice for many people simply seeking to lose weight.
And the fact that you’re visiting this website and have an interest in fitness suggests there’s a pretty strong chance you’ve actually used it yourself in the past or are currently doing so.
If not, I’m sure you know someone who does.
Unless it’s used as a cooking ingredient, protein powder is almost always added to water or milk to make a protein shake and therefore consumed as a liquid.
Among all the protein powder variants available, such as whey, egg, soy, pea, rice, and so on, whey protein is probably the most widely-used and without a doubt the highest-quality of them all.
Unfortunately however, it also seems to be quite a widely misunderstood product. And there appears to be a number of misconceptions about how it should be used and what it can do for muscle growth and fat loss.
Let’s dispel these by starting from the beginning.
What is whey protein?
Whey protein is a high-quality protein, naturally found in cow’s milk, that’s very efficiently digested and absorbed by the body. It makes up about 20% of the protein in milk, the other 80% being casein.
In the process of making cheese, enzymes are added to milk, causing it to separate into curds and a liquid called whey, or milk plasma. This liquid whey is then pasteurized and dried into a powdered form. Whey protein, then, is a mixture of proteins isolated from whey.
As far as dietary supplements go, there are two common types of whey protein – whey protein isolate (WPI) and whey protein concentrate (WPC).
Whey protein isolate is the most pure form. It usually contains 90 to 95 percent protein and is very low in fat (0.5% to 1.0%) and lactose (0.5% to 1.0%).
Whey protein concentrate can usually contain anywhere between 25 to 89 percent protein, 1 to 9 percent fat, and 4 to 52 percent lactose. Naturally, the lower the protein level, the more fat and lactose it will contain.
What’s so magical about whey protein?
The answer to this question is, less than you probably think.
That’s not to say it isn’t a great product. It is. And it has some great benefits.
But it simply doesn’t have the magical properties that some misinformed people believe it to have.
Let’s look at what whey protein actually can and can’t do.
First of all, whey protein doesn’t cause muscle to grow. At least, not on its own. I’m not sure exactly where this misconception sprung from, possibly the fact that some manufacturers label their whey protein as muscle food.
The fact is, muscle grows through a combination of resistance activity and the intake of dietary amino acids to feed the growth. Sure, whey protein is a great source of amino acids for your body. But it’s not the only one.
There are lots of other good sources of complete proteins out there that will also provide the amino acids your body needs. Some examples? Red meat, fish, seafood, poultry, eggs and dairy are some of the major ones.
One of the great things about whey protein, however, is the fact that it’s quite fast to digest, making those essential amino acids available quite quickly. That makes it a great source of protein to have following a resistance training session.
After a resistance workout, your body needs to rebuild and recover. And to prevent it ending up in a catabolic (muscle-wasting) state, it’s important to ensure that its protein requirements are being met. By providing a speedy source of amino acids for the recovery process, whey protein becomes an ideal choice as a post-workout meal or snack protein source.
Ideal, yes. But again, it’s not the only choice. There are many other great protein sources.
So remember, you can still build muscle just fine without whey protein. And just because you take whey protein, doesn’t mean you’re going to build muscle.
It’s important to understand that a whey protein shake is not a diet shake. Nor does it cause your body to lose fat.
Some people seem to be under the impression that when you’re on a fat-loss program, you need to have a protein shake each day.
I prefer to look at whey protein shakes as foods rather than supplements. That helps to avoid any confusion. They’re not something you take once a day, like you would supplements such as calcium, glucosamine, or creatine.
They’re simply another choice of dietary protein. Same as a serving of lean red meat, or fish, or egg.
Consider this. If you’re on a given nutrition plan, and you simply add a whey protein shake to your daily menu, you’re basically adding calories to your intake. That’s not going to assist with fat loss.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
As I said, group whey protein in with your other choices of protein foods and treat it the same, and you can’t go wrong.
3 great reasons to use whey protein
Now that you understand what whey protein can and can’t do, let me list the 3 main reasons why you would want to include it as part of your diet.
- As a perfect choice for the protein portion of a post-workout meal or snack (which should also contain a carbohydrate portion).
- As a quick and convenient choice of protein to incorporate into a meal. (Remember – a balanced meal also needs to include carbohydrates and fats).
- As a lean source of protein. There are occasions where you need a lean protein source for a meal – if you’re trying to control your carbohydrate and/or fat intake, for example, in which case whey protein is a great candidate.
Below is a listing of a few different lean and high-quality protein sources, in descending order of purity. The number alongside each measures grams of protein per 100 calories of the food.
|Bulk Nutrients WPI||23.3|
|Egg White (Raw)||22.7|
|Tuna (Yellowfin – Cooked in Dry Heat)||21.6|
|Chicken Breast (Oven Roasted)||21.3|
|Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey||20.0|
|Tilapia (Cooked in Dry Heat)||20.4|
|Tuna (Bluefin – Cooked in Dry Heat)||16.3|
(Optimum Nutrition Whey was chosen since it is one of the world’s most popular brands of protein powder. Bulk Nutrients WPI was chosen since it is the whey protein that Gloria and I currently use. We have no affiliation with either of these companies. Nutrient data for the remaining foods was taken from USDA SR-21).