In this post, I summarize my research on whey protein, its health benefits, what to look for when buying whey protein products, and suggestions for using it. Many of my clients have a fast-paced lifestyle (you’ll relate if you live in Northern Virginia), so a satisfying healthy smoothie option is always welcomed. Without a protein source, such as high quality whey, smoothies can be unbalanced and loaded with sugar.
Is Whey Healthy?
While writing this post, I’m fully aware that some people are sensitive or allergic to dairy. I also do not recommend whey when a client is doing a detox or food elimination or sensitivity program. Dairy can increase mucus secretions and nasal congestion in some people, so it may be better to avoid it if you have these complaints. If you’re following a low FODMAPs diet (for digestive issues), it’s better to avoid whey initially and experiment with it later. Other than these conditions, it’s worth giving whey protein a try. They key is picking high quality whey protein, and I talk about that below.
Health Benefits of Whey Protein
Improves body composition, especially in elderly or people reducing calories for weight loss
In general, proteins immediately after resistance training boost muscle building. Whey protein contains essential amino acids called branched chain amino acids (BCAA), which stimulate muscle building and prevent muscle loss. When given to elderly adults after strength training, whey protein triggered more muscle building compared to regular milk products. In another study of obese elderly individuals, drinking whey protein shakes as part of a reduced-calorie weight loss plan led to more fat tissue loss and reserved more lean tissue compared to shakes of similar calorie and protein content.
Boosts Glutathione Production
Think of glutathione as the master antioxidant. It’s found inside every cell and protects the mitochondria, the energy producing compartment of your cell. Glutathione destroys free radicals, detoxifies carcinogens, and maximizes the activity of other antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E, CoQ10, alpha lipoic acid, and the phytochemicals you get from fruits and vegetables.
As great as it sounds, you can’t just pop a glutathione pill. They are very expensive to begin with, and glutathione in a supplement form isn’t absorbed well.
Instead, you want to support your body’s natural ability to produce glutathione on its own. Exercise is one major way. Supplying your body with the building blocks to make glutathione is another. The building block of glutahione is the amino acid cysteine, which is found in raw milk, eggs, and meat products.
Since it’s not appetizing (or safe) to have raw eggs, meat, and dairy (I know some people will disagree, but we can talk about that later) , whey protein manufactured with low temperatures preserves cysteine so your body can use it to make glutathione. Studies that found cancer-prevention benefit of whey also found that this benefit was accompanied by increased level of glutathione in the blood and tissues.
Boosts Immune Function
Whey contains immunoglobulins, lactoferrins, and lactoferricin, which are nutrients naturally found in raw milk and colostrum that boost immune function.
Lactoferrin and Alpha-lactalbumin (proteins in whey) have antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and antiparasitic activity. They may prevent cancers, most likely because they boost the production of the antioxidant glutathione. Lactoferrin helps the immune system recover after it has been compromised, promotes bone growth, protects the intestinal epithelium, and it has been used as therapy for hepatitis C infection.
Whey proteins and amino acids improve satiety. In one study, 4 hours after drinking 50 g of whey protein, participants had a reduction in ghrelin (the hormone that makes you feel hungry) and an increase in cholecystokinin-8 (a hormone that makes you feel full). A whey protein drink reduces the amount of food people eat short-term compared to a carbohydrate snack or no snack.
May Combat Type 2 Diabetes
Whey protein lowered glucose and insulin levels in the blood in healthy individuals and those with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is marked by elevated glucose in the blood and high insulin in the blood means that your cells are insulin resistance, one of the early signs of diabetes.
How to Choose Whey Protein Powder
Not all whey protein powders are equal
When looking for a whey protein product, here’s my criteria:
- Whey protein concentrate, not isolate: isolates are processed so their nutrition and co-factors are stripped away. To make isolates, whey is often treated with acid which breaks down its amino acids. Because they’re not in their natural form, your body may not be able to put the proteins back together to use. If you want the immune benefit of whey, you must get the concentrate form.
- Low temperature processed: heat makes whey acidic and damages the immune boosting proteins. Cysteine, the amino acid building block of glutathione, is found in raw dairy.
- No acid processing (or ion exchange): acid processing breaks down the amino acids in whey. A company making good quality whey protein will highlight the fact that their product is not processed with acid.
- From grass-fed cows, not conventional cows: we striving for a healthy drink, not one that will trigger inflammation. Grass-fed dairy has high concentration of healthy fats (lipoic acid and CLA), less pesticides, less GMO ingredients (corn, soy, and other grain feed that conventional cows eat), and less hormones.
- No artificial ingredients or sweeteners: many whey proteins sold in your typical nutrition supplement store or warehouse stores contain artificial sweeteners, food colorings, preservatives, acid or other ingredients that don’t support health.
How to Use Whey Protein
You can use high quality whey protein powder the same way you use any other protein powders. I recommend unflavored protein powders in general. They typically have less ingredients (if any) and no sweeteners (regular or artificial). Plus, I can add them to any flavor profile without having the taste of chocolate or vanilla every time.
Whey protein yields a creamy drink. Try with fresh or frozen banana, berries, or mango. Add a little bit of fat, like 1/4 avocado or even a teaspoon of cold-pressed oil like olive, coconut, or flaxseed oils. Fats help absorb fat-soluble vitamins and antioxidants.
Healthy Whey Protein Product Recommendations
I usually recommend unflavored protein powders to avoid the fillers and sweeteners that most retail and commercial brands have. If you really want something flavored, stevia or xylitol are the two non-calorie sweeteners considered ‘safe’ as of the date of this article. Xylitol is a sugar alcohol and ok in small amounts, but if you have gas, bloating, diarrhea, or following a low FODMAPs diet, you need to avoid it.
For specific product recommendations, I made these products available through my online supplement dispensary. I only recommend high-quality medical and often medical grade products. To access these products, follow these steps:
- Click on the image below (Fullscript)
- Create a username and password
- Once in you’re in, click on “Shop By Dispensary Categories” on the top left corner
- Choose “Protein Powders”
- You will see a selection of proteins, including whey, pea, egg white and hemp. I have kept a couple of whey isolate products for people looking for that option
Do you use whey protein? Did you learn something new from this post?
If you can’t have whey, I haven’t forgotten about you. Next week’s article will be on non-dairy proteins. Sign up below so you don’t miss it.