Whey is a natural by-product of the cheese-making process. Cow’s milk has about 1.25 percent whey protein. Whey protein is made by filtering off the other components of the whey, such as lactose, fats and minerals. Whey protein is soluble, easy to digest and is efficiently absorbed into the body. When taken prior to a meal, it also helps improve blood sugar control.
Although body builders and athletes use whey protein to increase their protein intake, almost everyone can gain benefit by adding whey protein to their diet. Whey protein is especially important as an aid for weight loss, nutritional support for recovery from surgery, and to offset some of the negative effects of radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
1. It's a quality protein
Whey protein has the highest biological value (BV) of all proteins. It’s also a complete protein in that it contains all essential and non-essential amino acids. One of the key reasons why the BV of whey protein is so high is that it has the highest concentrations of glutamine and branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) found in nature. Glutamine and BCAAs are critical to cellular health, muscle growth and protein synthesis.
2. It's rich in glutamine and leucine
Glutamine, the most abundant amino acid in the body, is involved in more metabolic processes than any other amino acid. Glutamine is important as a source of fuel for white blood cells and for cells that divide rapidly, such as those that line the intestine. Supplementation with glutamine has been shown to heal peptic ulcers, enhance energy levels, boost immune function and fight infections.
Whey protein is also a good source of the essential amino acid leucine, because concentrates have approximately 50 percent more leucine than soy protein isolate. Research has shown that individuals who exercise benefit from diets high in leucine and have more lean muscle tissue and less body fat, compared to those whose diets contain lower levels of leucine.
3. Whey protein boosts glutathione levels
Whey protein has been shown to boost immune function by raising the levels of the important antioxidant glutathione that is found in all cells, including white blood cells. Sufficient glutathione levels are critical to proper immune functioning. In immune cells, glutathione stimulates antibody production and the ability of white blood cells to engulf and destroy invading organisms.
Glutathione is also involved in the body’s detoxification reactions and is able to bind to fat-soluble toxins such as heavy metals, solvents and pesticides, transforming them into a water-soluble form, allowing for more efficient excretion via the kidneys. Eating additional whey protein is one of the best ways to raise glutathione levels in the body and assist in effective detoxification.
4. Whey protein is a dieter's friend
Whey protein ingestion has been shown to reduce feelings of hunger and promote satiety, making it a valuable aid in weight loss programs. It also contains bioactive components that help stimulate the release of appetite-suppressing gut hormones.
One of the best strategies for utilizing whey protein is taking it before or between meals. Studies have shown that consuming whey protein in small amounts prior to a meal improves after-meal blood sugar control, and provides greater satiety and appetite control. By stabilizing blood-sugar levels and reducing hunger, dieting is easier and success is more likely.
5. Whey protein fights aging
One of the most preventable changes associated with aging is the loss of muscle mass and strength, called sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is to muscle mass what osteoporosis is to bones. While osteoporosis gets all the media attention, sarcopenia is a more significant factor. The degree of sarcopenia is the major predictor of physical disability and is linked to decreased vitality, poor balance, walking speed, falls and fractures, especially in elderly people.
Just like building strong bones during youth is important in preventing osteoporosis later in life, building and maintaining muscle mass is essential for avoiding sarcopenia. Muscle mass increases throughout childhood and peaks during the late teens through the mid-to-late 20s. After that, a slow decline in muscle mass begins. Taking whey protein and engaging in weight-bearing exercises and lifting weights can help preserve muscle mass and can even help those with sarcopenia rebuild muscle.
How to get more whey into your diet
The amount of whey protein you need depends on how active you are. If you workout regularly, 50 g of whey protein daily is often recommended. If you exercise infrequently, the recommended intake is 25 g per day.
The easiest way to use whey is by adding it to smoothies or drink mixes. Whey protein powder is available in a variety of flavors, and in pre-measured individual serving packets or bulk containers. The highest quality is often referred to as micro-filtered or ultra-filtered whey protein concentrates. When looking to purchase whey protein, choose products that do not contain a lot of sugar or additives.