Protein Supplements: Whey

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The goal of last week’s protein post was to “refresh” your memory about protein: what it does, where it’s found, and how much you need. That being said, the subject of protein is hot enough to fuel debates regarding who needs more and what’s the best way to get it.

As I mentioned last week, there are some people who do need more protein, namely endurance athletes, people who are ill or malnourished, and older adults. Most of us, though, don’t need a whole lot more protein than what’s recommended to stay healthy. And we already know that since we don’t need all that much, we tend to get more than enough from our daily food intake.

However, if, for whatever reason, you don’t think you’re getting enough protein and/or you don’t happen to care for the usual protein food sources (meat, poultry, fish, eggs), then it’s possible that you could benefit from a supplement. And here’s the tricky part, because trying to choose a protein supplement is about as daunting as deciding what flavor ice cream to order is for a child. There are so many choices and so many forms of supplements. This week, we’ll look at one of the most popular supplements: whey.

Whey Protein
What it is: “Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey…” Do you remember that nursery rhyme? The whey that Miss Muffet was enjoying at the time is the same whey that’s commonly found in today’s protein drinks and powders. Whey is one of the two main proteins found in milk and it makes up about 20% of milk protein (casein makes up the other 80%).

Drilling down a little more, there are three types of whey protein: whey isolate, whey concentrate, and hydrolysate whey protein. Each type of whey protein contains different amounts of fat, cholesterol, lactose, and bioactive compounds. The hydrolysate whey protein is the best absorbed of the three. Most whey supplements contain a combination of the three. Whey is a byproduct of cheese making; the curd is the casein and the liquid is the whey.

Benefits: Of all the types of protein that we ingest, whey protein is the best absorbed. Reasons to ingest whey protein include the fact that it contains branched chain amino acids that help build and maintain muscle — more so than egg, casein, or soy protein. Whey protein helps support a healthy immune system. And it also contains the amino acid leucine, which may help prevent the loss of muscle mass associated with aging.

It’s also possible that whey protein, which is digested more slowly than carbohydrate, may help control appetite. A study published in the journal Nutrition and Metabolism in 2008 showed that subjects who drank two 10-gram whey protein shakes each day lost more body fat over 12 weeks than subjects who didn’t drink the shakes, likely because the whey drinks helped the subjects stay full (and therefore eat less).What about diabetes? A study published in Diabetes Care in 2009 found that whey protein helped lower blood glucose levels by slowing down digestion and increasing insulin sensitivity. In another study, published in Nutrition Journal, subjects were given a sugary drink with different amounts of whey protein. The 20-gram dose of whey was 1.7 times more effective than the control group (who drank no whey protein) in decreasing spikes in glucose. Whey protein was also found, in yet another study, to lower triglycerides (blood fats).

Should you take it? Whey protein is a high-quality protein, meaning that it contains all the essential amino acids required by the body. It’s quickly and efficiently absorbed when ingested. Athletes may be advised to take up to 50 grams of whey protein each day to help support lean muscle mass and the immune system; others probably only need about 20 grams per day. There are claims that whey protein may be helpful for those following a low-calorie diet for weight loss (the jury is still out on that).

It’s possible that whey protein can be helpful to you in managing your diabetes. If you’re thinking about taking whey protein, talk with your health-care team, especially if you have any kidney or liver problems. Some whey protein supplements may contain lactose (obviously not good if you’re lactose intolerant), so if that’s an issue, you’d want to choose a whey protein isolate. Also, avoid these supplements if you have a milk allergy. Whey protein may interact with certain medicines, including levodopa (brand name Sinemet and others), alendronate (Fosamax), and some antibiotics. Also, children and pregnant or breastfeeding women should probably not take whey without first checking with their health-care provider. Keep in mind that the FDA does not regulate protein supplements, either.

You may need to go to your local health-food store to purchase whey protein, usually in powder form. Some medical nutritional supplements contain whey protein, but they’re often not available in retail stores. For a list of whey protein supplements, visit the Whey Protein Institute’s Web site at

Want to learn more about whey protein and diabetes? Read “Whey Protein May Help Control Type 2 Diabetes,” “Whey Protein to Prevent After-Meal Blood Sugar Spikes?” and “Hype or Healthy? Ezekial Bread and Whey Protein.”

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