Whey Protein Isolate: How It Works

Derived from the Greek word proteins, meaning first place or primary, protein is a vital component of any healthy diet. The human body uses protein to build and repair tissue. Protein is also responsible for making enzymes, hormones, and other chemicals the body needs to function properly.

Nutritionists (1) recommend daily consumption of protein since it is classified as a macronutrient, which means our bodies need large amounts of it to maintain optimum health. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.08 grams per kilogram of body weight. So, for the average 140-pound woman who is physically inactive, that would equal roughly 50 grams of protein daily.

That calculation is just the minimum amount a sedentary body requires to stay healthy. For those who are physically active or who are working to build muscle tone and improve their physique, greater protein intake is necessary to achieve the desired results and help the body repair after an intense workout. Exactly how much depends on your body and your individual fitness goals.

Eating high-protein foods:

  • Helps the body maintain a healthy weight
  • Helps the body build lean muscle
  • Helps speed up recovery after intense exercise or injury
  • Helps us feel fuller longer, eliminating the urge to overeat

There is more to consuming protein than just eating a lot of it. Animal-based proteins (2) are considered “higher quality” than plant-based proteins because they are similar to our own body tissue. Consuming enough quality protein is important, but it can be difficult – and expensive. That is where protein supplements like whey protein come in.

What Is Whey Protein?

Whey protein is a popular diet supplement due to its versatility (3). It includes a range of essential amino acids, which the body absorbs quickly. It also is packed full of other nutrients, including some with potent biological effects.

Those are the reasons why athletes and bodybuilders take whey protein for building lean muscle mass and improving performance. Dieters favour it for its ability to help them feel fuller longer, resisting the temptation to overeat. Even some baby formulas and nutrition shakes use it.

But how exactly do we obtain whey protein?

Whey is the liquid part of milk that is separated during the process of making cheese. Roughly 20 per cent of milk protein is whey. This watery substance is processed until it is turned into a powder form, which is easily added to meal replacements, protein bars, and protein shakes. Sometimes whey is added to baked goods or ice cream to mimic the consistency of fat.
Since whey does not have an appealing taste on its own, it is flavoured when sold in a powdered formula. After all, if it did not taste great, people would not buy it.

Supplementing with whey protein is a convenient – and tasty – way to sneak more protein into your diet. Most people who supplement with whey do so via whey protein powders. These come in a variety of flavours and can be used on their own or as part of other recipes like smoothies.

Protein powders contain between 25 and 30 grams of protein per serving, depending on the brand. Most people can digest whey without any issues. Individuals who suffer from lactose intolerance may not be able to use it.

The Science Behind Whey Protein

While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting high-quality protein in our diets from food sources, there is little doubt about the effectiveness of whey protein supplementation on the human body. Every essential amino acid needed to maintain health and well-being is contained in whey protein.

There are three types of whey protein:

1. Concentrate

Whey protein concentrate consists of between 70 and 80 per cent protein, some lactose, and fat. Of all the types of whey protein, this is the most preferred because it has the best taste. Most commercial protein powders contain whey protein concentrate.

2. Isolate

Whey protein isolate is at least 90 per cent protein, and it could contain more depending on the brand. It does not contain as much lactose or fat as whey protein concentrate. However, it also lacks most of the beneficial nutrients of whey protein concentrate. Whey protein isolate is most often found in high-quality brands of whey protein.

3. Hydrolysate

This type of whey protein is pre-digested for faster absorption. Pre-digestion means the protein underwent partial hydrolysis, a process that is necessary for the human body to absorb protein. Because the body can absorb this type of whey protein faster, it causes a greater spike in insulin levels as compared with whey protein isolate (4).

If your goal is to build muscle or recover after exercising, consider consuming protein within an hour of finishing your workout. Muscles are the most receptive to protein during that time. If weight control is the goal, eating protein throughout the day during each meal and snack is the best way to stave off cravings and overeating.
Most whey protein powders recommend servings of one to two scoops per day, with a preference for ingestion following a workout.

However, the type and the amount of protein an individual should consume depend on several factors, including a person’s overall weight, activity level and body-fat composition. Also, those who have health issues such as kidney or liver disease will want to consult with a dietician or primary care physician before taking protein, as too much of it can stress the kidneys and the liver.

To help improve the taste and texture of whey protein, consider mixing it with milk or a milk alternative like almond or soy milk instead of water.

The Benefits of Whey Protein Isolate

Whey protein isolate is one of the most studied supplements due to its high nutritional value and proven health benefits, including the following:

1. Whey protein isolate encourages muscle growth and repair.

Studies (5) revealed that taking whey protein before or immediately following a workout helps maximize muscle growth and recovery.

2. Whey protein is great for weight loss.

Protein is one of the most satiating macronutrients, making it a great way to prevent overeating. A 2011 (6) study revealed that individuals who ate 25 per cent of their daily calories from protein reduced their cravings by 60 per cent and cut their urge for late-day snacking in half. Other types of protein like soy and casein do not have the same effect on satiety.

3. Whey protein is effective in treating chronic conditions.

Whey protein is effective at moderating blood sugar by increasing the levels of insulin and the sensitivity to the effects of insulin in the body, making it a great way to control Type 2 Diabetes (7). It also is proven to reduce C-reactive protein (CRP) in the body, which is a key marker for inflammation (8).

4. Whey protein is effective in enhancing antioxidant defences.

Antioxidants work to prevent oxidation in the body, thereby reducing oxidative stress, which is a known factor in many chronic diseases (9). One of the most important antioxidants is glutathione. The production of glutathione is dependent on the body’s supply of several amino acids, including cysteine. Whey protein is high in cysteine, which is known to protect the body against cancer, reduce symptoms associated with hepatitis, improve immune function in people with HIV, and increase bone density.

The Risks of Consuming Whey Protein

While there are numerous benefits to taking a whey protein supplement, there also are risks associated with it, such as:

1. Allergic reaction

When someone is allergic to milk, the likely cause is the casein protein, which makes up 80 per cent of the protein found in milk. Whey makes up the other 20 per cent.
It is also possible to be allergic to both casein and whey protein. To avoid an allergic reaction, use pure whey protein isolate. It contains zero casein and less than 0.1 grams of lactose per 20 grams of pure whey protein isolate.

2. Digestive issues

Eating too much protein can have unpleasant side effects, including gas, nausea, bloating and diarrhea. There is no benefit to consuming more protein than the body can reasonably process and use, so if you are experiencing any of the issues mentioned, it may be time to cut back on your protein.

3. Medication interactions

If you are taking any prescription medications, it is best to consult your doctor before using a whey protein supplement. The effectiveness of certain antibiotics, as well as medicines used to treat osteoporosis and Parkinson’s disease, is altered when taken with whey protein.

Are Whey Protein Supplements Safe?

The bottom line is that the benefits of using whey protein far outweigh the risks as long as it is taken in recommended dosages. Whey protein is a healthy way to add more protein to your diet. Most people can take whey protein supplements without suffering from adverse side effects.

Sources:
1. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-much-protein-do-you-need-every-day-201506188096
2. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/animal-vs-plant-protein
3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20565767
4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18679613
5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16988909
6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20847729
7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19893505
8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25671415
9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21167685