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Whey Protein : Benefits & Side Effects

Whey protein powder is undoubtedly one of, if not the most, utilized supplements by physique competitors, strength trainers, athletes, and even just general health/fitness enthusiasts. This doesn’t come as a surprise given the vast collection of research that has shown protein demands to be greatly increased in active individuals and especially those who lift weights regularly.

Due to the inherent high bioavailability and anabolic properties of whey protein, it should be a staple in most any trainees supplement stash.

What is Whey Protein and Where does it Come From?

The term “whey” refers to milk serum, which is the liquid by-product produced during the curdling of milk. Whey proteins make up about 20% of the protein content in animal milk, with the rest of the content being casein fractions (~80%).

Whey proteins come in a variety of fractions, such as albumins and globulins, that vary according to the species from which they are secreted; since we are primarily consumers of dairy cattle milk, the major whey proteins we ingest are denoted alpha-lactalbumin and beta-lactoglobulin. For simplicity and cohesiveness, the term “whey protein” throughout the rest of this guide will remain singular and encompass the variety of specific fractions it’s found as.

Whey protein is a complete protein source, which denotes that it contains all 9 of the essential amino acids. In contrast to casein protein, whey protein remains readily soluble in liquid environments and over varying PH ranges.This is the basis for production of many dairy products such as defatted milk, cheese, cream, etc.

For example, whey protein is the by-product of cheese production due to the precipitation of casein fractions after treatment with acidic solutions (since casein is insoluble at low pH, i.e. acidic environments). Hence the gelatinous property of cheese is primarily due to casein coagulation, but there is still some whey in certain cheeses. 

Types of Whey Protein ?

Whey Protein Concentrate : Produced via ultrafiltration of whey, this refers to whey proteins that contain 90% protein concentration, but could be as little as 20%. Usually the specific concentrations will be notated following the term “WPC”, such as WPC “85”. The rest of the concentration is made up of lactose, minerals, and fats.

Whey Protein Isolate : May be produced by a variety of membrane filtration techniques, with the goal of reaching 90% protein concentration and removal of most (if not all) lactose. Manufacturers will also often combine filtration with an ion-exchange technique to selectively filter out particles by ionic charge rather than just molecular size.

Whey Protein Hydrolysates : relatively new technique in whey protein production, whey protein hydrolysates are produced via enzymatic hydrolysis of either WPCs or WPIs. Essentially, this acts as a method of “pre-digesting” the protein by separating (i.e. lysing) peptide bonds; hence the time for digestion and absorption of amino acids will be reduced.

How does Whey Protein Work and What Are The Benefits ?

Proteins are an essential macromolecule and play a critical role in muscle development and maintenance (as well as many other physiological processes). To give a truncated flow of how whey (and other) proteins actually work, it may help to think of amino acids as the building blocks of proteins; proteins can thus be thought of as the building blocks of muscle tissue since muscles serve as the richest reservoirs of amino acids in the human body.  Amino acids go on to perform a plethora of roles physiologically, such as neurotransmission, energy production, brain metabolism, cardiovascular function, immune system function, and several others. 

There are a multitude of benefits from ingesting whey protein that stem from the biological role of essential amino acids. Whey protein is a complete protein (i.e. contains all 9 of the essential amino acids) with a significant amount of L-leucine, which is pivotal for stimulating the Mammalian target of rapamycin (MTOR) pathway (which regulates muscle protein synthesis, among other things); thus it serves an invaluable role to individuals looking to improve their musculature, fitness and even just overall bodily function.

Who Can Benefit from Using Whey Protein Supplements ?

The most obvious beneficiaries of whey protein supplementation will be those who are physically active and looking for an optimal way to kick-start the recovery process after an intense training bout, but even those concerned with just basic health and bodily function can stand to benefit as well. Here is a quick list of individuals who should consider supplementing with whey protein (allergies notwithstanding) :

-Bodybuilders & strength trainers
-Competitive Athletes 
-Recreational exercisers and those new to weight/strength training
-Anyone else who is looking for a simple way to get more protein in their diet

Do Any Foods Contain Whey Protein ?

Yes, a variety of foods contain whey protein. These can include :

-Ricotta Cheese
-Cottage Cheese
-Animal-derived Milk
-Some dairy butters and creams
-Baked goods such as bread, crackers, cookies, etc. that use whey during preparation

If you are unsure if a food contains added whey, read the label and it should be listed as an ingredient (note this is not the case in certain dairy products like yogurt since its just a milk product).

Does Whey Protein Have any Side Effects ?

Whey protein is generally well tolerated by the majority of users, but in special circumstances there is the risk for certain side effects such as :

-Bloating/Cramping/Upset stomach
-Increased bowel movements/Passing gas
-Allergic reactions

These side effects can generally be easily alleviated by monitoring your total protein intake and making sure you are aware of any possible food allergies that you may have. If a nominal dose of whey protein consistently causes stomach/GI issues, consider trying a different whey protein supplement and/or adding in a digestive enzyme to take along with it.