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Whey Protein: Benefits, Risks, & Top Picks

By John Leyva / April 13, 2018

Whey protein has gone through a number of phases over the years – from being used only by bodybuilders to now being used by athletes and casual exercisers at all levels.

This article will get to the core of what science says about whey protein powders. You will learn whether or not you should you use whey protein, the differences between the various types of whey protein, and how to make a smart purchase if you decide to use it.

What is Whey Protein?

Whey protein is a liquid byproduct of cheese production that is sold as a dietary supplement in protein powders and shakes. Whey protein used to be discarded by cheese manufacturers as a waste product.

Pouring curds and whey into a sieve. The whey is the yellow translucent liquid.

Whey protein is also a “complete protein” that is fast and easy to digest. Whenever we eat a protein source, our body uses the 20 amino acids (which are the individual components of “protein”) to repair our bones, muscles, organs and virtually every body part and tissue in the human body. When a source of protein has all 9 essential amino acids, which are amino acids your body needs to get from food, that food is said to be a complete protein. Foods like meats, dairy, eggs and rare vegetable proteins such as quinoa are complete proteins. On the other hand, most vegetables, rice and starches are not complete proteins because they are missing one or more of the essential amino acids.

Not only do foods have different amino acid profiles, but the rate at which the protein is absorbed by your body can vary. Of the different measures of protein absorption, one of the most popular is Biological Value (BV). Whey protein just so happens to have the highest score possible with a Biological Value of 100. This means that whey protein contains all the amino acids needed to make a complete protein and is very easily digested by your body.

Whey Protein Benefits

While no supplement can replace a diet of whole, natural, unprocessed foods, whey protein can be useful for people with a very busy, on-the-go lifestyle as a supplement to their normal diet.

The benefits of a high-quality whey protein supplement range from purely aesthetic to health preserving. Here’s a small list of 10 benefits that have been associated with whey protein supplementation:

  • Weight Loss
  • Assists in increasing in muscle mass
  • Assist in cancer treatment
  • Increase in glutathione levels (your body’s main water-based anti-oxidant)
  • Decrease in HIV symptoms
  • Decrease in triglycerides
  • Decrease in total cholesterol while increasing HDL (good cholesterol)
  • Increase in immune system function
  • Increase in power in sports
  • Decreased recovery time and symptoms of over-training
  • Specific amino acids are used by your body for specific reasons. For instance, whey protein is high in Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s), which are 3 of the 9 essential amino acids that are of special importance for muscle repair and preservation. In both exercise and in recovery of exercise, your body will break down a small amount of amino acids for fuel (1-5%) and the specific amino acids your body uses are the BCAA’s. Although this is a small percentage overall, your body will break down muscle in order to get those BCAA’s. By providing the body with a high amount of BCAA’s, your body preserves your muscle, while the specific amino acid leucine actually stimulates protein synthesis.

    This means is that leucine sends a signal to your body to increase its storage of amino acids and the way your body primarily does this is by adding muscle.

    So if you’re trying to put on muscle, having enough BCAA’s is essential to both help preserve the muscle, while also helping to stimulate additional muscle growth. If you’re in a hypo-caloric state (if you’re trying to lose weight and are cutting calories), preserving muscle becomes even more important and ensuring that you have enough BCAA’s helps to keep your body from losing muscle, while simultaneously helping you to lose fat.

    Another huge benefit of whey protein is that studies have indicated that glutathione production increases. Although you may have heard of Vitamin C or Vitamin E as being anti-oxidants, what your body mainly uses as an anti-oxidant to scavenge free radicals is glutathione, making it one of the most important substances in your body. Glutathione is made from three main amino acids; cysteine, glutamic acid and glycine. The rate-limiting amino acid (what limits production of glutathione) is usually the amino acid cysteine, and although the exact mechanism with whey protein intake is not known, it is theorized that the relatively high amount of cysteine in whey is what increases glutathione production.

    If you look at the list of benefits from up above (assistance with cancer, HIV, decreased recovery time, etc), most of those benefits are usually attributed to the increase in glutathione production.

    Whey Protein Risks?

    Generally, most of the complications associated with whey protein intake have to do with digestive issues, such as gas, bloating, headaches, cramps and fatigue. None of these are generally considered life-threatening, more so than annoying complications.

    Most of the literature has shown that if you’re experiencing any of have these symptoms, they are most likely due to either the lactose (found more in Whey Protein Concentrate) or sweeteners used more so than the whey protein itself. With that said, there are different methods of whey production, such as ion-exchanged that can influence how well your body can utilize the protein, leading to improper digestion of the whey itself.

    The biggest fear often expressed about whey protein intake is that too much protein is “bad for the kidneys.” Research though has shown this is not true at all in healthy individuals. For those with known kidney disease, high protein diets can exacerbate pre-existing conditions. Healthy individuals, without any underlying or unknown kidney disease have nothing to worry about with higher intakes of protein.

    What does occur with higher protein intakes is your body adapts to the increase in protein by increasing glomerular filtration rates (which means more fluid passes by your kidneys and there’s an increase in urine production).

    Whey Protein Types

    If you’ve ever gone to purchase a whey protein supplement, you may have felt a little confused by the different types out there and wonder why one brand may be so expensive and the other so “affordable.”
    This section will help filter through some of the main types of Whey protein.

    There are three main types of whey protein: (1) Whey Protein Concentrate, (2) Whey Protein Isolate and (3) Whey Protein Hydrolysate. The differences between these three come down to how processed the protein is and hence the amount of protein present without any of the other qualities of dairy products such as fat, lactose (milk sugar), and various immunoglobulins.

    1. Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC) is generally the cheapest of the three and has the lowest amount of protein per 100 grams of the three types. Despite having the lowest protein content, it still has a very high percentage typically ranging from 55-89%. The other 11-45% is made up of fat, lactose and contains higher amounts of various immune-enhancing peptides such as alpha-lactalbumin and immunoglobulins.

    2. Whey Protein Isolate (WPI) has on average 95% of its weight coming from protein, with minimal lactose and fat. This is more expensive than concentrate and there are varying methods of filtration that can keep many of the beneficial qualities of the concentrate, although this generally costs more.

    3. Whey Protein Hydrolysate (WPH) is a further degraded protein that digests very quickly in the body and has about 99% of its weight coming from protein. This is the most expensive of the three and generally the worst tasting.

    When To Use Whey Protein

    Since Whey Protein is quickly digested, the only time you would want to take whey protein alone is within 30 to 60 minutes after a strength-training based workout. At any other time, you would want to slow down the digestion of the protein by eating it with other foods. For example, if you want extra protein for breakfast, but don’t want eggs, you can add the whey protein powder to some oats, in various pancake recipes.

    If on the other hand, you’re looking for a quick snack at work, you can have a shake with some nuts or fish oil to slow down the digestion of the protein. The combination of the fat will help slow down the digestion of the protein, thereby allowing insulin levels to stay level, while also stimulating CCK, which is a hormone that helps tell your body that you’re full.

    What is The Best Whey Protein?

    There are various qualities people will look for when purchasing a whey protein supplement, which range from purity, to digestibility, to whether or not it’s from an organic source, to quite simply the taste of the protein itself. The key characteristics of the whey protein supplement is that it contains a high amount of protein, very little to no artificial sweeteners and/or hormones, all the beneficial components of the immunoglobulins, minimization of lactose, while being somewhat palatable.

    With all of those factors taken into consideration, whey protein isolate turns to being your top pick, as it meets all the criteria. Whey Protein Isolate has high amounts of protein, while minimizing the amount of lactose (found more in WPC). WPI is easily digested and if cold-filtered can contain most of the immunoglobulins, which the whey protein hydrolysate is typically lacking due to the extreme processing it goes through. Also, although WPC may taste a bit better, whey protein hydrolysate is not very palatable, whereas you can find WPI brands with minimal artificial sweeteners that still tastes good.

    Best Whey Protein:

    Here are the BuiltLean top picks for best whey protein powders:

    Blue Bonnet 100% Whey Protein Isolate

    Enhanced Life Extension Whey Protein

    Runner Up: Tera’s Whey

    The runner up to Blue Bonnet and Life Extension is Tera’s Whey Organic, which is a Whey Protein concentrate as opposed to an Isolate, but still of very high quality (and generally a bit more on the pricey side).

    If you have any additional questions, please feel free to leave a comment below. I know this was a long article, so thanks for reading!


    • Partha S Dutta says:

      Hi John,

      Elliott's Fine Nutrition Store lists Warning for Bluebonnet Whey Protein Isolate that this product contains natural or other ingredients, one or more of which is listed by the state of California as a carcinogen and/ or reproductive toxicant.

      Would you kindly research and provide your expert comment?

      • Kristin says:

        Hi Partha - I did some investigating into Bluebonnet, as well as natural flavors. While I didn't come across any information specifically regarding Bluebonnet, since you're concerned about the safety of consuming natural flavors, I would recommend using a whey protein that is unflavored without a lot of added ingredients.

        A few brands that I recommend checking out are: Tera's Whey, Naked Whey, and Source Whey Protein. All of these brands are grass-fed, non-GMO, hormone-free, processed without acid or bleach, and cold processed. They are also free of sweeteners, chemicals, preservatives, colors, or flavors.

        Give one of those a try, and let us know what you think!
        -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

    • Partha S Dutta says:

      Hi Kristin,

      Thanks for your prompt reply.

      This is the first time I am using a protein supplement and chose the Bluebonnet brand based on recommendation of the local nutrition store. I came across the Warning while browsing the web later which made me concerned about its safe usage.

      My basic queries are-
      a) should I continue using this brand of whey protein isolate or switch over to another brand recommended by you, without natural flavors/ added ingredients?
      b) how would I know from the composition label if a product contains natural flavors/ added ingredients which are potential health risks? There is no such warning in the label of the product that I bought.

      Would appreciate your specific and considered response to above queries as this brand is listed the top pick in your website.

    • Mhmd Thoushif says:

      Really good & useful article...... Your cleared my awhey protein doubts.... So Really very tnx.....

      • Kristin says:

        You're very welcome! Glad you found it helpful.
        -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

    • GurPiyar says:

      This article is very helpful! I actually want to gain muscles and I bought ON Gold Standard Whey Protein.
      Please tell me if it will help me muscle gain or not?

      • Kristin says:

        Glad you found the article helpful! If your goal is to gain muscle, you'll want to follow a muscle-building workout program while eating enough protein and slightly more calories than you burn. The combination of strategic exercise with proper nutrition is what leads to muscle growth and development. Whey protein alone won't cause you to build muscle, but it can help you meet your calorie and protein goals. Hope that helps!
        -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

    • Saurabh kaushik says:

      Hi guys,
      First of all thanks for this awesome article. I am 27 years old & recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I know its very unusual to have type 2 in such an early age. I have reduced my weight from 88 to 76 kg using weight training and running after diagnosis, my height is about 5.11 feet. I have talked to many doctors (experts in diabetes not in sports nutrition) here but they are not sure about effect of consumption of whey protein on me. U guys seems to have expertise in this domain, so please tell me is it safe for me to take whey protein suppliment.for your reference my hba1c is about 5.8 mg/dl right now and average blood glucose is 120. Is there any possibility of negative or bad impact of whey protein intake for a person like me..? I am a vegetarian, i tried every combination but it is not possible for me to have sufficient protein intake from natural food due to weak diagestion syatem, infact my doctor says more calorie intake can increase my insulin resistance, kindly advise

      • Kristin says:

        Hey Saurabh - It's great that you're taking your health into your own hands and investigating what does and does not work for your body. That said, because we're not medical professionals, we're not allowed to make recommendations on whether a supplement will work for you.

        That being said, there is an article on science daily that discusses the impact of whey protein in people with type 2 diabetes. It says that having a whey protein shake for breakfast can help type 2 diabetics lose weight and improve glucose regulation.

        Another article discusses how to incorporate whey into your diet to optimize the benefits of whey in your diet and help balance your blood sugar.

        I would still recommend checking in with your primary care doctor before taking any new supplement. Hope that helps!

        -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

    • GurPiyar says:

      Ma'am what other nutrients along with protein whey is required for muscle building.Eg Carbs, Vitamins etc
      Which is most essential with Protein

      My age is 18 and my weight is 50,is gold standard whey is right for me......
      Some guys say that excessive protein may cause kidney failure like problems, Is it true?

    • Keva Overpeck says:

      Cool article.

      • Kristin Rooke, CPT says:

        Glad you enjoyed it!
        -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

    • Martin Kaufmann says:

      Well many people drink it, and as every supplement, it has it's ups and down's, but is is still very helpful. Here is another article on whey proteins that is worth reading if you have a few minutes to spare http://www.supplementscience.net/whey-concentrate-isolate-hydrolysate/ I found it very educational.

      • Kristin says:

        It's true - every supplement has pros and cons. Thanks for sharing that article! I'll be sure to check it out.
        -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

    • Mohammad Bilal says:

      Is whey protein is help to increase height??

      • Marc Perry says:

        To my knowledge, no.

    • Mohammad Bilal says:

      I'm talking about Gold standard whey protein ?

      • Marc Perry says:

        I'm not a fan of that brand because the whey protein is relatively low quality and it includes artificial sweeteners. I prefer grassfed whey protein for numerous reasons, including eating food from healthy animals / animal treatment.