Weighing in on Whey

November 7, 2022

Why whey?  There are a lot of different protein powders on the market and while I’m not a huge advocate of the average Joe using them, I know that many people do, so I figured we might as well discuss them.  When it comes to choosing a powder, especially for an athlete and or a vegetarian, my recommendation would be to go with a whey protein isolate powder.

Let’s first discuss what whey protein is.  When milk is processed to form cheese or yogurt, two different proteins are pulled out and separated – casein and whey. About 80% of the protein in milk is the slow-digesting casein, while 20% is the liquid whey. Whey is important because it is what we consider a “complete protein”, meaning that it contains all 9 essential amino acids that our bodies need but cannot produce on their own.   One such amino acid, leucine, is particularly important for the production of new protein in the muscle and thus, muscle growth and repair.  Leucine is a branched chain amino acid (BCAA) that is key for athletes, as it is used by skeletal muscle to give energy during exercise.  Foods like meat, eggs, and fish are great sources of leucine, but when an athlete is a vegetarian, getting this amino acid can become more challenging. Making sure to include other good sources such as navy beans, tofu, pumpkin seeds, lentils, peanuts, and oats is important.  If you’re a vegetarian athlete who doesn’t consume enough of these foods, amping up leucine intake through the consumption of whey protein may be for you.

Since there are a variety of whey proteins on the market, it can get a bit confusing about which one to choose.  If you are considering increasing your protein intake with such products, I would recommend looking for “isolate” instead of “concentrate”. Whey protein isolate has been processed in a way that removes a significant amount of carbohydrate and fat and increases the amount of protein delivered. This makes it easier to digest, especially for those with lactose sensitivities.  Note that if you have an actual dairy allergy, however, whey powders in general are not good choices.  In those cases, look to a plant-based protein powder instead.

As I said from the get-go, I’m not a huge fan of protein powders myself.  I encourage those who are in good health to eat a varied diet of whole foods with particular emphasis on quality proteins.  Typically as Americans, we do very well consuming our recommended amount of daily protein and do not have a need for added powders.  If you are a vegetarian or vegan, and also an athlete, however, you may find that powders help to round out your intake. If so, be sure to check with your doctor and or dietitian beforehand. Also understand that protein supplements are not regulated by the FDA and thus, may have contaminants and fillers not listed on their labels. For this reason, if you are choosing a whey protein isolate powder, be sure to choose one that is third party tested by groups such as the NSF or Informed Choice or better yet, talk to a nutrition expert who can point you in the right direction!   

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