The Health Benefits of Whey Protein

Pros and cons, dosing instructions, and buying guide

Close-Up Of Protein Powder In Scoop On Table
Jordan Beal / EyeEm / Getty Images

Whey protein powder is one of the most popular dietary supplements used by bodybuilders, exercise aficionados, and healthy eaters. So why is this product so popular and how do you find the best whey protein product to suit your needs? There are several factors that can help guide your search.

Health Benefits

Supplements are widely used by people who are trying to increase their intake of protein in order to build muscle, maintain muscle, improve their body composition, or lose weight. While there are different types of protein powder supplements—including soy protein and pea protein—whey protein is often favored for several reasons.

Whey protein (like other milk and meat sources of protein) contains all of the essential amino acids. In addition, whey protein is quickly absorbed by the muscles and is known to stimulate muscle growth, repair, and maintenance.

There is quite a bit of research that supports the use of whey protein supplementation in a weight loss diet or in an eating program designed to build muscle.

For example, a study that compared whey protein supplements to soy protein supplements found that when consumed 30 minutes before mealtime, whey had a greater impact on appetite and calorie intake than soy. This lead to improvements in the body weight and body composition of overweight and obese men.

And in another study, authors concluded that while there is no strong evidence to support one protein source over another in weight loss programs, animal proteins, especially those from dairy, support better muscle protein synthesis than plant proteins.

Lastly, a research review published in Nutrition and Metabolism concluded that most (but not all) studies confirmed the benefits of whey supplementation immediately after and possibly before and during resistance exercise to enhance muscle growth in response to resistance training in healthy adults.

But, not all studies support whey protein supplementation. For example, a study on healthy postmenopausal women found that the supplement did not improve muscle mass or physical function.

To make sense of the conflicting studies, it's important to keep the scope and limitations of research in mind. Many studies that evaluate whey protein supplementation are small and many investigate the benefits of whey protein on very specific populations (such as elderly men). Other studies are funded by food or supplement companies, and some research is conducted on rodents. The result is that you may see the benefits of whey protein powder overstated in ads for products or in supplement stores.

So what's the bottom line? While nutrition experts agree that there may be certain benefits to using whey protein supplements, most widely respected exercise and diet organizations still recommend that you get protein (and all of your nutrients) from whole food sources.

According to a position statement published by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine, "when whole food protein sources are not convenient or available, then portable, third-party tested dietary supplements with high-quality ingredients may serve as a practical alternative to help athletes meet their protein needs."

Possible Side Effects

Most people are not likely to suffer serious adverse effects when they consume whey protein powder. However, because the supplement is derived from dairy, you may experience symptoms if you are lactose intolerant. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, it is even possible (although unlikely) to have a reaction to whey protein powder if you have not previously had a reaction to milk.

The most likely side effect that most people might experience if they supplement with whey is the displacement of other healthy (or unhealthy) foods. In other words, when you consume protein in supplement form, you are less likely to benefit from nutrients and micronutrients contained in whole food proteins, such as the vitamin D in milk or the fiber in legumes.

You may even find that an increase in your overall protein consumption may result in a decrease in your consumption of other macronutrients—carbohydrate and fat. While this might benefit your diet, it can also impact it in less healthy ways. In fact, one study showed that whey protein supplementation decreased fruit consumption in older adults.

Dosage and Preparation

Getting the right amount of protein in your diet is important for overall health. There are different methods to determine your protein needs.

Nutrition guidelines suggest that a healthy adult should consume 10 percent to 35 percent of their calories from protein. Of course, that's a wide range. It may be helpful to personalize your protein intake based on your weight and activity level.

Most of us require about 0.4 to 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day. But if you are a heavy exerciser or athlete you may need more. Athletes may need anywhere from 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. In general, endurance athletes (such as runners and cyclists) have lower protein needs in that range and strength-trained athletes (such as bodybuilders) need more within that range.

Example Smoothie Recipes

The most common way to consume protein powders is in a smoothie. You can make your own recipe by blending fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, or milk products. Or simply add whey protein powder to any of these smoothie recipes:

You can also add protein powder to soups, make-it-yourself protein bars, cookies, and other recipes.

What to Look For

When shopping for the best whey protein product, you're likely to see several different terms on the package. It's helpful to know what they mean so you can make a smart decision about which supplement to buy.

Whey protein powder is 11 percent to 15 percent protein. This type of protein may be added during manufacturing to certain protein foods (such as yogurt or protein bars). Whey concentrate is 25 percent to 89 percent protein and whey isolate is at least 90 percent protein and is generally lactose-free.

If you are buying a protein supplement to add to smoothies or include in home recipes, check the ingredients list on the package to see what kind of whey protein is in the product that you choose.

Common Questions

What is whey and where does it come from?

Whey is the liquid part of milk that remains after milk has been curdled and separated. The other part of milk is called casein and it is the part of milk that gives the liquid a white color. The majority of milk protein is casein.

Do I need to use a whey protein powder to build muscle?

No. In fact, many exercise organizations recommend that you get protein from whole food sources. You can drink milk to get whey protein. According to the Whey Protein Institute, dairy milk is generally 3.3 percent protein. Most of that protein is casein (2.7 percent) and a small amount is whey (0.6 percent). So you'd have to drink several glasses of milk to get the same amount of whey protein in a typical scoop of whey powder, but you'd also get the benefit of calcium and vitamin D if you drink milk.

Will consuming whey protein powder help me to build muscle?

No, not necessarily. Strength training builds muscle. If you participate in a weight lifting program, you are likely to see muscle gains. Consuming enough protein (in whole food or supplement form) simply provides your muscles with the nutrients needed to repair tissue. Just taking a protein supplement alone will not increase the size of your muscles.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
  • Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, L. M. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(3), 501–528. DOI: 10.1016/j.jand.2015.12.006.

  • Hulmi, J. J., Lockwood, C. M., & Stout, J. R. (2010). Effect of protein/essential amino acids and resistance training on skeletal muscle hypertrophy: A case for whey protein. Nutrition & Metabolism, 7(1), 51. DOI: 10.1186/1743-7075-7-51.

  • Zhu, K., Kerr, D. A., Meng, X., Devine, A., Solah, V., Binns, C. W., & Prince, R. L. (2015). Two-Year Whey Protein Supplementation Did Not Enhance Muscle Mass and Physical Function in Well-Nourished Healthy Older Postmenopausal Women. The Journal of Nutrition, 145(11), 2520–2526. DOI: 10.3945/jn.115.218297.

  • Ridge, A., Devine, A., Lyons-wall, P., Conlon, J., & Lo, J. (2018). The impact of whey protein supplementation in older adults on nutrient intakes and satiety over an 11-week exercise intervention. Food Quality and Preference, 68, 72–79. DOI: 10.1016/j.foodqual.2018.01.013.

  • Gilbert, J.-A., Bendsen, N. T., Tremblay, A., & Astrup, A. (2011). Effect of proteins from different sources on body composition. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, 21, B16–B31. DOI: 10.1016/j.numecd.2010.12.008.

  • Tahavorgar, A., Vafa, M., Shidfar, F., Gohari, M., & Heydari, I. (2014). Whey protein preloads are more beneficial than soy protein preloads in regulating appetite, calorie intake, anthropometry, and body composition of overweight and obese men. Nutrition Research, 34(10), 856–861. DOI: 10.1016/j.nutres.2014.08.015.