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What is whey protein?
Health benefits of whey protein
When to drink whey protein?
What to take from it?

Most people think of whey protein as a powder that athletes mix with water and drink after exercise “to grow muscles”. This is of course true, but fewer people know that this notion significantly underestimates whey protein. Not only can it be useful even for non-exercising mortals, but it even has a large number of health benefits. In today’s article, you will learn what they are.

What is whey protein?

Whey is a liquid that is created as a waste product during the production of cheese. It contains whey proteins, which make up roughly 20% of the milk protein content. The remaining 80% of proteins in milk are casein proteins. By adding enzymes to the milk, the casein coagulates into a solid form, whey remains, and whey protein (whey protein in English) is made from it through other gentle technological processes.

Types of whey protein

There are three types of whey protein, and each of them differs in taste, absorbability, but also in protein, lactose or fat content.
Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC): This type of whey protein is the best-known and best-selling. It usually contains 70-80% protein, approx. 3% fat and 4-6% lactose.
Whey Protein Isolate (WPI): Isolate is made from the above-mentioned concentrate, which undergoes further filtration. The result is a higher proportion of protein (80% or more) and a smaller proportion of fat and lactose. This type of whey protein will be appreciated, for example, by those who have difficulty digesting lactose or athletes who are looking for the purest possible source of protein.
Whey Protein Hydrolyzate (Whey Protein Hydrolysate – WPH): Hydrolyzate is produced by various processes that break down long protein chains into smaller sections (peptides). Thanks to this, the hydrolyzate is the fastest digestible. The protein content is 70-85%.

Health benefits of whey protein

1. Supports the growth and maintenance of muscle mass

Whey protein is one of the highest quality protein sources. It contains all essential amino acids (EAA), i.e. those that our body cannot produce by itself, but must receive them through food. If there is not enough EAK in the diet, the body cannot create all the necessary proteins for the production of hormones, immune cells or muscle mass.

What is the quality of whey protein?

Protein quality is evaluated, for example, using the amino acid score method (Amino Acid Score, AAS), which compares the content of essential amino acids in the observed protein with the so-called reference protein defined by the World Health Organization (WHO). A slightly more accurate method is the so-called PDCAAS (Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score), which also takes into account protein digestibility. The whey protein score is 1, which is the highest possible value. 
Whey protein is rich in quickly absorbable branched amino acids (Branched-Chained Amino Acids/ BCAA). A particularly important role is played by the amino acid leucine, which triggers the formation of muscle proteins (proteosynthesis). Proteosynthesis is best stimulated by a dose of 20-40 g of protein, which should contain 1-3 g of leucine. If we want to achieve growth in muscle mass, an increase in protein intake alone may be sufficient in the beginning. However, a combination with strength training is much more effective (and necessary for significant muscle growth).

Whey protein is not only beneficial for athletes

The regular inclusion of whey protein in the diet can also be appreciated by people who are trying to maintain muscle mass while losing weight, or by older people who are at risk of losing it faster. Proteins are essential for maintaining muscle mass in old age, and their sufficient intake ensures better body function and quality of life. Whey protein, which is easily digestible and significantly stimulates proteosynthesis, can serve as an aid to elderly people in the fight against sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass and muscle strength that worsens with increasing age).
If you want to make a hearty snack with a higher energy value from protein, you can mix it with milk or, for example, a plant-based drink (rice, oat, etc.). However, if you drink whey protein after sports activity, it will be more beneficial to mix it with water only. You can read more about it in the article Is it better to drink protein with water or milk?

2. It has a high satiating capacity and reduces appetite

Proteins have the highest satiating ability compared to fat and carbohydrates. However, whey protein causes an even higher feeling of satiety than other protein sources (meat, legumes, etc.). Feelings of hunger and satiety are not only affected by the fullness of our stomach, but also by hormones that are secreted as a reaction to food intake. Eating protein promotes the release of stomach peptides, such as cholecystokinin or GLP-1 (glucagon-like peptide 1), which induce a feeling of satiety.
The high content of branched-chain amino acids and their rapid absorption probably have an effect on the faster satiety after consuming whey protein compared to other protein sources.

3. It is a good helper for weight loss

When we are trying to reduce weight, every little thing that helps us endure the reduction regime is useful. As you have already discovered, whey protein has several properties that make it a suitable food for a diet.
Thanks to its high satiety and appetite-reducing effects, it can help maintain a reduced energy intake without worrying about hunger.
When losing weight, there is a risk that not only fat, but also muscle mass will be lost. Whey protein not only helps to maintain it, but also promotes its growth.
The higher the proportion of muscle mass we have, the higher our basal metabolism (the amount of energy we need just to maintain basic vital functions).
In addition, proteins have the largest thermic effect of all macronutrients (15-30%), which means that the largest amount of energy is consumed during their digestion. When we take 100 kcal in the form of protein, up to 15-30 kcal are burned during digestion. A higher proportion of protein in the diet thus increases energy expenditure. However, it is still true that a varied and balanced diet containing all macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, fats) is important.

4. Supports immunity

Sufficient protein intake is the basis for the proper functioning of the immune system, since just like muscle cells, immune cells and other components of the immune system are made of proteins. Whey protein is a source of high-quality proteins and all the aforementioned essential amino acids.
However, whey protein is not only beneficial for immunity as a building material, but also has various immunological effects. Immunoglobulins protect the body from viruses and bacteria or, for example, neutralize toxins. β-lactoglobulin, which is the protein that makes up the largest part of proteins in whey (55-65%), can support the formation of immune cells in the spleen. α-lactalbumin peptides influence the function of immune B and T cells.

5. It has antioxidant effects

With regular consumption of whey protein, the body’s health can also be supported by its antioxidant effects. Antioxidants destroy and neutralize free radicals, which in excessive amounts damage cells and cause oxidative stress. This increases the risk of developing cancer, atherosclerosis, diabetes or other diseases. In whey protein, several bioactive substances, such as lactoferrin or lactoperoxidase, have an antioxidant effect. Whey protein also supports the activity of glutathione peroxidase, which is one of the most important antioxidant systems in the body.
Lactoferrin also has an antimicrobial (mainly antibacterial) effect thanks to its ability to bind iron in harmful (pathogenic) microorganisms and thus prevent their reproduction.

6. It can help lower blood pressure

In case of high blood pressure (hypertension), one of the treatment options is the use of the so-called ACE-inhibitors, which prevent blood vessels from narrowing. ACE-inhibitors suppress the function of the so-called angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE), which contributes to the contraction of blood vessels.
Various peptides, such as α-lactalbumin, β-lactoglobulin or BSA (bovine serum albumin), function as ACE inhibitors in whey protein. Regular consumption of 20 g of whey protein can have a blood pressure lowering effect. 

7. It can help lower blood sugar

Not only carbohydrates, but also proteins trigger the secretion of insulin, which is a hormone that lowers blood sugar (glycemia). Since whey protein is quickly absorbed, the increase in insulin levels is faster after its consumption than after other sources of protein. Thanks to this, whey protein helps reduce blood sugar levels after a meal. It can thus be beneficial for people with diabetes mellitus type 2 (DM2), as well as for healthy people who would like to prevent this disease.
Adding protein to food (for example, whey protein to oatmeal) also slows the absorption of carbohydrates into the blood. It is also beneficial for healthy people who do not suffer from diabetes, because after a large carbohydrate meal, the blood sugar level of each of us will increase. The higher and faster it rises, the faster it subsequently falls, which can cause hunger and sweet cravings. By combining carbohydrates with proteins, we can easily prevent these taste fluctuations.

When to drink whey protein?

We will use it in situations where a higher protein intake is needed. In a reduction diet, when gaining muscle mass or in case of diseases, when it is necessary to increase the amount of protein in the diet. It is also suitable for the diet of seniors who are trying to maintain their muscle mass.It is a suitable protein supplement when we cannot take it in the form of solid food.Whey protein can also be a suitable substitute for solid food in situations where we don’t have time and need to drink food, or when we can’t consume solid food for various reasons.Last but not least, due to its good digestibility, whey protein can be appreciated by people suffering from various digestive problems (not related to the consumption of milk and milk proteins).To learn more about other types of animal and plant proteins, read our article How to choose the right protein for weight loss or muscle growth?

What to take from it?

Whey protein is an advantageous food that has its place not only in the diet of athletes. In people who are reducing weight, it can help maintain muscle mass and at the same time make dieting easier by inducing a greater feeling of satiety. Both athletes and non-athletes can use whey protein in their diet to benefit from its positive effects on muscle mass growth, but also on blood pressure, immunity or blood sugar levels.

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