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A guide to whey protein

Protein is an essential nutrient required by all individuals. Proteins serve many important structural and regulatory functions including the growth and repair of muscles, the production of antibodies to fight infection and the transportation of oxygen and nutrients in the blood. Protein rich foods include meat, fish, eggs, dairy and nuts. However, there are also numerous sports supplements that provide various convenient forms of protein.

Whey protein is one or two proteins that come from milk – casein being the other. It is a mixture of proteins isolated from whey, the liquid by-product when cow’s milk is turned to cheese. Whey is the highest yield of protein currently available and typically comes in three forms; isolate, concentrate and hydrolysate.  Whey protein isolate is a good quality protein and contains high amounts of protein (~90 – 98%) with little or no fat, lactose or cholesterol.  It is viewed as the highest yield of protein available and subsequently is the most expensive of the three.  Whey protein concentrate contains anywhere between 29-89% protein.  It contains higher amounts of fat and lactose and generally the lower the protein content, the higher the fat and lactose content.  When whey protein is hydrolysed the protein chains are broken down into smaller segments called peptides. Hydrolysed whey protein is still a high quality protein and is most commonly used in infant formulas and specialty protein supplements for medical use, as it is less likely to cause an allergic reaction than non-hydrolysed whey protein.

Proteins are often referred to as complete or incomplete proteins.  Complete proteins contain all essential amino acids.  Whey protein is a naturally complete protein containing all essential amino acids required by the body.  More importantly, whey is the richest source of branch chain amino acids (BCAA). BCAA’s consist of leucine, isoleucine and valine, which are crucial for muscle tissue repair and growth; this is one reason why whey protein has become so popular with athletes.

Considerations for supplementing your diet with whey protein:

Whey provides a number of benefits within sports nutrition, immune support and health.  Whey is digested and absorbed rapidly, making it a useful supplement for promoting post-exercise recovery.  Research has additionally suggested that the amino acids in whey protein stimulate glutathione; a powerful antioxidant that supports the immune system.  When athletes exercise intensely, their immune system may be suppressed, and whey protein may be of benefit.

During exercise an athlete’s muscles fibres are damaged. Protein consumption aids the repair of the fibres and promotes protein synthesis.  Whey contains high amounts of BCAA’s. In particular, leucine plays a key role in initiating protein synthesis.  When leucine is ingested in high amounts, such as with whey protein supplementation, there is greater stimulation of protein synthesis, which may speed recovery and adaptation to exercise.

Dietary protein intake is needed for the recovery process following training in all athletes.  Research suggests that consuming protein in combination with carbohydrate can enhance muscle recovery post exercise.  Recovery supplements that contain a mixture of carbohydrate and whey protein are encouraged as a convenient supplement following exercise.

For muscle hypertrophy to occur, protein must be taken in conjunction with resistance training.  Research has shown that strength and power athletes need a higher daily intake of protein than endurance athletes.  Supplementing whey protein in combination with resistance training results in greater gains in strength than resistance training alone. Protein supplements such as whey protein powders are not a substitute for food sources, but offer a quality and convenient addition or alternative when required.

Who may benefit from whey supplementation?

Traditionally, male body builders or pure power and strength-based athletes have used whey protein supplements. More recently, team sports players, female gym users and endurance athletes have started to understand the benefits it can have on their ability to maintain lean muscle mass and enhance recovery from intense training loads. Whey protein may be appropriate for a number of athletes including athletes undergoing very heavy training, athletes restricting fat from their diet, vegan and vegetarian athletes and athletes who may fall short of their daily protein requirements from food alone and need an added extra.

Are there any risks from using whey protein supplements?

To date there are no reported side effects of whey protein consumption, provided an individual does not have an allergy or medical reasons for not taking dairy products.  If athletes do have allergies or medical conditions, they are advised to consult their doctor or dietician before consuming whey supplements.