Whey Protein — The Most Valuable Supplement on the Planet?

By Tom Nikkola for Thorne Research | June 15, 2016, 10 a.m. (ET)
As the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

In the world of nutritional supplements, the saying couldn’t be truer for whey protein.

It wasn’t that long ago that whey, one of two proteins found in milk, was tossed out as a useless by-product from cheese manufacturing.

Today whey is seen as one of the most important nutritional supplements on the planet.

Whey protein is the king of protein sources.

Some of the benefits of supplementing with whey protein might simply be the overall increase in protein intake.* Higher-protein diets have regularly been shown to support improvements in body composition.* The definition of what higher-protein means is a topic for another blog – in most research studies it means increased adequate daily intake along side lower refined carbohydrates intake. Higher-protein diets have also been shown to enhance bone density, especially in an aging population, increase satiety, and support better blood sugar metabolism.*

But whey also appears to be more than just another protein source.


Why is Whey Special?

Whey protein, casein, milk, chocolate milk, cheese, and yogurt can all fall under the umbrella of dairy.

But all dairy is not the same.

Milk is often the first thing people think of when they think of “dairy.” Milk contains two different kinds of intact protein ? casein and whey.

Cheese is comprised mainly of casein. Whey is left over when cheese production is finished. For hundreds of years, it was thought to be a useless by-product.

Today that byproduct might be the most nutritionally valuable component of dairy.

Years ago nutritional supplement manufacturers found that whey could be made into a powder that mixed easily with water and provided, at the time, a cheap source of protein.

In the beginning whey was just thought to be an easy way to supplement with protein. What wasn’t known was that whey actually provided some very significant health benefits.*

However, as whey has grown in popularity and scientific support, so has its price. Today, whey costs many times more per pound than it did 10 years ago.

Whey’s nutritional advantages are believed to come from its unique amino acid profile, which is rich in essential amino acids, especially the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

Whey also contains functional serum proteins such as beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, immunoglobulin, lactoferrin, lactoperoxidase, and gilcomacropeptide.

The hefty levels of BCAAs, especially leucine, is believed to have the greatest impact on protein synthesis, although the complete group of essential amino acids likely plays a role in whey’s other benefits.

If leucine is the primary driver of muscle protein synthesis, then it would stand to reason that a lower intake of whey protein, supplemented with leucine levels equivalent to higher doses of whey, would have the same result.

A 2012 study attempted to determine if this is true.[1] Researchers analyzed the consumption of 25 grams of whey protein compared to a dose one-fourth that size that was supplemented with leucine or essential amino acids at rates found in the full dose.

At rest the muscle protein response was similar. However, post-exercise, when the body is at its most catabolic, the full whey protein dose had a more significant effect on anabolism than did the smaller dose supplemented with leucine or essential amino acids.*

A 20-gram protein dose of whey is often recommended because some research indicates this level maximally stimulates protein synthesis.* However, a 2012 study in elderly men showed that when doses of 10 grams, 20 grams, or 35 grams are compared, the 35-gram dose has the most significant impact on protein synthesis.*[2]

The elderly typically consume less than ideal levels of protein, so this might not apply to younger and fitter individuals eating higher-protein diets. Then again, it might.

Body Composition and Health Benefits of Whey

Body composition improves when muscle is added or fat is lost, or both.  Because whey supports the development of lean body mass, it helps improve body composition.

Whey appears to impact the growth of muscle tissue in two ways ? by increasing protein synthesis and decreasing protein breakdown.

Whey is absorbed differently than other proteins and has a unique amino acid profile, so it is more effective than other proteins at increasing protein synthesis and blood amino acid levels.[3]

But it also might support reductions in fat mass.

The amino acids in whey support already normal blood sugar levels and improve the functioning of insulin, which allows fat to be used as a more significant fuel source.*

Because whey protein supports muscle development, the additional lean body mass also creates a way for incoming carbohydrate to be more readily stored as glycogen instead of being converted to fat.*

In recreational bodybuilders who supplemented with either whey or casein, those who supplemented with whey saw a greater increase in muscle and more loss in fat compared to those using casein.*[4]

When the use of whey, casein, and soy proteins are compared, groups using casein and whey see better improvements in lean mass than those using soy.*[5]

In another study, the addition of whey protein to an ad libitum diet (eat what you want) led to statistically significant weight loss, smaller waist circumference, and improved body composition.*

Also in the study another group supplemented with the equivalent calorie level as carbohydrates saw an increase in fat mass.*

A third group used soy protein, and although the improvements in the whey group were greater than the soy group, they were not statistically significant.[6] Would the results have been more significant at higher doses? Perhaps.

The hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin was also measured. Those supplementing with whey had a pronounced decrease in ghrelin levels compared to the other two groups.*

The hormonal effects of soy and whey were compared in a small group of men with previous resistance training experience. Those who used soy saw no change in their hormones during exercise, but those who used whey protein had a blunted rise in the stress hormone cortisol.[7]

Whey has also been shown in animal studies to reduce both overall food intake and fat mass.*[8]

Although animal studies don’t always carry over to humans, they do provide a good framework to start with. Animals also don’t suffer from emotional ties to eating, so it’s easier to test the physiological effects of dietary changes.

Whey protein also appears to support improved triglyceride levels.* Among individuals who consumed a high-fat diet plus 45 grams of whey, casein, or glucose, those who supplemented with whey had a reduction in triglyceride levels compared to the other two groups (not really surprising they beat the glucose group).*[9]

Another study showed that consumption of whey in overweight individuals led to better lipid and insulin levels.*[10]

Evidence also points to whey as supporting healthy blood pressure levels and the body’s antioxidant capacity.*[7]


Whey Isolate or Whey Concentrate?

Much of the research focuses on whey concentrate, especially research on free-living conditions or older populations.  On the other hand, a large amount of fitness and performance research has studied whey isolate.

Grass-fed whey concentrate is probably the ideal protein source for those who can tolerate a little more lactose and who are looking for something to consume between meals.

Grass-fed concentrate usually has more functional properties like lactoferrin, immunoglobulin, and serum albumin.

However, those who are sensitive to lactose can have trouble with whey concentrate.

Whey isolate is often preferred before training sessions, where individuals want to avoid extra work by their digestive system.

Most whey proteins, especially whey isolates, contain sucralose, aspartame, and/or acesulfame-potassium (Ace-K) and often contain carrageenan.

Because whey isolate has little to no fat and minimal carbohydrate, the above artificial ingredients are used to enhance the flavor (although we think Thorne Research’s Whey Protein Isolate tastes awesome and doesn’t use any of that stuff).

If you use whey concentrate, then look for a high-quality grass-fed protein. However, if you choose whey isolate, then the extra benefits of being grass-fed are removed, so it’s not worth the extra money to buy a grass-fed whey isolate.

Just make sure instead that the isolate comes from cows not treated with hormones and isn’t loaded with artificial colors and sweeteners.


Whey Isolate or Essential Amino Acids?

Whey protein is easily digested and absorbed, especially when compared to meat, chicken, and other animal proteins.* This makes it appealing to use around exercise sessions.

As exercise intensity increases, however, it can become increasingly difficult to tolerate intact protein sources.

This is why essential amino acid supplementation is so appealing during exercise.

Essential amino acids pass quickly into the bloodstream and are metabolized, and they might have an even greater impact on recovery.*[11]

Is one better than the other?  It depends on what the supplement is being used for. Immediately before or during exercise, essential amino acids are generally preferred. When there is a time before exercise, or post-workout, then whey protein is a wise option. Essential amino acids quickly provide building blocks for muscle development, support fat metabolism, and improve exercise capacity.*

Bottom line: They're both valuable and can both be used in the same nutrition program.


Should You Supplement?

With all that said, should you be using whey protein?

Almost every individuals would benefit, but each person is unique. Better body composition and recovery from exercise sound pretty good.* So does improved appetite control, better immune function, and better measures related to metabolic function.* Of course, you still need to eat well and exercise to get the best benefits.

The only way to know whether whey or any other nutritional supplement works for you is to give them a serious try.

And I don’t consider “giving them a try” to mean having a shake now and then. I mean making whey protein a regular part of your diet for a month or two. If you tolerate it, then you might be surprised at the effect whey has on how you feel and function.*

Of course, if you have a medical condition, talk to a knowledgeable health-care practitioner.

Without sounding too boastful, we’re confident in the quality of Thorne Research’s Whey Protein Isolate, so if you want to order some you can find it here.

*This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.


[1]. Churchward-Venne T, Burd N, Mitchell C, et al. Supplementation of suboptimal protein dose with leucine or essential amino acids: effect on myofibrillar protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in men.

[2]. Pennings B, Groen B, de Lange A, et al. Amino acid absorption and subsequent muscle protein accretion following graded intakes of whey protein in elderly men. Am J Physiol Endocinol Metab 2012;302:E992-E999.

[3]. Mahe S, Roos N, Benamouzig R, et al. Gastrojejunal kinetics and the digestion of [15N]beta-lactoglobulin and casein in humans: the influence of the nature and quantity of the protein. Am J Clin Nutr 1996;63:546-552.

[4]. Cribb P, Williams A, Carey M, Hayes A. The effect of whey isolate and resistance training on strength, body composition, and plasma glutamine. Int J Sport Nutr 2006;16:494-509.

[5]. Tang J, Moore D, Kujbida G, et al. Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men. J Appl Physiol 2009;107(3):987-992.

[6]. Baer D, Stote K, Paul D, et al. Whey protein but not soy protein supplementation alters body weight and composition in free-living overweight and obese adults. J Nutr 2011;141:1489-1494.

[7]. Kraemer WJ, Solomon-Hill G, Volk BM, Kupchak BR, et al. The Effects of Soy and Whey Protein Supplementation on Acute Hormonal Responses to Resistance Exercise in Men. J Am Col Nutr. 2013;32(1):66-74.

[8]. Zhou J, Keenan M, Losso J, et al. Dietary whey protein decreases food intake and body fat in rats. Obesity 2011;19:1568-1573.

[9]. Sousa G, Lira F, Rosa J, et al. Dietary whey protein lessens several risk factors for metabolic diseases: a review. Lipids Heal Dis 2012;11:67.

[10]. Pal S, Ellis V, Dhailwal S. Effects of whey protein isolate on body composition, lipids, insulin and glucose in overweight and obese individuals. Br J Nutr. 2010;104(5):716-723.

[11]. White J, Wilson J, Austin K, et al. Effect of carbohydrate-protein supplement timing on acute exercise-induced muscle damage. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2008;5:5.


The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.