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Whey Protein

Is there a place for whey protein in human performance optimization?

From the Field

Is whey protein helpful to optimize performance?

Overview

Whey protein

B.L.U.F.*

Whey protein supplements can efficiently deliver protein when needs are increased or normal dietary sources are not available. Whey protein before and/or after exercise may enhance strength gains and muscle recovery for improved physical performance. However, natural food sources should be the first choice for protein.

Background

Whey is a natural byproduct of the cheese-making process and represents 20% of the protein found in dairy milk. The protein derived from whey is high quality because it has all 20 amino acids, including the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAA: leucine, isoleucine, and valine), which can be oxidized by muscles during exercise. Although findings are mixed as to the impact of amino acids on performance and muscle building, whey protein remains appealing for athletes due to preliminary evidence that BCAA may have desirable effects.

Once the whey fraction has been obtained, it is concentrated into a powder, which can produce three types of whey protein supplements: concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate. These categories differ in the ways they are processed and the amount of protein left in the final formulation. The concentrate form has protein ranges of 50–89%, whereas the isolate and hydrolosate forms contain 90–95% protein. What sets the hydrolysate formulation apart from the others is its easy digestibility and rapid absorption. The resulting powder can be added to many formulations, most often powdered supplements but also gels, sports/energy bars, and ready-to-drink shakes.

Myths/Claims

Common perception is that whey protein improves performance and builds muscle more quickly than other protein sources. Many people also believe that high protein intake in general will yield better performance results.

Facts and Evidence

Due to the high metabolic demands and strenuous activity level of athletes (similar to those experienced by Warfighters), they need more than the Recommended Daily Allowance of protein. The daily protein recommendations for athletes are 1.2–1.4 g/kg (0.55–0.64 g/lb) for endurance training and 1.2–1.7 g/kg (0.5–0.8 g /lb) for strength training. Because of this increased protein need, many athletes view supplements as convenient to fulfill those demands. However, sufficient protein intake can be met with a diet of natural foods. Dairy products—especially Greek yogurt—are high in whey protein. Information on other whole food sources of protein can be found on the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In addition, more protein is not necessarily better, as excess protein is stored as fat. Though whole foods are the best source to meet protein needs, whey protein supplements are recognized by the International Society of Sports Nutrition as “safe and convenient.” Protein supplements can be useful for athletes when food resources are limited, during travel to foreign countries, with sudden increases in intense training, or while on a weight-restrictive diet. Many issues should be considered when determining individual protein requirements (e.g., gender and activity level), so it is best to consult a sports dietitian or doctor to get an accurate range for one’s particular training program.

The combination of how efficiently whey supplies protein to the body, its rapid absorption rate (10g/h), associated gains in strength and muscle mass, and improved rate of muscle recovery suggests that whey protein may yield better results than other types of protein. However, not all studies demonstrate differences that can be correlated with the various proteins. The true benefits of one protein over another remain unclear, but if it is necessary to supplement one’s diet, a combination of slow (casein) and fast (whey) proteins and/or small doses of whey protein that total the desired daily protein intake is suggested.

Cautions

  • As with any other nutrient, excess consumption of whey protein should be avoided. Overconsumption of protein (> 35% of total energy intake) may be harmful and can lead to bloating, diarrhea, and dehydration, as well as excess amounts of amino acids, ammonia, and insulin in the blood. Moreover, excess protein is stored as fat.
  • Those prone to renal disease (kidney stones or diabetes) should avoid high-protein diets and consult a doctor prior to taking dietary supplements.
  • Interactions with medicines such as antibiotics should be considered. See the list on the Natural Medicines Database.
  • Beware of other ingredients in protein supplements. According to Consumer Reports, trace amounts of heavy metals, including arsenic and cadmium, have been found in 15 leading protein powder products.
  • Protein products often contain added sweeteners (fructose, dextrose, and maltodextrin).
  • Individuals who are lactose intolerant or have lactose allergies should avoid consuming whey protein concentrates, as they often contain lactose. However, many native proteins associated with common allergies have been removed from most whey protein isolates and hydrolysates.

    Summary for Military Relevance

    Concern for getting adequate amounts of nutrients is of paramount importance to Warfighters, given their level of activity and as shown by the Military Dietary Reference Intake and the Warfighter Nutrition Guide. Concerns about Warfighters meeting their nutrient requirements could motivate the use of whey protein supplements, particularly when nutrient intake is low. As with all supplements, a qualified doctor or dietician must evaluate the safest and most effective approach for a person’s performance optimization.


    * Bottom Line Up Front

    Research Summary

    Whey protein

    Key Points

    • Whey protein provides all the essential amino acids, including the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAA), which can serve to maintain and build muscle during exercise.
    • Concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate are the three broad categories of whey protein supplements available: hydrolysates usually contain the highest percentage of protein.
    • Whole foods have been recognized and are recommended as the best source to fulfill protein needs, but whey protein supplementation is regarded as a safe addition when necessary.
    • Protein quality and absorption rates are key factors to consider when evaluating protein sources.
    • Combining casein and whey protein may promote muscle protein synthesis and recovery from strenuous exercise.
    • Due to high metabolic demands, the protein requirements of athletes range from 1.2 to 1.7 g/kg/day. Timing of protein is also important to optimal performance. Protein intake, of 0.15 – 0.25 g/kg, is best 3-4 hours before and 30-60 minutes after exercise.
    • Individuals with renal disorders should avoid consuming excess protein.
    • Individuals who are lactose intolerant or allergic should not take whey protein concentrates, which may contain lactose.
    • Ingredients in commercial whey protein drinks may include unwanted trace heavy metals and sweeteners.

      Background

      Whey is a natural byproduct of the cheese-making process and represents 20% of the protein found in dairy milk [1]. Besides containing high-quality protein, whey contains vitamins, minerals, lactose, and fat. Whey protein is high-quality because it has all 20 amino acids, including the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAA: leucine, isoleucine, and valine), which can be oxidized by muscles during exercise [2]. When whey protein is ingested, the amino acids are rapidly absorbed into the circulation, which makes it a “fast protein” [3]. Although findings on the impact of amino acids on performance and muscle synthesis are mixed [1], whey protein remains appealing for athletes due to preliminary evidence of an ergogenic effect of BCAA performance [4].

      Once the whey fraction has been obtained, it is concentrated into a powder. This is classified into three broad categories based on how the protein was extracted: concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate. In the concentrate form, ultra-filtration of whey fractions extracts proteins by molecular mass, with protein concentrations ranging from 50-89% [1]. The isolate form contains between 90-95% protein because various other methods are able to remove the lipids and lactose [1]. One such method involves subjecting the whey fraction to an ion-exchange column to bind and isolate the proteins. For the hydrolysate formulation, specific protein enzymes break down larger native proteins into smaller peptides with high heat or acid (selective precipitation). Hydrolyzed whey is usually more expensive due to the highly specialized precipitation process, but it is more easily digested and more rapidly absorbed than the other whey protein classes [5]. Once the powder is ready, it can be added to many formulations including gels, sports/energy bars, ready-to-drink shakes, and, most commonly, powdered supplements.

      Pairing whey protein with other supplements can be risky, as many interactions have not been well studied. However, some studies have shown significant increases in strength and lean body mass when whey protein is paired with leucine [6], creatine [7], and/or carbohydrates [8]. The combination of protein and carbohydrates after exercise is recommended due to overwhelming evidence that this is beneficial [9].

      Myths/Claims

      1. Whey protein improves performance and builds muscle more quickly than other protein sources.
      2. High protein intake will yield better performance results.

      Facts and Evidence

      Whole foods have been recognized and are recommended as the best source to fulfill protein needs [10-13]. However, the International Society of Sports Nutrition recognizes that supplementation, especially with whey protein, is a “safe and convenient” dietary addition [10]. Protein supplements can be useful for athletes when food availability and accessibility is limited, when travelling to foreign countries, with sudden increases in intense training, or while on a weight-restrictive diet [14].

      Protein quality and absorption rates are key factors in assessing protein sources. With regard to relative protein quality, whey protein is an excellent source as measured by the following standards: Protein Efficiency Ratio (PER), Protein Digestibility (PD), Biological Value (BV), Net Protein Utilization (NPU), and the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) [15]. For example, general whey protein concentrate has a biologic value of 104, whereas whole egg is 100 and casein is 77. For this reason whey protein may yield better results than other types of protein [16]. Also, whey protein is absorbed more rapidly than other protein sources. For example, raw egg white is absorbed at a rate of 1.4 grams per hour versus six grams/hr for casein and eight to 10 grams/hr for whey protein isolate [17].

      Variations in performance have been observed to correlate with various formulations of protein. Research has shown that whey protein supplementation post-workout leads to gains in strength and muscle mass [18] as well as greater muscle recovery as compared to carbohydrate intake alone [19]. Studies have shown that supplementing with whey protein before or after resistance exercise yields greater muscle protein synthesis and strength gains than with either soy protein [16] or casein [2, 16]. In addition, several studies indicate that whey protein may be useful to promote recovery from intense exercise [19-20]. However, not all studies demonstrate differences that can be correlated with the various proteins. For example, comparable increases in muscle mass and strength have been observed when combining resistance training with whey protein versus soy protein [21] and whey protein versus casein [22]. The true benefits of one protein over another remain unclear, but if supplementation is necessary, a combination of slow (casein) and fast (whey) proteins and/or small doses of whey protein that total the recommended daily protein intake for athletes is suggested [1, 10].

      Evidence shows that the high metabolic demands and strenuous activity of athletes (similar to those experienced by Warfighters) raise the protein requirements of individuals above the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA), which according to U.S. government standards is 0.8 gram/kg body weight [23-24]. The daily protein recommendations for endurance and strength training of athletes are 1.2–1.4 g/kg (0.55–0.64 g/lb) and 1.2–1.7 g/kg (0.5–0.8 g/lb), respectively [8, 12, 25]. The timing of protein ingestion also should be considered: In conjunction with total daily protein intake, 0.15–0.25 g /kg protein per snack or meal is recommended three to four hours before and within 30 to 60 minutes after exercise [9, 12, 26]. Sufficient protein intake can be met with a diet of natural foods [12, 23], and more protein is not necessarily better, as excess protein is stored as fat in adipose tissue after deamination of the amino group [14]. Natural sources are also a less expensive alternative. Information on sources of whey and other protein in natural foods can be found on the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dairy products such as milk and cheese—and especially Greek yogurt—are the best sources of whey protein. Complete sources of amino acids other than dairy are scarce, but one alternative for lactose-intolerant individuals is soy protein, which contains all of the essential amino acids. Many issues should be considered when adhering to a recommendation of protein intake (e.g. gender, activity level); so it is best to consult a sports dietitian or doctor to get an accurate range for a particular individual’s training program [11].

      Cautions

      • As with any other nutrient, excess consumption of whey protein should be avoided. Overconsumption of protein (> 35% of total energy intake) may be harmful and can lead to bloating and hyperaminoacidemia, hyperammonemia, hyperinsulinemia, diarrhea, and dehydration [13, 17]. Moreover, excess protein is stored as fat.
      • Those prone to renal disease (kidney stones or diabetes) should avoid high-protein diets and consult a doctor prior to supplementation [14].
      • Interactions with medicines such as antibiotics should be considered. See the list on the Natural Medicines Database.
      • Beware of other ingredients in protein supplements. Trace amounts of heavy metals, including arsenic and cadmium, have been found in 15 leading protein powder products [27].
      • Avoid protein products with added sweeteners (fructose, dextrose, and maltodextrin).
      • Individuals who are lactose intolerant or have lactose allergies should avoid consuming whey protein concentrates, as the amount of lactose retained can vary. However, many allergic native proteins have been removed from most whey protein isolates and hydrolysates, so some may be safe to consume [1].

        Military Relevance

        Concern for getting adequate amounts of nutrients is of paramount importance to Warfighters, given their level of activity and as evidenced by the Military Dietary Reference Intake [25] and the Warfighter Nutrition Guide. Concerns about Warfighters meeting nutrient requirements could motivate dietary supplementation with whey protein, particularly when nutrient intake is low. As with all supplements, a qualified doctor or dietician must evaluate the safest and most effective approach for a person’s performance optimization.

        Summary

        Whey protein supplementation is one efficient method to deliver protein when needs are increased or normal dietary sources are not available. Whey protein before and/or after exercise appears to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, which may enhance strength gain and muscle recovery for improved physical performance. However, protein from natural food sources is preferable and should be the first choice. Concerns about the level of heavy metals found in many commercial products are justified. Recommendations and RDA for athletes and Warfighters are higher than for a sedentary person in the same age group due to greater metabolic demands.

        References

        Whey protein

        1. Snyder, B.H., M., Whey, Casein, and Soy Proteins, in Sports nutrition: fats and proteins, J. Driskell, Editor. 2007, Taylor & Francis Group: Boca Raton. p. 144-164.
        2. Cribb, P.J., et al., The effect of whey isolate and resistance training on strength, body composition, and plasma glutamine. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab, 2006. 16(5): p. 494-509.
        3. Boirie, Y., et al., Slow and fast dietary proteins differently modulate postprandial protein accretion. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 1997. 94(26): p. 14930-5.
        4. Williams, M., Dietary Supplements and Sports Performance: Amino Acids. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2005. 2(2): p. 63 - 67.
        5. Buckley, J.D., et al., Supplementation with a whey protein hydrolysate enhances recovery of muscle force-generating capacity following eccentric exercise. J Sci Med Sport, 2008. 13(1): p. 178-81.
        6. Walker, T.B., et al., The influence of 8 weeks of whey-protein and leucine supplementation on physical and cognitive performance. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab, 2010. 20(5): p. 409-17.
        7. Burke, D.G., et al., The effect of whey protein supplementation with and without creatine monohydrate combined with resistance training on lean tissue mass and muscle strength. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab, 2001. 11(3): p. 349-64.
        8. Fielding, R.A. and J. Parkington, What Are the Dietary Protein Requirements of Physically Active Individuals? New Evidence on the Effects of Exercise on Protein Utilization During Post-Exercise Recovery. Nutrition in Clinical Care, 2002. 5(4): p. 191-196.
        9. Kerksick, C., et al., International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 2008. 5: p. 17.
        10. Campbell, B., et al., International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 2007. 4: p. 8.
        11. Tipton, K.D. and O.C. Witard, Protein Requirements and Recommendations for Athletes: Relevance of Ivory Tower Arguments for Practical Recommendations. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 2007. 26(1): p. 17-36.
        12. Rodriguez, N.R., N.M. DiMarco, and S. Langley, Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and athletic performance. J Am Diet Assoc, 2009. 109(3): p. 509-27.
        13. Anderson, J., Young, L., Prior, S. , Nutrition for the Athlete, in Colorado State University Extension, C.S. University, Editor. 2007, Colorado State University Extension: Thornston, CO. p. 3.
        14. Tarnopolsky, M.T., B., Protein, in Sports nutrition: fats and proteins, J. Driskell, Editor. 2007, Taylor & Francis Group: Boca Raton. p. 107-142.Page, J., Meyer, D. , Haines, B., Legrange, V., Reference Manual for U.S. Whey and Lactose Products, U.S.D.E. Council, Editor. 2003: Arlington, VA.
        15. Tang, J.E., 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): p. 987-992.
        16. Bilsborough, S. and N. Mann, A review of issues of dietary protein intake in humans. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab, 2006. 16(2): p. 129-52.
        17. Cribb, P.J., et al., Effects of whey isolate, creatine, and resistance training on muscle hypertrophy. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2007. 39(2): p. 298-307.Cooke, M.B., et al., Whey protein isolate attenuates strength decline after eccentrically-induced muscle damage in healthy individuals. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 2010. 7: p. 30.
        18. Buckley, J.D., et al., Supplementation with a whey protein hydrolysate enhances recovery of muscle force-generating capacity following eccentric exercise. J Sci Med Sport, 2010. 13(1): p. 178-81.
        19. Candow, D.G., et al., Effect of whey and soy protein supplementation combined with resistance training in young adults. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab, 2006. 16(3): p. 233-44.
        20. Tipton, K.D., et al., Ingestion of casein and whey proteins result in muscle anabolism after resistance exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2004. 36(12): p. 2073-81.
        21. Lemon, P.W., Beyond the zone: protein needs of active individuals. J Am Coll Nutr, 2000. 19(5 Suppl): p. 513S-521S.
        22. Lausanne (2010) IOC Consensus Statement on Sports Nutrition 2010.
        23. Fulco-Baker, C., Bathalon, G, Bovil, M., and Lieberman, Military Dietary Reference Intakes: Rationale for Tabled Values, M.N. Division, Editor. 2001: Natick, MA. p. 1-46.
        24. Hoffman, J.R., Protein Intake: Effect of Timing. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 2007. 29(6): p. 26-34.
        25. Alert: Protein Drinks in Consumer Reports. 2010. p. 24-27.