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Is whey protein the way to go?

From the Field

Is whey protein helpful to optimize performance?

HPRC's Answer

Whey protein


Whole foods, not dietary supplements, should be your first choice for protein. Protein supports muscle growth and repair. People often turn to protein supplements (such as whey, casein, and soy) to optimize those effects, especially after a workout. Whole food protein sources such as lean meats, fish, dairy products, legumes, nuts, and seeds are just as effective (in some cases more effective) than protein supplements. Whey protein products can be an acceptable, convenient, and efficient way to deliver protein when your needs are greater or when normal dietary sources are not available. If you are using protein supplements, be sure to choose a product that has been third-party evaluated for its quality.


Whey is a type of protein found in milk that contains all the essential amino acids (EAA) are needed for muscle growth and repair. Dairy products such as milk and some cheeses are the best “whole food” sources of whey protein. Whey protein also can be extracted from milk during the cheese-making process and concentrated into a powder. Whey protein powders can be sold as conventional foods or as dietary supplements and are often added to other food and supplement products, including gels, powders, sports/energy bars, and ready-to-drink shakes. Whey protein products are appealing to many athletes and service members because they contain all the EAA and are convenient and portable.

Are there any concerns with taking whey protein products?

Whey protein is generally considered safe to consume. However, taking whey protein products in excess amounts may cause adverse reactions such as nausea, bloating, and cramps. Also keep in mind that whey comes from cow’s milk, so you should avoid whey protein products if you have a milk protein allergy or are lactose intolerant. In the case of whey protein supplements, especially those marketed for performance enhancement, you also need to watch out for other ingredients that you may not want or need in your diet. Whey protein supplements also may contain other ingredients that can interact with certain medications, so talk to your doctor before taking them.

If I take a protein supplement, is whey protein the best type of protein to take?

There is conflicting evidence surrounding whey’s effect on body composition and physical performance compared to other sources of protein (including whole foods and other supplemental forms). Whey is often considered superior to other types of protein such as casein (another milk protein) and soy. This is because whey rapidly increases the levels of amino acids in the body, whereas casein and soy produce a longer and slower increase. Based on this notion, whey is thought to produce greater gains in muscle mass. On the other hand, casein helps prevent muscle breakdown and may be just as important to total muscle growth. Therefore, a combination of whey and casein, as found in a glass of milk, may be more beneficial than whey protein alone. In general, service members consume enough protein through food sources alone and do not need protein supplements.

When can I use whey protein?

Whey protein products are acceptable when high-quality protein foods (animal- or plant-based) are unavailable or not practical, such as in theater. Although whey protein products can be considered either conventional foods or dietary supplements, overall it’s better to get your protein from whole foods such as lean meats, fish, low-fat dairy products, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Eating a variety of protein foods provide you with all of the EAA, but you’ll also get other essential nutrients such as vitamins and minerals that are important for performance and recovery.

How much whey protein should I take?

If food sources of protein are not available, whey protein products can help you meet your overall protein needs, but there are no official whey protein recommendations. Keep in mind that most whey protein powders provide 20–30 grams of protein per serving or “scoop,” which is the same amount of protein in about 3 oz of meat. To learn how to calculate your own protein needs based on your body weight and activity level, see HPRC’s Protein Requirements infosheet. Going beyond the protein recommendations will not provide any additional benefit to your performance.


There is no clear benefit to consuming whey over other sources of protein. The U.S. Armed Forces Consensus Panel and the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommend consuming protein from whole foods. When high-quality protein foods are not available or not practical, protein products that contain both whey and casein are acceptable and can be beneficial. You should use caution though and look on the label to see if the supplement product has been evaluated by an independent third-party organization. Keep in mind that whey protein supplements may contain other ingredients, so it’s possible to get too much of something you don’t need or want. Read all labels carefully.


* Bottom Line Up Front

31 August 2015