Whey: The Ancient Secret to Building Lean Muscle and Shedding Fat
“Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.”
This wise saying is attributed to the Greek physician Hippocrates (446–337 BC), considered the father of Western medicine. He used liquid whey—strained off when making cheese—to help his patients build muscle and strengthen their immune systems.
Today, whey is known to be one of the richest sources of pure protein around, more easily digested than any other protein. It has an extraordinarily high nutritional value and contains all the essential amino acids your body needs, in higher concentrations than any other protein source.1
Not only that, it’s a safe and effective way to increase your lean muscle mass and strength, and it can help you burn off body fat.
It’s also a rich natural source of many bioactive compounds that reduce your risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and more.
An All-Natural Way to Prevent Age-Related Loss of Lean Muscle…
One of the major disadvantages of aging is a gradual, steady wasting away of muscle mass and strength, known clinically as “sarcopenia.”
Elite athletes, body builders, coaches, and nutritionists have long known that whey supplementation can build muscle and improve body composition. What works for them can work for you too—regular consumption of whey, along with moderate exercise, is a scientifically proven way to trigger your body to make lean, fat-free muscle.2
A double-blind study reported in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looked at the effects of whey supplementation on muscular strength and endurance in young men during 10 weeks of resistance training.
36 men were randomly assigned equal quantities of three supplements—carbs alone, whey plus casein (the most abundant milk protein), or whey plus other supplements. After 10 weeks of resistance training, all three groups had improved their exercise capacity. However, only the man taking whey plus casein showed the greatest increases in lean, fat-free mass.2
There is also convincing evidence that whey consumption with strength training is particularly beneficial for older people.3
In McMaster University in Ontario, slightly overweight healthy elderly men were split into two groups. Each group performed resistance exercises before taking 20 g of micellar casein or whey supplement. (Micellar casein is a high quality source of protein, in which casein is carefully extracted from milk without reducing its natural benefits).
While both supplements flooded the blood of study subjects with the right nutrients, more of them entered the blood of men who had consumed whey. Even more interestingly, muscle protein synthesis in these men was higher both at rest and after exercise.3
In other words, regular consumption of whey—along with moderately intense exercise—is a great way to slow down, perhaps even reverse, the loss of muscle mass and strength all of us experience as we grow older.
Branched Chain Amino Acids Help Muscles Function More Efficiently…
Experts believe whey helps muscles function better because of three essential branched chain amino acids (BCAAs)—leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These cannot be made by our body, and must be consumed in our diet…and whey has more of them than any other protein source.
Of these, leucine is the most potent at promoting muscle protein synthesis, isoleucine causes muscles to use glucose for energy more efficiently, while valine is believed to be able to increase glucose production and blood glucose levels.4
A 16-week clinical trial looking at the effect of BCAAs on body composition compared diets with high levels of leucine to high levels of carbs in two groups of subjects. Both groups were fed restricted diets with the same number of calories, equal in fat and fiber content. Interestingly, people in the high leucine group lost more total weight (9.8 kg versus 6.7 kg), body fat (8.8 kg versus 5.6 kg), and less lean body mass (0.4 kg versus 1.1 kg) than those in the carbohydrate group.
Clearly, BCAAs in whey are responsible for some of its beneficial actions on body composition and muscle buildup.
Is Whey an Anti-Obesity Food?
Consuming excess dietary carbs such as sweets and cookies raise cholesterol, triglyceride, and insulin levels along with increasing your risk for obesity and metabolic disorders. Logically, limiting carbohydrate intake should reduce risk—and it does.
Even better, switching to a high-protein diet shifts your body’s metabolism so that it uses fat and protein stores for energy, known as ketogenesis. Ketogenic diets such as the whey diet are very effective in promoting short-term weight loss, and have become extremely popular.5
This can be clearly seen in a double-blind, randomized clinical trial carried out by the USDA, which looked at the consequences of consuming an equal number of calories of whey, soy, and carbohydrate on body weight and composition in overweight and obese participants.5 Ninety participants were randomly assigned to one of three treatment groups for 23 weeks. Supplements were consumed as a beverage twice daily—other than that, participants ate freely.
After 23 weeks, body weight and fat mass of the group consuming whey were significantly lower than the carbohydrate group. While lean body mass did not differ between any of the groups, waist circumference and ghrelin levels (ghrelin is a hormone made by the stomach that triggers hunger) were both at their lowest in participants consuming whey.
In other words, dietary protein suppresses appetite, helps weight loss, and positively affects body composition—and whey is especially effective at doing this, along with causing satiety hormones to be released that make you feel full sooner.6
Lower Your Risk of Type 2 Diabetes and Other Metabolic Disorders…
Many studies have reported that long-term consumption of whey reduces blood glucose while raising insulin levels and improving insulin sensitivity.1,7
This hypoglycemic (or glucose-lowering) effect of whey was also seen in patients with type 2 diabetes.8
In a study conducted at Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark, the effects of casein, whey, cod, and gluten were examined in 12 patients with type 2 diabetes. Eight hours after ingestion of a high-fat meal along with one of these four proteins as supplements, both the glucose response and triglyceride levels were the most reduced after whey supplementation.8
Based on scientific evidence such as this, regular whey consumption appears to be an effective way to manage risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Be Whey Cautious…
Over-consumption of whey or any other high protein food can cause problems, as your body can only digest so much protein at a time. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) guideline is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, which translates to just over 72 grams of protein each day for a 200-pound person.
Although whey is generally well tolerated, high intake (2.3 to 6.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day) can cause increased bowel movements, nausea, thirst, gas, bloating, cramps, reduced appetite, tiredness, headache, and irritability.
People who are allergic to milk and milk products should not consume whey. However, lactose-intolerant people are not affected by most whey, as there is very little lactose in it.
It is not advisable to take whey with levodopa (for Parkinson’s), as whey can decrease its absorption. Whey may also decrease the effectiveness of certain antibiotics, such as quinolone and tetracycline.
Choosing the Right Whey…
When it comes to choosing a whey supplement for your needs, you’ll need to consider both price and quality. There are four major commercially available forms of whey.
Whey protein concentrate is the cheapest and has the highest levels of fat and lactose. It also has higher levels of bioactive compounds and can vary between 30 to 90 percent pure protein by weight. It is absorbed 60 to 90 minutes after ingestion.
Whey protein isolate is more expensive. It’s the purest form and has zero carbs, fat, or lactose, but it’s also usually lower in beneficial bioactive compounds. It is usually more than 90 percent protein by weight and is absorbed 30 to 60 minutes after ingestion.
Whey protein hydrolysate is predigested and partially hydrolyzed so it can be absorbed easier, typically within 10 to 30 minutes after ingestion. This form is ideal for post-workout. However, it is relatively expensive and excreted quickly, so it’s not ideal for a long-lasting effect.
Whey protein blends are the most commercially popular. These products combine whey isolate and concentrate to make a high-quality product with a good amino acid profile at an affordable price.
Just remember that, when it comes to your health, no supplement (or drug for that matter) can undo a poor diet or lack of exercise. To live a long, healthy, and productive life, you need to adopt healthy dietary and lifestyle habits, such as eating nutrient-rich whole foods like whey and getting moderate daily exercise with bursts of more intense exercise a few times a week.
Finally, keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.
1Souza GT Gtds, Lira FS Fsl, Rosa Neto JC Jcrn, et al. Dietary whey protein lessens several risk factors for metabolic diseases: a review. Lipids Health Dis. 2012. 11: 67.
2Kerksick CM, Rasmussen CJ, Lancaster SL, et al. The effects of protein and amino acid supplementation on performance and training adaptations during ten weeks of resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2006.20:643-53.
3Burd NA, Yang Y, Moore DR, et al. Greater stimulation of myofibrillar protein synthesis with ingestion of whey protein isolate v. micellar casein at rest and after resistance exercise in elderly men. Br J Nutr. 2012. 31:1-5.
4Yoshizawa F. New Therapeutic Strategy for Amino Acid Medicine: Notable Functions of Branched Chain Amino Acids as Biological Regulators. J Pharmacology Sci. 2012. 118: 149-155.
5Baer DJ, Stote KS, Paul DR, et al. Whey protein but not soy protein supplementation alters body weight and composition in free-living overweight and obese adults. J Nutr. 2011. 141:1489-94.
6Frid AH, Nilsson M, Holst JJ, et al. Effect of whey on blood glucose and insulin responses to composite breakfast and lunch meals in type 2 diabetic subjects. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005. 82:69-75.
7Esteves de Oliveira FC, Pinheiro Volp AC, et al. Impact of different protein sources in the glycemic and insulinemic responses. Nutr Hosp. 2011.26: 669-76.
8Mortensen LS, Hartvigsen ML, Brader LJ, et al. Differential effects of protein quality on postprandial lipemia in response to a fat-rich meal in type 2 diabetes: comparison of whey, casein, gluten, and cod protein. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009. 90: 41-8.
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