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glass of milk

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 205 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

Whey protein is one of the two major proteins found in milk. Have you ever heard the phrase, “curds and whey?” Well, they’re basically referring to these milk proteins. (The term “curds” is referring to the other protein, casein.) During the cheese-making process, which requires the heating of milk along with some other processes, the liquid left behind is full of whey protein. What researchers have discovered is that whey protein is easily digested and absorbed. When it comes to sports supplements, this is music to a personal trainer’s ears! You’ll often hear whey protein being discussed as a sports supplement. I mean, c’mon, a protein that is easily digested and absorbed by the body? Combine that with the fact that animal-based proteins (like whey – it comes from milk after all) are used very efficiently by the body and we have a perfect combination to support muscle growth… in theory.

Let’s examine this more closely.

Is whey protein safe and does supplementation help with muscle growth and exercise performance?

A number of studies have been performed examining the effects of whey protein supplementation on exercise performance, muscle growth, and preventing injuries. Basically, whey protein supplementation is most helpful for those over the age of 55. This is because, beginning around our 30th birthdays, we begin losing muscle mass pretty quickly. As each year goes by, we lose more and more muscle so that by the time we reach retirement age, many of us will be facing some major muscle loss.

One way to prevent this is, of course, to stay active. Performing resistance or strength training exercises is especially important. But, as we all know, diet is important as well. Protein is important for maintaining muscle growth. As we age, we typically don’t consume as many protein-rich foods. This may happen for a number of reasons:

  • We just aren’t as hungry
  • Tooth loss
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Loss of taste sensations

As we age, we have the perfect combination for muscle loss: we are not as active and we aren’t eating enough protein. Researchers found that giving whey protein to older adults may help delay muscle loss. But these same researchers also acknowledge that it may not just be the whey protein that’s helping, but simply the increase in protein consumption in general.

Why supplement with whey protein specifically?

Because it’s easily digested and absorbed. Something else happens when we age: we aren’t able to digest and absorb foods as efficiently. This makes whey protein the perfect supplement for this age group.

Will whey protein supplementation help younger folks?

Here, the data are not as clear. Some studies say, yes, it helps, others not so much. This likely means that it’s probably not all that helpful for most of us.

Let’s say you decide to go ahead and supplement.

Is Whey Protein Safe?

First, you need to understand that the body is only capable of absorbing 20g of protein at any given time. Let’s say you’re scooping some whey protein into your morning smoothie – if you’re getting more than 20g, your body isn’t going to be able to use all of that. In fact, it’s going to try and get rid of this extra protein through the kidneys and your urine or through your GI tract (which is why some complain of diarrhea after using protein supplements). Some extra protein can also get converted to fat storage.

The next thing we need to look at is the brand of supplement. As I’ve said many times before, the supplement industry is not very well regulated in the U.S.; the products you see on the shelves at your local drugstore cannot be assumed to be safe. One study found that 15% of the supplements available contain banned substances like amphetamines (street name: speed) and anabolic steroids. Other studies have found that the supplements may not even contain the ingredients listed on the label! You may think you’re purchasing a whey supplement, but in fact, you’re getting something else entirely. This is probably my biggest safety concern.

How Can You Tell if a Supplement is Safe?

There are 3 ways to help decide whether you’re purchasing a quality supplement:

  1. Look for a USP symbol on the outside of the product’s packaging
  2. Look for an NSF symbol on the outside of the product’s packaging
  3. Go to ConsumerLab.com – this is an independent company that tests supplements available on the market for quality and purity. They do require a subscription to access their database, but it’s not that expensive. If you are pursuing a college education, it’s highly likely that your campus library has electronic access to ConsumerLab’s database already.

Other than that, those that are lactose intolerant or have a milk allergy may want to stay away from using whey protein. Again, this is because it is made from milk.

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 205 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

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Neal Malik

Dr. Neal Malik ("Dr. Neal") is currently a professor at California State University, San Bernardino. Before this, he served as Department Chair at Bastyr University California. Dr. Neal has also published peer-reviewed scientific research and presented at national conferences. Send in your health related question and Dr. Neal will answer it on the Optimal Health Daily show!
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