Originally published 28 April 2017. Last updated 22 Sept 2020.
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.
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.
Does whey protein 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. 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:
- Look for a USP symbol on the outside of the product’s packaging
- Look for an NSF symbol on the outside of the product’s packaging
- 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.
How much protein should I consume?
You’re probably already consuming enough protein. How could I possibly know this? This is because there have been a lot of data collected on how much and what types of food populations around the world consume regularly. What we’ve learned is that most consume plenty of protein each day. Is that enough protein to support muscle growth and help build strength? That’s the answer everyone wants to know, right?
The American College of Sports Medicine says that if your goal is to build strength and muscle, you need to consume 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kg of body weight. Frustrating that their recommendations don’t use ounces of protein and pounds of body weight, I know. But luckily the math isn’t too hard. We’ll figure this out together… stay with me here.
Let’s say Robbie weighs 125 lbs. To use the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendations, we need to convert Robbie’s weight into kg. Luckily, the math is simple: take 125 lbs. and divide that by 2.2. You would do the same thing for your body weight. So if you weigh 150 lbs., divide 150 by 2.2. If you weigh, 110 lbs., divide 110 by 2.2. That gives you your weight in kg. Robbie’s weight in kg is 125 divided by 2.2 which is 56.82 kg.
Now, what? Now that we know Robbie’s body weight in kg, we can figure out how much protein she needs to consume each day. Like I mentioned before, the American College of Sports Medicine says if you want to build strength and muscle, you need somewhere between 1.2 and 1.7 grams of protein per kg of body weight. We know Robbie’s hypothetical body weight in kg–we just figured that out to be 56.82. We take 56.82 and multiply it by the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendations.
We’ll start by multiplying 56.82 (remember, that’s her body weight in kg) by 1.2 grams protein. Plug that into your calculator and you’d get about 68 grams of protein. That means, at a minimum, Robbie needs to consume about 68 grams of protein each day to build strength and muscle.
Let’s find out how much she should consume at a maximum, according to these recommendations. We’ll take her body weight in kg again, 56.82 and multiply that by the 1.7 (remember, the recommendations said 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein should be consumed each day, so we’re using the higher number here). 56.82 times 1.7 is 97 grams of protein.
How can I have a visual estimate of how much protein to consume?
If Robbie (or, really, anyone else that weights 125 lbs.) wants to be sure they're getting enough protein to support muscle growth, they need to consume anywhere between 68 and 97 grams of protein per day. For those of us in the states, we still don’t quite know how to make sense of grams, so bear with us. 68 and 97 grams of protein is about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of cooked chicken for example.
For someone that weighs 125 lbs., they need to eat about 1/2 cup of cooked chicken each day to ensure they’re getting enough protein to build strength and muscle. Not much, I know! Plus this doesn’t include any protein they’re getting from other sources: eggs, meat, dairy, beans, soy, breads, etc.
Aren’t some forms of protein better for muscle growth? Yes, this is true.
Whey Protein: The Bottom Line
First, you likely don’t need a protein supplement like whey protein unless you follow a vegan meal pattern or are 55 years of age and older and work out consistently. This is because you’re probably consuming enough protein each day as it is.
If you want to help your body build strength and muscle as efficiently as possible, consider focusing instead on consuming some leucine-rich foods within 30 minutes of finishing your workout.
Then do your best to stay consistent and follow a meal plan full of balance and variety, and you’ll build that strength and see those muscles popping in due time.