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Whey Beyond the Facts

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Walk into any health food store, grocery store, or even convenience store and you are likely to find shelves of protein powders, bars and drinks many of which are made from whey protein.  So, what is whey protein, where does it come from, what is it good for and why is it so popular?

To understand whey protein it is important to know what whey is.  When milk curdles, either naturally or through heat, it separates to form solid curds, which are used to make cheese, and a thin, watery liquid known as whey.  Whey is high in protein, vitamins, minerals and lactose.  As far back as ancient Greece physicians like Hippocrates and Galen prescribed whey to patients as a curative agent.  Fresh liquid whey has been used to help detoxify the body including all the major organs including the liver, kidneys and intestines as well as to treat skin disorders, gallstones, digestive problems, edema, gout, and other inflammatory conditions.

So, what is whey protein?  Whey protein is a selection of various proteins extracted from whey and then dried to make a powder.  Whey protein contains less fat and lactose, a milk sugar, than liquid whey.  Whey protein is considered to be one of the best forms of protein because it contains all 20 amino acids and all 9 essential amino acids.  Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and our body uses them to build muscle, bone, and connective tissue, synthesize hormones and digestive enzymes as well as to produce energy.  In addition, whey protein is quickly absorbed through the digestive system allowing the amino acids to get into the bloodstream and get to work more quickly replenishing levels lost during exercise making it popular with bodybuilders, endurance athletes and weekend warriors.

The benefits of whey protein do not stop at the gym door, however.  Whey protein can help strengthen the immune system.  Three of the amino acids in whey protein,

L-cysteine, L-glutamine and glycine are necessary for the production of the antioxidant, glutathione.  Glutathione reduces damage from free radicals, fights infections, can help reduce your chances of cancer, and supports the liver in detoxifying the body.

Whey protein may also help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.  Whey protein contains the amino acid, tryptophan, which is involved in the synthesis of the neurotransmitter, serotonin.  Serotonin is responsible for aiding in the regulation of mood, social behavior, memory and sleep.  Low levels of serotonin have been associated with feelings of depression and stress.

A recent Danish study suggests that whey protein may also be beneficial in helping to reduce the risk of heart disease and type-2 diabetes in obese individuals by lowering levels of fat and raising insulin levels in the blood after a meal.  There are many other purported virtues of whey protein and the research continues to discover what other benefits may exist.

There are several reasons whey protein has become popular, the first being the      aforementioned athletic and health benefits.  The second is convenience.  What is simpler than adding a powder to your favorite beverage for an instant shot of protein?  It is much less cumbersome and foul-smelling than carrying around a steak.

Another reason whey protein has become popular is variety.  You can find whey protein in meal replacement bars, smoothies, cereal and even cookies.  Whey protein powders come in countless flavors and formulas with some powders having 2 grams carbs and 30 grams protein and others having 9 grams of carbs and 22 grams protein.  So what’s the difference?  When it comes to the actual protein there are 3 types of whey protein commonly used in protein powders:

-Whey Protein Isolates (WPI)

Whey protein isolates contain more than 90% protein by volume and little to no lactose and fat.  The whey protein isolates are processed at a low temperature to prevent the protein from becoming “denatured” or breaking down this ensures all the benefits of the amino acids remain intact.  This complex process means that whey protein isolates are one of the more expensive forms of protein.  Due to a lack of fat and lactose whey protein isolates can also be bland.

-Whey Protein Concentrates (WPC)

Whey protein concentrates have higher levels of fats and lactose, aka carbohydrate, than whey protein isolates.  Also, the amount of protein found in whey protein concentrates is lower by volume than in an isolate.  On the plus side, whey protein concentrates are often less expensive than a whey protein isolate and contain more immune and digestion boosting compounds.  Select a high quality whey protein concentrate to get the most benefit.

-Whey Protein Blends

Whey protein blends can combine the best of both protein powder worlds bringing together high quality protein with palatability.  Often the ratio of protein types is not clearly listed on the label so check the ingredients list.  The most abundant form of protein will be listed first.

The type of whey protein that is best for you depends on your goals and needs.  If you are unsure of what type to buy ask for assistance at the store or from a personal trainer or sports nutritionist.

*One thing to keep in mind about whey protein is that it is derived from milk.  Individuals with allergies to dairy may want to consult with their doctor before using whey protein particularly whey protein concentrates and whey protein blends which contain lactose.

The popularity of whey protein has increased significantly over the last decade and with so many options it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and confused about whey protein and its purpose.  Research is beginning to show that it may be useful for more than just building muscle.  Whey protein can stimulate the immune system, help reduce stress and possibly even help prevent cardiovascular disease for some people.  Knowing the basics about whey protein can help you make smart healthy choices about what you choose to nourish your body.

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