You may think of protein supplements as a concern for muscle heads, but they’re for everyone – provided that you choose the right one for you. You need dietary protein for your body’s day-to-day upkeep and to age well. Up to a third of older adults don’t get enough protein for various reasons, like reduced appetite and changing tastes. There are lots of ways to get protein, and here, I’ll go through one of the most convenient and beneficial forms: whey protein.
What is Whey Protein?
Whey is a protein-packed byproduct of cheese production. It’s that pseudo-clear liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained. Cheese makers used to toss it aside as waste material, until food scientists started to understand its value.
Today, we know that whey protein isn’t just a single protein. Instead, it houses an impressive array of proteins: beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, and serum albumin. These are complete proteins, comprised of the essential amino acids central to protein synthesis and increased muscular hypertrophy (muscle growth).
Our bodies can produce non-essential amino acids from lesser amino acids, but we cannot produce the essentials ourselves; we must eat quality protein sources. Whey is a naturally occurring, essential protein that satisfies the body’s protein requirements – hence its popularity.
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Is Whey Protein Dairy?
Whey comes from milk products, so yes, protein is dairy. However, some people who cannot tolerate dairy can tolerate whey.
It depends on which component of dairy gives you trouble. Most people are either:
- Lactose intolerant. Lactose intolerance is a sensitivity to a form of sugar in dairy products
- Casein sensitive. Casein sensitivity is an intolerance of one of the proteins in dairy products
Some dairy-sensitive people react to both lactose and casein.
Whey protein contains trace elements of lactose, so extremely sensitive people may have problems digesting it properly. Because whey is, by definition, the stuff that separates from the casein (a milk protein) when it curdles, it has even less casein (save for trace amounts) – rarely enough to be noticeable to anyone but the most casein-intolerant. But that’s pure whey, straight from the cheese factory. Whey protein powders have been processed to have even less of both.
With whey protein supplements, lactose may pose a problem, but casein almost certainly will not. But, certain forms of protein supplements have enough of the casein and lactose removed that they will be agreeable to people with sensitivities.
Whey Protein Isolate vs. Concentrate vs. Hydrolysate
When choosing a whey protein powder, you’ve got a couple options:
- Whey protein concentrate
- Whey protein isolate
- Whey protein hydrolysate
Whey Protein Concentrate
Whey protein concentrate contains about 70-80% protein, along with some fat and lactose. Whey protein concentrate is less processed and more whole, but has less protein. Otherwise, it’s probably fine to go with concentrate for most applications (or otherwise further you could just eat a steak instead).
Whey Protein Isolate
Whey protein isolate is about 90-94% protein, and is made up of pretty much pure protein with very little of the other dairy elements remaining. To get there, it goes through a more rigorous refinement process than whey protein concentrate and hydrolysate do.
Bodybuilders are drawn to the “purity” of whey isolate, lured by the moderately higher protein counts. Isolate is also considerably more expensive than concentrate, and the purported boost in beneficial effects on protein synthesis are overstated; drinking any kind of whey protein shake will have a beneficial effect on your muscle recovery and protein synthesis. If cost is not an issue, or you’re mildly sensitive to dairy, then isolate is your best choice.
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Whey Protein Hydrolysate
Whey protein hydrolysate is “predigested” whey, or whey that has been partially broken down using enzymes. The process makes it easier to absorb, and potential allergens are broken down to inactive forms. That said, people who have dairy allergies should consult their doctors before ingesting.
The catch? It’s expensive. Whey in general is already highly bioavailable and easily absorbed by our bodies, so absorption is rarely an issue with whey. Hydrolysate is great marketing. That’s about it. The elite of the elite – those hulking magazine cover superheroes with tanned, smiling faces atop straining, veiny necks – may have actual cause to maximize protein absorption, but most of us definitely don’t need to fuss over that stuff.
The exception would be if you are old enough to have dental issues or compromised digestion that would make it hard for you to absorb protein. In that case, skipping a few steps in the breakdown process may be a good thing.
If you’re keto, keep in mind that whey protein hydrolysate could spike your blood sugar.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDI) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, or 0.36 g protein/lb.
That’s the official, on-the-books answer, but I have differing opinions on actual protein needs. I’ve been an elite competitive athlete, and I have lots of friends who have various reasons to optimize their protein intake. Protein needs are highly individual, and depend heavily on your goals, age, and activity level.
I go into the details in this article.
Is Whey Protein Primal?
Whey protein falls into the 80/20 category. It isn’t strictly Primal (and certainly not paleo) in that it wasn’t available to Grok, but it can be an effective, occasional high-protein meal replacement with most – if not all – of the potential allergens mitigated or negated. It’s an analog, a bit like dairy itself. If you can’t handle any dairy, skip it, or see how you do with whey isolate. If you can handle dairy without a problem, a whey protein powder is a pretty good way to shuttle nutrients into your body, especially if you’ve chosen to go the post-workout nutrition route – which I usually don’t.
Going Primal means acknowledging both the limitations and the advantages of modern life. I wish I could laze around on the savannah for days following a successful kill. I wish I had ten hours of leisure time every day. The reality is that we’re a busy bunch of people, and if we’re truly serious about maximizing our quality of life, slamming down a quick protein shake so we can get to the office a little earlier might mean we can leave earlier, too, and get home in time for a date with the significant other, a hike at dusk, or an extra couple chapters on that great book we’ve been meaning to read. If that isn’t a feature of modern life that can help us follow the Primal ways more easily, I’m not sure what qualifies.
About the Author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.
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