Benefits of Whey Protein Powder? An Evidence-Based Review

Who hasn’t heard of whey protein powders? Some substitute them for steroids that you inject into your body, others eat them with reckless abandon. People have different opinions about whey protein powders and some do not wish to stray from their first beliefs of them being damaging. However, the scientific evidence shows us the opposite – proteins, and proteins from whey, are one macronutrient that should not be taken lightly.

Just a short introduction to briefly explain how whey protein powders are actually made. Whey is created during cheese-making where it gets separated from the curd. Whey itself is the liquid that remains after milk has been curdled and strained to remove the curds (caseins). And that is all there is to it to this story, if we’re talking about the most basic kind. There are no hocus pocus secrets government labs involved that make your kidneys explode if you take whey protein powders.

For those who wish to read a much more in-depth description and explanation about the process itself, click here.

Article guide:

 

Muscle loss

The different BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids) and other compounds that can be found in whey protein have a lot of different proven health benefits.

So without further ado, let’s start.

Glutathione is an antioxidant that has an extremely important role when it comes to oxidative stress. Furthermore, it has an important role in fighting different diseases that are a consequence of old age [1]. And you can guess where it can be found (hint: whey protein powders).

One of the consequences of old age is age-related muscle wasting. BCAAs have an essential role in supporting lean muscle mass. This becomes increasingly clear with old age [2]Leucine, one of the BCAAs that is present in whey proteins, promotes muscle synthesis because it activates certain pathways in our bodies that influence the anabolic (building) state of our bodies. [3]

There is a warning though. The older you get, the more resistant your muscles become to the activation of the mentioned pathways. However, if an older person would take leucine with meals, or would get it from whey protein powders which contain a lot of this BCAA, the resistance would be less clear. Moreover, muscle growth in an older person who would take it would be increased. [4]

Knowing that, we might ask ourselves about the consequences of not eating enough protein? Well, different studies have dotted down the side-effects of diets which are low in protein:

  • Decreases in muscle mass
  • Reduced strength
  • Decreases in bone mass
  • Low immunity
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Delayed wound and surgery recovery
  • Low protein intake is a strong predictor of mortality in people who are aging.

I must mention, however, that some of these effects become increasingly more clear with old age. [5]

 

Caloric restriction

Another important stream of whey protein powder benefits are its strong caloric restriction mimetic capabilities. They mimic the effects of caloric restriction by affecting the same physiological processes in our body. I’ve written about caloric restriction and intermittent fasting where I convinced you how healthy it is here.

But to shortly remind you, in the unfortunate case that the link will be left unclicked. Caloric restriction and intermittent fasting are proven ways of extending the lifespan of different animals. There are real increases in the lifespan of animals through positive improvements of certain biomarkers. However, it must be said that the long-term effects of it on humans have yet to be studied.

One study tried to test the effects of caloric restriction by supplementing mice with different BCAAs that had a similar composition to that of whey protein powders. And the results? On average, they mice benefited from this supplementation as it increased their lifespan by 95 days – that is around 12% of their whole lifespan [6]. Imagine adding another 8 or 9 years to your life.

While I’m obviously oversimplifying a bit, it is hard to test the life-prolonging effects of caloric restriction and intermittent fasting on humans due to the real lifespan increase that could occur. In any case, there are plenty of other health effects that happen due to caloric restriction.

 

Lean body mass and type two diabetes

High protein diets have been shown to help with weight loss in general [7]. With proteins being the most satiating macronutrient, that doesn’t come as a surprise. Moreover, they also have a key role in influencing glucose homeostasis and optimizing lean body mass [8]. So eating more protein would have positive benefits on your weight, your body constitution, as well as your glucose levels.

In animal models, it has also been shown to cut the risk for type two diabetes [9]. But, yeah, mice. That’s why there was another team which tested the same thing on humans, they found out that supplementing with whey protein decreased blood sugar, without increasing insulin secretion. They were testing people with different levels of insulin resistance. One group received 0 g, the other 5 g, and the last 30 g of whey protein. All of the groups also received canola oil and 50 g of oral glucose. They observed that whey protein reduced blood glucose without increasing insulin secretion. [10]

You also might ask whether this is true for protein from all sources or just whey protein. Whey protein powders contain a specific composition of different BCAAs and other compounds that give the human body with the required nutrients for the mentioned effects. Not only that, it also has one of the highest absorption, use, and retention rate of any protein source. [11]

Some of the mentoned effects that are a consequence of a particular compound composition found in whey protein would probably not happen with particular dietary sources of protein, as whey sometimes has a higher concentration of certain BCAAs.

 

Mood, stress, cognition

Whey protein powders have also been shown to be positively beneficial when it comes to mood, stress, and cognition. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, whey supplementation raised tryptophan levels. This amino acid is a building block for the synthesis of serotonin, one of the hormones responsible for your well-being and happiness. The supplementation caused people, who were more likely to perceive things as stressful, to feel better under stress, they reported improvements in mood, and it was easier for them to cope with it. [13]

This can be highly helpful for such people.

In another study, a whey supplement was also found to be beneficial for memory performance. This was, again, observed for people who were more likely to perceive stress. Whey protein improved their scores on a test that measured how well they can memorize. [12]

And finally, a review from 2012 also suggested that different substances found in whey protein may help when it comes to age-related cognitive decline and dementia.  [13]

 

Summary

By supplementing with whey protein, or just eating more protein through meat, fish, eggs, or different plant sources, you could expect:

  • Better preservation of lean body mass at an old age
  • Possible increases in lifespan
  • Better insulin resistance, reduced blood glucose
  • Less calories consumed due to proteins being the most satiating macronutrient
  • If you’re a mouse and reading this, you can have a reduced chance of type two diabetes (even if you’re a human there are some mechanisms by which it could cut it, they have yet to be proven)
  • Raised tryptophan and serotonin levels
  • An improvement in mood and memory performance, if you’re prone to stress
  • Possible improvements with cognitive decline and dementia, if you’re old

That was it. Quite impressive for something so simple, isn’t it?

About Author

Sebastijan Veselic

BSc in Psychology, currently doing a MSc in Cognitive science. Pursuing and interested in many academic and scientific disciplines and topics, as well as some less so. These include, but are not limited to, cute cats on the internet.

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