What Is Whey Protein? (Benefits, Risks & Usage)

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Published by James Cunningham, BSc, CPT | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: June 21, 2024
FACT CHECKED by Dr. Kristy Dayanan, BS, MD
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Are you considering buying gym supplements? Then you’ve probably heard of good whey protein.

But you might not know what it is and whether it’s right for you.

I’ve been a coach for many years, so it’s safe to say that I know a thing or two about this powerful form of protein.

But I also partnered with a dietitian to bring you the most verified and complete information. Here’s everything you need to know about whey.

Quick Summary

  • Whey protein, derived from milk, is a popular supplement for muscle building, weight loss, and cholesterol management.
  • The three main types are whey protein isolate, concentrate, and hydrolysate, each with different levels of protein concentration and digestibility.
  • Consuming 54 grams of whey protein daily for 12 weeks can significantly reduce total and LDL cholesterol in overweight individuals.
  • As a coach, I believe whey protein is a versatile supplement that can effectively support various health and fitness goals.

What Exactly Is Whey Protein?

a scoop of white powder

Whey protein is a type of milk protein. In fact, it’s one of the two most abundant types of proteins found in milk [1]:

  • Casein (80%)
  • Whey (20%)

When we say whey, we’re actually referring to the watery part of milk. For example, the liquid substance you can sometimes see floating when you open a yogurt is whey, according to the Healthline [2].

Whey proteins are extracted from milk during cheesemaking. Then it undergoes processing and made into a powder that's often added to shakes, meal replacements and protein bars.

Whey protein alone often has a bland taste, leading to the common practice of mixing it with liquids besides water and adding flavors. Popular choices include powders flavored with chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla.

Whey proteins consist of [3]: 

  • Beta-lactoglobulin
  • Alpha-lactalbumin
  • Bovine serum albumin
  • Immunoglobulins

Whey is also considered a complete protein because it contains all nine essential amino acids.

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3 Types Of Whey Protein

different sizes of bottles

According to the MedicalNewsToday, there are three main types of whey protein, based on how it’s processed [4]:

  • Whey protein isolate: Isolate is at least 90% protein. It contains fewer carbs, fat, and lactose than whey protein concentrate because it goes through more processing.
  • Whey protein concentrate: Concentrate is 70 - 80% protein and is usually cheaper than isolate.
  • Whey protein hydrolysate: Hydrolysate, or hydrolyzed whey, is the most expensive type of whey protein supplement. It’s pre-digested, which makes it easier to consume.

In my experience, each of the three whey types - isolate, concentrate, and hydrolysate - serves different fitness goals effectively.

Whey protein powder supplements often include all three types. For those with sensitive digestion, whey hydrolysate is recommended. However, if digestion isn't a concern, hydrolysate may not offer additional benefits over the other types, considering its higher cost.

Regarding quality, isolates are better than whey protein concentrates. Although they are a bit more expensive, the price difference is usually negligible. Isolates also contain fewer calories, carbs and fats so they’re more healthy for you overall [5].

Beyond nutrition, whey protein plays a significant role in food technology, contributing to the development of functional foods, enhancing food fortification, and offering innovative solutions for texture and flavor enhancement in culinary creations.

Benefits of Whey Protein

woman using a tape measure on her body, and a man posing with his biceps out

Here are some of the many health benefits of whey protein: 

May reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases. We’ve already said that whey lowers cholesterol.

That’s one way in which it decreases the risk of heart problems. But it also does so by reducing elevated blood pressure, which offers you double protection against cardiovascular issues [9].

The impact of whey protein extends beyond physical health, based on my first hand experience and with emerging research suggesting potential benefits for mental well-being, including mood enhancement and cognitive function improvements, adding a psychological dimension to its well-known physical benefits.

Risks of Whey Protein

squeezing zit on nose, and a woman in pain

The biggest health risks of whey are related to constipation and digestion. As a coach, I advise caution with whey protein, especially for those with lactose intolerance, as it can cause stomach issues like bloating and gas.

But this mainly happens when people with lactose intolerance take a whey protein supplement. So, there’s little to no reason to worry about these side effects if you tolerate milk just fine.

However, in rare cases, some individuals might experience other side effects of whey protein supplements, like [10]:

  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced appetite
  • Acne

Take the right preventive measures to avoid these side effects:

Be mindful of the impact other ingredients have as well:

How Much Whey Protein Do You Need?

shirtless man drinking

According to the Dietary Reference Intake, an average adult needs 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram or 0.36 grams per pound of body weight [12].

But you’ll need more if you’re physically active, and especially if you’re practicing strength training. Building muscle without protein is difficult since it's a primary source of amino acids.

It’s recommended that you consume 1.2 - 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight or 0.5 - 0.8 grams per pound if you’re trying to build muscle [13].

To determine your daily protein needs for muscle building, multiply your body weight by the recommended protein intake.

For instance, at 170 pounds, you'd need about 119 grams of protein daily (170 lbs x 0.7 g/lb). I've found that a protein calculator can be useful to calculate the total amount needed.

Although a scoop of protein powder can vary, a simple guideline is to take 1 - 2 scoops of whey protein, providing 25 - 50 grams, as part of your daily intake [14].

Recommended Whey Protein Powder Supplements:

FAQs

Can I Drink Whey Protein Without Working Out?

You shouldn’t drink whey protein without working out because it may hurt your liver. Without enough physical activity, the protein will go to your liver instead of your muscles. The liver may struggle to flush it out, which can lead to complications.


References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5149046/
  2. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/whey-protein-101
  3. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/263371
  4. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/263371#types
  5. https://www.gainful.com/blog/isolate-vs-concentrate/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2289832/
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19893505/
  8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22647249/
  9. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S095869461000141X
  10. https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-833/whey-protein
  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32702243/
  12. https://www.sclhealth.org/blog/2019/07/how-much-protein-is-simply-too-much
  13. https://www.acsm.org/docs/default-source/files-for-resource-library/protein-intake-for-optimal-muscle-maintenance.pdf
  14. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/whey-protein-101#dosage-and-side-effects
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About The Author

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
James Cunningham, BSc, CPT holds a BSc degree in Sport & Exercise Science from University of Hertfordshire. He's a Health & Performance Coach from London that brings a unique blend of academic knowledge of health supplements and practical exercise experience to the table for his readers.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Kristy June Dayanan, BS, MD is an author with a BS degree from University of the Philippines and an MD from University of Perpetual Help System. Her ability to simplify medical science complexities and dietary supplement jargon for the average reader makes her a valued medical fact checker and reviewer.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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