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Why Whey?

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Whey Protein Supplement

Whey Protein Supplement (Photo credit: Steven Vance)

Whey is the byproduct of cheese manufacture. It is the liquid that remains after milk has been curdled and strained to separate casein or curds. Whey is composed of proteins, lactose, vitamins, minerals and traces of fat. Whey proteins constitute 20% of milk protein whereas casein, 80%. The major proteins in whey are β-lactoglobulin, α-lactalbumin, glycomacropeptide, proteose peptone 3, immunoglobulins and serum albumin. It also contains proteins like lactoferrin and lactoperoxidase. Membrane filtration helps to separate whey proteins from the non-protein fractions and spray drying yields it in the powder form. Whey proteins are marketed as nutritional supplements and are exceedingly popular among bodybuilders and athletes, who eye it as the key to build muscles and accrue lean mass.

Whey Supplements are available as:

  1. Whey Protein Concentrates (WPC) that are about 75-89% protein by weight. They are low in fat and cholesterol, high in bioactive compounds and contain carbohydrates in the form of lactose.
  2. Whey Protein Isolates (WPI) that are about 90% + protein by weight. They contain no fat or lactose and are low in bioactive compounds.
  3. Whey Protein Blends (WPB) that are a combination of WPC and WPI.
  4. Whey Protein Hydrolysates (WPH) that are broken down or predigested and partially hydrolysed proteins for easy metabolism.

All these products cater mainly to the sporting community. They also find their way into various health drinks that promote stamina and supplements advised for diabetic, febrile and cachexic patients i.e., all conditions where protein needs are high. WPH is preferred for use in baby formulae as it is less allergenic than other forms, is easily digestible and produces soft stools.

Though there is a plethora of protein supplements made using other sources like casein, soy, egg and rice proteins, it is only whey protein that is in high demand constantly. Why is there so much brouhaha surrounding whey protein? Why Whey?

Whey protein has carved a niche for itself with its:

  • High quality and excellent biological value. Being an animal protein, whey is of high quality. Its biological value (the efficiency with which a protein is absorbed and used by the body) is a whopping 170 when compared against a standard 100 of egg protein.
  • Easy digestibility and rapid absorption. It is ‘fast-acting’ as it reaches the muscles and other bodily tissues quickly to nourish as well as repair them. Fast absorbing proteins have anabolic effect.
  • Richness in Branched Chained Amino Acids (BCAAs). Whey is abundant in the BCAAs – Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine. BCAAs fuel working muscles, prevent or offset muscle breakdown, stimulate protein synthesis and efficiently repair wear and tear of muscles. Leucine in particular plays an important role in the initiation of transcription of protein synthesis. BCAAs speed up recovery and adaptation to exercise stress.
  • Capacity to increase metabolic rate.  A randomised human clinical study published in Nutrition and Metabolism has showed that whey can be successfully used in weight loss programs. It increases fat loss while preserving lean mass.  More lean mass signifies an increase in Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR).
  • Ability to pump up body’s nitric oxide (NO) level. Peptides in whey proteins pump up body’s nitric oxide level that widens blood vessels and improves blood circulation. It helps in muscle-building, increases exercise performance, increases body’s main muscle-building hormones, improves heart and blood vessel function. A study in the International Dairy Journal has inferred that whey beverages significantly decrease total and LDL cholesterol concentrations; they could be useful in the dietary treatment of prehypertension and/or stage1 hypertension.
  • Capability to promote satiety. Whey protein modulates various hormonal changes – it lowers hyperinsulinemia (less lipogenesis), lowers cortisol levels (lean muscle preservation) and decreases ghrelin release (satiety enhancement).
  • Power to improve immunity. The presence of lactoferrin, β-lactoglobulin, α-lactalbumin, glycomacropeptide, and immunoglobulins boost immunity.

Is whey supplement the protein option for everybody?

It is easy to be swayed by its goodness and presume that whey supplement is the best protein option for everybody. But no…a sensibly planned, well-balanced diet is adequate to meet the daily protein requirement of 0.8 g/kg body weight of a normal, healthy individual and 1.2-1.7 g/kg body weight of an athlete. The support of a supplement may only be necessary for a person with poor, erratic eating habits or malabsorption syndromes that make it difficult to fulfill daily protein needs through food alone. Supplements can however, be used in addition to food and not instead of food.

The essence of the subject is so beautifully captured in what Nancy Clarke, the renowned Sports Nutritionist has expressed about protein supplements: “If you are a casual exerciser, you need not get obsessed about the type of protein in each meal. People of all ages and athletic abilities have been building muscles for centuries with standard food. If you are an aspiring champion who wants every possible edge, you may want to experiment with protein supplements to see if you achieve any benefits.

It may only take little time and effort to arrange for a session with a Doctor-Dietitian team to get a thorough body assessment, diet review and receive recommendations regarding diet modifications and protein supplement dosages. The dosages given on the product labels serve just as a guide, but only a dietitian will be able to customise it according to a person’s activity, need and protein intake from food.

How safe is whey?

Lot of concern exists about the safety of consuming whey supplements. A healthy individual without any allergies can take whey without fear of any side-effects. For those with lactose intolerance, WPI is the best choice or whey products with added lactase may resolve the problem. Dehydration is a possibility, if enough fluids is not taken along with whey. So drink sufficient fluids when taking whey.

More does not mean better

Many people believe that more whey may help them achieve bulkier muscles fast. But muscle mass gains do not increase in a linear fashion with increasing protein intake. Once an optimal intake has been reached, surplus protein is not converted into muscle. The amino group of the protein that contains nitrogen is converted into urea in the liver, which is later excreted by the kidney.  The remainder of the protein is converted into glucose which may either be used for energy immediately or stored as glycogen. Understand that protein intake beyond body’s requirement does not increase muscle size, strength or stamina. Do not allow greed to overcome prudence. Eat only what is required.

Any health care provider, fitness enthusiast or patient who happens to read this post, key in nuggets of your whey knowledge in the comments. Share just about anything regarding whey – why and to whom you recommend it, how you were benefitted by it, issues you faced while taking it or your favourite whey product.

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