Whey Protein Powder: A Beginner’s Guide

Whey protein is considered to be a staple supplement in the fitness industry. It is the single most important supplement used for building muscle, promoting weight loss, enhancing athletic performance and improving overall health.

Protein powders first came into use by the bodybuilders in 1950’s. Over the next two decades, the popularity of bodybuilding grew and so did the supplements industry, with whey protein leading the pack. Initially, protein powders were geared towards the bodybuilding community but as the mainstream public got interested in fitness in the 80’s and 90’s more supplements, and protein powders were being marketed to all types of fitness enthusiasts and athletes.

Decades later, supplements industry is still a growing space, with innovations, products, and brands competing for your dollar every day by promising to make you stronger, faster and healthier. Whey protein powders alone are expected to grow to 12.4 U.S billion U.S. dollars by 2021, worldwide. They came in a variety of forms, flavors and designed for specific fitness goals and lifestyles.

What is whey protein?

Whey protein is a dietary supplement made from liquid part of milk when it separates from cheese. This liquid part is called whey. If you ever opened a yogurt container and noticed liquid on top of the actual yogurt, that’s whey. Whey goes through a multistep process and is converted into a powder which is then packaged and sold. This protein powder is used in shakes and protein bars.

Protein is an essential macronutrient used to help build muscle. If you’re serious about fitness or are a professional athlete, adding whey protein to your diet helps get you the dietary support and fuel for muscle growth that you may not have enough of from regular foods.

Why supplement with whey protein?

Supplementing with whey protein can benefit many groups of people. However, it is most recognized for is benefiting athletes, bodybuilders and anyone undertaking exercise training and weight-loss programs. The top reason why people supplement with whey protein is to build muscle.

Protein is an essential macronutrient for building muscle. More often than not, you’re probably not getting enough protein in with your meals or the right balance of macronutrient ratios for your fitness goals, especially if you live a very active lifestyle or currently training.

Supplementing with whey protein can help you get the extra protein into your body to boost post-workout recovery and stimulate muscle growth.

In a study, published in Journal of Food Science, researchers found that supplementing with 20 grams of protein led to greater increases in total body mass, fat-free mass, thigh mass and muscle strength compared to those taking the carbohydrate placebo. (1)

Many other studies have reported similar findings. If building muscle is your number one goal, whey protein has been shown to be the top supplement choice for achieving it. (2, 3)

With more muscle, comes greater strength, improved muscle tone and more efficient calorie burn. But drinking protein shakes all day long, without exercise, proper rest and a nutritional plan will not help you achieve your fitness goals.

Side effects of whey protein supplementation

Supplementing with whey protein is considered generally safe for most people. As with anything, too much of it or abuse of it can lead to some side effects. Side effects can include digestional discomfort, cramping, bloating, nausea, headaches, and fatigue.

Different types of whey protein

Not all whey protein powders are created equal. There are four major forms currently available: whey isolate, whey concentrate, whey hydrolysate, whey casein and whey blend.

Whey Protein Concentrate

Whey protein concentrate is the most commonly available and the cheapest form of whey protein available on the market. You can easily find it at your local nutritional store, anywhere online and even Walmart. It is the first type of protein by-product of remaining liquid of when milk, separates and begins to turn into cheese. The liquid whey is then pasteurized and filtered before being processed into whey protein concentrate powder.

At this earlier stage, the percentage of protein varies greatly from about 30% to about 80%. The rest of macronutrient profile is made up of carbs and fats, depending on the brand.

Whey Protein Isolate

Whey protein isolate follows the same process, except it’s the ultra-filtered version of the concentrate. It is a more purer form of whey protein as it has a much higher ratio of protein (at least 90%) to other macronutrients. Whey isolate is fast absorbing and much easier to digest. Most of the lactose is removed from an isolate, thus creating less chance of intestinal discomfort than in the concentrated form of whey protein. Especially if you’re lactose intolerant. Although it’s readily available as bulk protein powder, it comes with a higher price tag than whey concentrate.

Hydrolyzed whey protein

Hydrolyzed whey protein is the highest quality and most expensive type of whey protein available on the market today. It has gone an additional processing step after whey isolate, turning into pure protein. With some amino acids already broken down the protein is fast absorbing and easy to digest. Not only is it this type of protein more expensive, but it’s difficult to find it in it’s purest form. Many brands will market “hydro whey,” however, they’ll add other ingredients to the formula to enhance nutrient profile and flavor.

Protein Blends

Another common type of protein powders you’ll find on the market are called blends. They’ll mostly be marketed as “whey protein.” Whey protein blends contain various ratios and formulas of other whey protein types mentioned earlier. Like concentrate and isolate, blends are readily available everywhere from your local nutrition store to a local grocer. Blends are a great option if you want to access all types of proteins while being reasonably priced.

How to choose the right protein

There are dozens of whey proteins for you to choose from. They vary in price, formulations, and types, choosing the right one for you can feel overwhelming. Here are some tips on how to find the right one.

Don’t buy based on price alone. Brands with low price points can be appealing. However, low-cost protein powders are made from low-quality proteins, have fillers in ingredients or poor macronutrient profile. On the flip side, don’t buy the most expensive protein powders either. The protein quality could be great, but a lot of what you’re paying for is the marketing, hype, packaging and “proprietary” formulas.

Review the ingredients. Look for whey protein powder with a simple and minimal ingredient list.

Review the nutritional profile. Nutritional facts card on the back of protein powder container is another great clue into the quality of protein you’re buying. If you’re only looking to supplement with protein, your protein powder shouldn’t be loaded with fillers that add additional sugars and fats to the macronutrient profile.

Try sample packs. You don’t have to invest in 5lb tubs or 10lb bags, get smaller containers or sample sizes. Try a few before you commit to a particular brand and type of protein powder. As you evaluate product quality, taste, and mixability, it’s as important to monitor how they make you feel after ingestion. You don’t want to feel bloated or uncomfortable.

Read the reviews. And finally, read other users’ reviews. Amazon and Bodybuilding.com have hundreds of customer reviews on protein powders. Read both, five-star and especially one-star reviews.

Labdoor rankings. Another way to find the best whey protein powder is to check out the work Labdoor is doing.  They take various supplement groups and test individual products in that group for a number of things including label accuracy, nutritional value, ingredients safety and few others.  The end result is a ranking table.  Here’s one for protein.

Whey protein powder is a great option if you’re looking to increase your protein intake in an efficient and convenient way. With so many brands on the market, not all are created equal. You need to do your own research and sample different types to find the right one for you.