Why Athlete’s Need Whey Protein
Most of you reading this will know just how popular and beneficial whey protein is for building muscle, aiding recovery and helping you achieve your athletic goals. Yes, first and foremost carbohydrates are the multi sport athletes friend. But, remember, carbs and proteins need each other to work well. Muscle-building and recovery however are merely a fraction of the benefits whey protein can potentially impart. While the magazines are crammed full of all the benefits of whey protein, I want to approach the subject of whey protein from a more in-depth perspective. Quite simply, we all know what whey protein can do for our physique on the outside, but just what can it do for our health, well-being, longevity and quality of life….on the inside?
The Protein Basics
Protein is vital for muscle repair and for additional lean muscle growth. Without adequate protein, we would find it difficult, if not impossible to build a lean muscular physique. When designing nutritional and training plans for athletes, I try and stress the importance of protein variety. For an athlete to remain vigilant to an advanced nutritional plan, it must offer some form of variety, even if it is intended to induce a loss in body fat. I like to obtain at least 3-4 of my protein sources from the whole food variety. Chicken, salmon, white fish, eggs, beef, turkey etc all offer good variety, good taste and are all excellent sources of protein.
About Whey Protein.
Many of us know about whey protein and how it can help us build more muscle, increase strength and get in shape, that’s old news right? Body builders, athletes and fitness enthusiasts have been using whey protein for years with great results. However, what else makes whey the number-one protein choice for all athletes?
During the mid 1980’s the whey industry undertook a massive overhaul. Researchers started to investigate all the potential benefits of using whey, which, after a short period of time, created a new, huge demand for the product. Most active people have heard of whey protein, it’s everywhere when you open a fitness magazine, you cannot escape the fact that whey is the most versatile and widely-used protein source on the market.
Once purified and processed (to various qualities) whey proteins are used throughout the sports nutrition market in nutritional bars, drinks and medicinal nutritional formulas. Whey protein contains nearly all the vitamins and minerals that are present in milk. Alfa and beta lactoglobulin comprise between 70-80% of whey. These whey fractions provide high levels of essential amino acids and branch chain amino acids (BCAA), the latter being extremely vital in the life and the aims of any athlete.
When compared to other protein sources such as casein or soy, whey is generally felt to be a superior product. Whey appears to be digested and absorbed faster and is a higher-quality protein source and may have better and more plentiful antioxidant properties. (1)
The different forms of whey protein
While there exists many different types of whey protein, such as hydrolysed whey and whey powder, the most commonly-used forms within the sports nutrition industry are Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC) and Whey Protein Isolate (WPI).
Whey Protein Concentrate
Whey protein concentrate typically uses what is called ultra-filtration technology to filter or concentrate whey components. Ultra filtration basically causes the larger protein molecules to remain while filtering out the lactose and ash, which results in a higher concentration of protein.
Whey Protein Isolate
The highest concentration of protein comes in the form of Whey Protein Isolate. These products have a protein concentrate of 90% or higher as a result of both micro-filtration and ion exchange.
So which is best?
The answer to that is neither! Both WPI and WPC are equally viable to the athlete seeking to enhance their performance and physique through correct protein supplementation.
The many benefits of Whey Protein
Absorption rate = Usability
Let’s start with the basics. Most consumers within the multisport and fitness industry use whey protein to repair and build muscle. Additional benefits are great, but the primary objective for many whey protein users is “will it help me build muscle?” The high absorption rate of Whey Protein ensures that the amino acids reach their desired destination in the minimum time. This equals faster recovery, faster growth and a quicker and easier source of muscle-building nutrients.
Gut health- The key to well-being, progression and general health
In the USA, colon and rectal cancer make up the second leading cause of cancer death (National Cancer Institute, 2003) additionally; complaints of abdominal pain and stomach discomfort were the leading emergency room complaint and the focus of over 45 million physician visits (McCraig 2002). Without a doubt, maintaining a healthy gut/intestinal health is the key to well-being. If you have trouble in the gut, chances are your life and your related well-being will suffer dramatically. Therefore before even addressing the above factor of gaining more muscle tissue and looking great in the gym, the far more important issue of gut health must be addressed and taken care of.
The immune-enhancing properties of whey protein
Probably the most researched and used benefit in using whey protein is to aid the immune system. This is vital to the hard training athlete. What is more annoying that continually catching colds, missing time at the gym and generally taking backwards steps when looking to plough forward to the physique you’ve always dreamed of. Numerous studies have shown that whey proteins are high in the amino acid cysteine, which helps the body’s immune system by raising glutathione levels. (1) Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant with the ability to fight infections by bolstering the immune system.
Whey Components and the immune system
Immunoglobulins (IgGs), lactoperoxidase and lactoferrin concentrated from whey protein have been shown to participate in host immunity and aid the immune system. IgGs have been shown to bind beneficial bacterial toxins and lower bacterial load in the large bowel. Ridding the intestinal tract of pathogenic organisms has a prominent role in improving immunity. Dietary lactoperoxidase and lactoferrin (both found in whey) also may play an important role in host immunity through their anti-bacterial action on pathogenic microorganisms. (Parodi 1998)
Whey protein components- Gut health and the prebiotic properties of whey
The term prebiotic refers to “a non-digestible food ingredient that beneficially affects the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacteria in the colon” (2) There are many components of whey protein that have been found to enhance intestinal health and increase pr-biotic activity. Lactose (found naturally within all whey proteins) has been shown to support lactic acid bacteria (such as bifidobacteria and lactobacilli). Stalic acids (types of oligosaccharides), which are typically attached to proteins commonly found in whey, have also been shown to have prebiotic effects. (3).
However, three additional components of whey have been found to beneficially affect prebiotic formulation. The first is a protein called glycomacropeptide (GMP). GMP is derived from the partial enzymatic breakdown of kappa-casein during cheese production, becoming a component of whey. GMP has been shown to support the growth of bifidobacteria. (4).The second whey-derived pre-biotic is lactoferrin (Lf), which has been shown to support the growth of bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. (4).Interestingly the third whey component with pre-biotic potential is a mineral that is found in high amounts with all quality whey protein formulations. Calcium phosphate has been shown to selectively stimulate the growth of intestinal lactobacilli and decrease the severity of salmonella infections in rats.
Two additional common examples of prebiotics found within whey protein are Fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and Inulin, which are non-digestible carbohydrates that act as a food source for probiotic formulation. (1)
Anti-microbial and anti-viral properties of whey components
the intestinal tract can be thought of in simplified terms as a long tube with a mass of micro-organisms inhabiting its inner surface. Maintaining the balance of micro-organisms within this environment helps (at least in part) to determine health and disease. (9)
Whey contains several unique components with broad anti-bacterial properties including Immunoglobulins, Lactoferrin, Lactoperoxidase, Glycomacropeptides and Sphingoloipids. Significant levels of these compounds have been shown to survive passage through the stomach and small intestine and arrive in the large intestine and intact proteins, where they exert their biological effects. (Warny 1999)
Anti-cancer properties of whey protein components
Amino acids cysteine and methionine have both been suggested to possess anti-cancer properties as both are utilised in glutathione production. Glutathione is widely distributed and is a substrate for two classes of enzymes which catalyze detoxification compounds and bind mutagens and carcinogens facilitating their elimination from the body (Parodi 1998). Cysteine may also help in the treatment of breast cancer. At the 94th Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, Dr. Shumin Zhang and colleagues shared findings from a controlled study in conjunction with Nurses health study at Brigham and women’s hospital. Women in the group with the highest levels of plasma cysteine have a 56% reduction in the risk of developing breast cancer compared with the lowest concentration levels of plasma cysteine. Whey Protein is naturally high in cysteine and contains significantly more than many other sources of protein available. (7)
Lactoferrin has the ability to bind to iron which has been shown to be a useful weapon in colon cancer therapy (Parodi 1998)
High Concentrations of BCAA
Leucine, Iso-leucine and Valine have long been heralded within the sports nutrition world for their ability to preserve muscle tissue during times of intense training. BCAA’s are needed for the maintenance of muscle tissue and appear to preserve muscle stores of glycogen (5), ensuring an anabolic and anti-catabolic environment, therefore minimising any potential muscle-loss, while maximising the potential for new muscle growth. Due to this glycogen-sparing action, BCAA’s may also help prevent muscle breakdown during exercise. This proves my point, long argued, that whey protein is a fantastic pre-workout, anti-catabolic, muscle-sparing food.
Whey Protein and a weight-management plan
It is generally regarded by researchers, that Protein is the most satiating nutrient. Basically, when you eat protein, chances are that you will “feel” fuller for longer than if you ate carbohydrates or fat. Two studies have investigated the effects of two milk protein types- Casein and Whey Protein- on food intake and subjective ratings of hunger and fullness, as well as on postprandial metabolite and gastrointestinal hormone responses. Both studies concluded that whey protein meals are far more satiating than casein meals and are associated with higher postprandial circulating levels of amino acids, CCK and GLP-1. These finding show that whey protein may play a valuable role in weight management and weight-loss programs. (Hall, et al. Br J Nutr. 2003;89:239-248.)
Whey protein and fat-loss in women
one interesting study was carried out to discover whether protein levels aided weight-loss in women. Subjects were placed on a diet of equal calorie intake, with one group receiving higher levels of protein, including whey, the other receiving additional carbohydrates. Both groups received exercise regimes. The study showed that the group receiving higher amounts of protein actually lost body fat while maintaining and even gaining lean muscle.(6)
Other benefits of whey protein
While not as immediately-important to you, the hard-training athlete, whey proteins have also been shown to:
1. Improved mood: The whey component alpha-lactalbumin is high in tryptophan, a natural relaxant. A recent study showed that a diet including alpha-lactalbumin-enriched whey protein was helpful in improving mood levels and increasing serotonin levels in the brain.(8)
2. Helps reduce hypertension: Some studies suggest that whey protein may provide benefits to people with borderline high hypertension. Many studies are currently in progress on this topic.
As you can see, there really is more to whey protein than bigger, stronger muscles and allowing you the ability to build a great physique. When buying your next tub of protein, ask yourself whether or not it provides the best bang for your buck, is it versatile, is it healthful and will it help me be the best athlete possible, in the shortest time span available?
1. Marjorie Geiser, RD, NSCA-CPT- “The wonders of whey protein”
2. Gibson GR, Roberfroid MB, Dietary modulation of the human colonic microflora: Introducing the concept of prebiotics. J Nutr.1995;125:1401-1412
3. Naidu AS, Bidlack WR, Clemens RA. Probiotic spectra of lactic acid bacteria (LAB). Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr.1999;38(1):13-126
4. Harper WJ. Biological properties of whey components: A review. Chicago, I11: The American dairy Products Institute; 2000
5. Blomstrand E, Ek s, Newsholme EA. (1996). Influence of ingesting a solution of branched chain amino acids on plasma and muscle concentrations of amino acids during prolonged submaximal exercise
6. Layman DK, Evans E, Baum JI, Seyler J, Erickson DJ, Boileau RA.
Dietary Protein and Exercise Have Additive Effects on Body Composition during Weight Loss in Adult Women.
Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition;
7. Zhang et al, presented at the American Association for Cancer Research 2—3 Annual meeting. Orlando. Flo. Change the “whey” you think about protein by Carla Sorenson- Today’s dietician, Oct 2003.
8. Markus CR, Olivier B, Panhuysen GE, Van Der Gugten J, Alles MS, Tuiten A, Westenberg HG, Fekkes D, Koppeschar HF, de Hann EE. (2000) The bovine protein alpha-lactalbumin increases the plasma ratio of tryptophan to the other large neutral amino acids and in vulnerable subject’s raises brain serotonin activity, reduces cortisol concentration and improves mood under stress. Am J Clin Nutr, 71(6):1536-1544
9. The Whey to intestinal health. Jennifer Causey, M.S., Ph.D., and Kevin Thomson, R.D., M.Ed.