Most people think of whey protein as something that bodybuilders take after a hard workout. But this milk by-product is much more than that — and there are many whey protein benefits that can help men and women of all ages, sizes, and activity levels.
Whey supplementation has been shown to improve athletic performance and can help you lose weight, slow age-related muscle decline, and even lower high blood pressure. Read on to learn about whey protein benefits and how you can use it in your healthy keto lifestyle.
What Is Whey Protein?
Most of the whey protein you’ll find available nowadays is a derivative from cow’s milk (although you can find some from goat’s milk).
Dairy milk contains two primary proteins: casein (about 80%) and whey (about 20%).
Whey concentrate and whey protein isolate are extracted when you separate dairy solids (casein) from the liquid (whey). This liquid is then spray dried into a powder and filtered.
Whey Protein Concentrate
Whey protein concentrate (WPC) is less filtered than whey protein isolate and still contains some lactose (a fermentable sugar that has been known to cause digestive issues and bloating in some people). It also doesn’t contain as much protein as whey isolate.
Whey Protein Isolate
Whey protein isolate (WPI) is the purest form of whey, containing over 90% protein and very little lactose, making it a good protein source choice for people with lactose intolerance[*].
Whey isolate — or any form of whey, for that matter — is not appropriate for those with a dairy allergy. That’s because whey contains alpha-lactalbumin and beta-lactoglobulin, which are normally beneficial compounds but also happen to be milk allergens[*].
Whey isolate can also be hydrolyzed, or split apart, to create whey protein hydrolysate, which has been shown to be absorbed easier[*].
When choosing your whey protein, pay attention to its origins to ensure you’re getting a high-quality protein product. If your whey comes from grass-fed cows, it not only has more bioactive compounds like lactoferrin and beta-lactoglobulin, but it’s also better for the environment[*].
Ranchers who raise grass-fed cows tend to use rotational grazing methods that spare the soil. Organic farmers also use fewer antibiotics for their livestock, helping to lessen the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant superbugs[*].
9 Whey Protein Benefits
Whey protein supplements have been around for a while and are quite popular in gyms and among those who focus on resistance exercise. But the health benefits of whey protein go much further than mere physical performance and muscle strength. Here are some science-backed facts.
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#1: Can Improve Body Composition
Even though whey is well known around the bodybuilder community, this supplement can help preserve lean muscle mass and increase fat loss during periods of weight loss. It helps you build muscle without turning you bulky.
Researchers at Purdue compiled 13 studies on whey supplementation for women. Body mass index (BMI) was the primary endpoint[*].
When the data was calculated, they found that whey protein improved body composition across the board. This means that when women supplemented with whey, they had more lean body mass than the control groups. This effect was most significant in studies with a calorie-restriction component.
In another study, researchers put 34 women recovering from gastric bypass surgery on two diets — low-calorie with whey, and low-calorie without whey. All 34 women lost weight, but the group that supplemented with whey maintained their muscle mass[*].
Whey may not stimulate weight loss per se, but it can help boost your satiety while helping you maintain muscle even as you shed fat.
#2: May Help Weight Loss on Keto
You probably know that a high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet can stimulate weight loss and comes packed with immense health benefits for your body and brain[*].
The ketogenic diet is a high-fat diet where fat sources like MCT oil, nut butter, and olive oil are encouraged. But even though fat is the star of keto, protein also plays a major role.
Adequate protein intake is essential for maintaining lean mass on a ketogenic weight loss program.
In a 2016 study conducted to assess body composition changes, 25 healthy people were put on two different diets: a low-calorie diet and a keto diet with whey supplementation[*].
In the end, the group on keto showed better results in body composition than the low-calorie group. Although both groups lost weight, only the people on keto kept their lean mass.
#3: Can Help Balance Blood Sugar
In one trial, researchers gave either whey, casein, or glucose to obese people for 12 weeks. Results showed that the group taking the whey supplement had better insulin function[*].
In another study, people suffering from type 2 diabetes were given whey protein along with a high-carb breakfast. The results showed that those who consumed whey had improved insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar than the placebo group[*].
These studies concluded that whey protein can be of great help to those suffering from metabolic disorders.
#4: Muscle Growth and Recovery
When it comes to whey protein benefits for the body, muscle growth is probably the most well-known.
Whey protein is great for promoting muscle protein synthesis, due to its amino acid composition.
Amino acids are necessary to form every tissue in your body and are categorized as essential and non-essential. Essential aminos are provided through your diet, while non-essential aminos are technically synthesized in your body.
A protein with all nine essential amino acids — like whey protein — is called a complete protein.
Whey is rich in branched-chain amino acids, also known as BCAAs or leucine, which play a vital role in muscle repair and growth, making whey ideal for exercise recovery[*]
A group of researchers examined the short-term recovery effects of whey. They gave 12 young men either a whey protein supplement or a carb supplement before a weightlifting session.
They then measured muscle strength and recovery at 12 and 24 hours post-workout. The whey supplemented group recovered better, faster, and with stronger results than the control group[*].
#5: Might Reduce Age-Related Muscle Loss
As you grow older, your body naturally starts to deteriorate and lose muscle (also known as sarcopenia). Including whey protein in your diet can help you slow down this process and avoid the side effects that come with this condition.
Muscle loss, or sarcopenia, can cause problems like weakness, nerve damage, and may increase your risk of chronic disease[*].
Both protein and resistance training are crucial for maintaining lean mass into your later decades. If you lift three times a week but don’t eat enough protein, your muscles will pay the price.
Along these lines, researchers gave 70 older women either whey or placebo (before and after weight training) for 12 weeks[*]. At the end of this randomized controlled trial, the women on whey had more lean mass — and more functional strength — than the control group.
#6: May Help Boost Immunity
One of the most overlooked whey protein benefits is its immunity supporting properties.
In addition to its essential amino acids, whey is brimming with bioactive, immune-boosting compounds, such as beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, lactoferrin, and immunoglobulins.
These agents have been studied for their antimicrobial and anticancer properties, which supports your immune system in fighting infection and destroying harmful antigens[*][*][*][*].
#7: Can Promote Antioxidant Support
Cysteine is technically a non-essential amino acid, which means you can synthesize it on your own. However, providing your body with an additional boost of cysteine can be a wise thing to do.
Every second of every day, your cells generate particles called reactive oxygen species (ROS). At low levels, ROS are actually beneficial — acting as signaling molecules for your immune system and cellular defense mechanisms.
At high levels, however, ROS can create oxidative damage throughout your body, which may lead to the development of conditions like autoimmunity, neurodegenerative disease, heart disease, and accelerated aging[*].
To keep ROS in check during times of stress or illness, your body has a protector called glutathione.
Glutathione is known as your master antioxidant. When oxidative stress rises, your body ramps up glutathione levels to clean up those pesky ROS. To produce these endogenous antioxidants, your body needs cysteine.
Supporting your body with cysteine-rich foods — such as whey protein — can help to keep your immune system healthy and running at its optimal level[*].
#8: May Support Liver Health
Your liver is one of the most active organs of your body and plays a multitude of important roles in various systems.
From secreting digestive bile and helping you break down dietary fat to clearing toxins from your blood, regulating your cholesterol levels, and producing clotting proteins, the liver is the ultimate multi-tasker[*].
Sadly, liver health seems to be on the downswing in the developed world — with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) now affecting 20-30% of the population[*].
Cysteine-rich foods like whey, may help your body replenish glutathione stores, which can decrease oxidative stress on your liver.
Researchers gave 20 grams of whey protein isolate per day to 38 patients with liver disease for 12 weeks. By the end of the trial, not only had glutathione production improved — but the health of the liver cells themselves (hepatocytes) had improved too[*].
In another study, 11 obese women with liver disease were given whey protein supplementation. All of the women experienced a decrease in liver size and triglycerides[*].
#9: Can Support Heart Health
There are many factors that can influence the risk of heart disease: weight, insulin resistance, lipids, endothelial health, inflammation — the list is long.
In addition to all the other whey protein benefits, a massive 2013 review found that whey supplementation also can improve blood pressure, arterial health, and blood lipids in people with metabolic syndrome[*].
In one trial, 42 mildly hypertensive folks got either whey, casein, or sugar supplements for eight weeks. Results showed that compared to casein and sugar, whey protein not only significantly improved blood pressure but also lowered triglycerides — another risk factor for heart disease[*].
How to Take Protein Supplements
If you’re considering adding this supplement to your keto diet to get all the whey protein benefits, learning about dosage is vital. Here are a few general guidelines.
Depending on your activity level, you’ll need more or less protein to support your daily needs[*].
- Very active: 150 grams protein for a 200-pound person (100 grams protein for a 140-pound person)
- Moderately active: 120 grams protein for a 200-pound person (80 grams protein for a 140-pound person)
- Sedentary: 90 grams protein for a 200-pound person (60 grams protein for a 140-pound person)
Pregnant women are also recommended to up their protein intake to maintain muscle mass and support their growing child — around 1.2 g/kg body weight initially, and 1.5 g/kg body weight in the third trimester[*].
Always check with your healthcare provider to learn if whey protein can be included in your diet and how to do it safely.
General Protein Safety
According to research, up to 2 g/kg bodyweight protein per day is safe — while 3.5 g/kg body weight is the tolerable upper limit[*].
People with a damaged liver or kidneys should also exercise caution at high protein intakes[*].
This guide is just a friendly resource and cannot substitute medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional if you’re not sure about including this supplement in your lifestyle.
Whey Protein Benefits That Support Your Keto Goals
Whey has an impressive spectrum of health benefits. If you’re following a keto diet for weight loss, physical and mental performance, or overall health, this supplement could be a great addition to your smoothies, breakfast pancakes, or keto treats.
With so much supporting evidence, whey protein is at least worth a try. If you’re still unconvinced about this supplement and its potential, check out the following articles:
- The Comprehensive Guide to Whey Protein
- Grass-Fed Whey Protein vs. Regular Whey
- Is Whey Protein Good for You?