Whey for women

Fact-checked by Dr. Anthony Gustin, DC, MS.

Written by Brian Stanton

You know that whey protein is great for gaining muscle and recovery after hard workouts. But did you know that whey protein powder has specific benefits for women of all ages?

Your protein intake — and the types of protein you consume — depends on a couple of different things. Namely, your physical and mental goals, if you need to lose weight, or if you just want more energy at work, in the gym, or on the trail. Maybe you want it all!

Whey protein is one of the best supplements out there that can help with all three — muscle maintenance, fat loss, and energy.

Whether you’ve tried whey before, but you weren’t sure if it was helping, or you’re addicted to whey in your protein shakes, here’s some trustworthy science behind this powerful nutrition supplement and how it can help you reach your goals.

Here’s what you’ll learn today:

First things first: a brief review of your protein options.  

Protein Powders: Pros And Cons

You’ve been there — standing before the great wall of protein powders, unable to choose. It’s not your fault. Your brain wasn’t wired to handle this many options.

It can, however, learn about them. Then you can relax and make an educated decision.

Every protein — from whey to soy to hemp — is made of building blocks called amino acids. These building blocks comprise every tissue in your body — your skin, your hair, your heart — amino acids are everywhere.

Amino acids come in two breeds: essential and non-essential. They’re both important, and you need both to live, but essential aminos are “essential” because your body can’t synthesize them. You have to get them from dietary sources and you need them to live. Your body can technically make non-essential aminos, although you can also get these from dietary sources. In fact, most experts would recommend that you do.

Another bit of terminology. When you hear the term “complete protein,” it means the protein supplement contains all nine essential amino acids. In other words, it covers all your protein bases in one shot. 

With that in mind, here are the most common protein supplements on the market, along with pros and cons for each[*]:

Egg White Protein

Pros

  • High efficiency, bioavailability, and digestibility
  • Complete protein

Cons

  • Some people are allergic to egg
  • Expensive

Pea Protein

Pros

  • Vegan-friendly
  • Good choice if you can’t tolerate egg or dairy

Cons

  • Technically a complete protein, but short in key amino acids like lysine and leucine
  • Less bioavailable than animal-based proteins

Soy Protein

Pros

  • Vegan-friendly
  • Good choice if you can’t tolerate egg or dairy
  • Complete protein

Cons

  • Less bioavailable than animal-based proteins
  • Potential for soy allergy or intolerance
  • Phytoestrogens in soy may cause hormonal issues
  • Concerns with genetically modified, herbicide-resistant soy for soy allergy[*]

Hemp Protein

Pros

  • Vegan-friendly
  • Good choice if you can’t tolerate egg or dairy

Cons

  • A complete protein, but short in key amino acids like lysine and leucine
  • Less bioavailable than animal-based proteins
  • Expensive

Collagen Peptides

Pros

  • Supports healthy skin, hair, and nails
  • Promotes healthy blood sugar response[*]
  • High in glycine and proline — two non-essential amino acids with a spectrum of health benefits[*]
  • Good for digestive health
  • Adds desirable thickness to your protein shake
  • Grass fed options available (for instance, Perfect Keto Grass Fed Collagen)

Cons

  • Not a complete protein, so collagen shouldn’t be your only protein source

Casein Protein

Pros

  • Complete protein
  • High efficiency and bioavailability, but less so than whey or egg

Cons

  • Many are allergic (or intolerant) to casein[*]
  • Less bioactive, beneficial compounds than whey

Whey Protein

Pros

  • Complete protein
  • High in branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) like leucine — which are critical for muscle growth and recovery
  • High efficiency, digestibility, and bioavailability
  • High in the amino acid cysteine, which supports glutathione (your master antioxidant)
  • Full of bioactive, immune-boosting compounds like lactoferrin, alpha-lactalbumin, and beta-lactoglobulin[*]
  • Supports healthy weight loss, muscle growth, and aging[*]
  • Whey protein isolate (or whey isolate) powder — largely lactose-free — often works for those with dairy intolerance

Cons

  • Whey protein concentrates may contain small amounts of lactose; if you have a lactose sensitivity, opt for a high-quality grass fed whey protein isolate, which has less lactose and zero casein

But that’s only a brief summary of the benefits of whey for women. On to the full treatment now.

First stop? Staying lean during weight loss.

Whey Helps Women Stay Lean

Perhaps you’re considering whey, but don’t want to add bulky muscle to your frame. 

But whey won’t turn you into The Hulk. Nope. If you’re losing weight, whey simply helps you stay lean by preserving existing muscle. 

Researchers at Purdue recently analyzed 13 trials on whey protein supplementation for women.[*] When they aggregated all that data, they found that women had more lean mass (as a % of total mass) after whey supplementation. Results were more dramatic when trials included calorie-restriction.

“There is a public perception that whey protein supplementation will lead to bulkiness in women, said Wayne Campbell, an author on the study, “and these findings show that is not the case.[*]

In one trial, 34 women ate two types of low-calorie diets — low calorie only with a whey protein supplement and low-calorie without whey. These women were coming off gastric bypass surgery and wanted to lose weight.

Both groups lost weight, but the whey-supplemented group maintained more lean mass[*]. So if you’re restricting calories, a protein supplement may help you shed fat and maintain lean muscle.

Along these lines, if you’re on a ketogenic diet — a diet proven to stimulate weight loss[*] — you’ll also want to mind your protein intake.

Whey With Keto For Weight Loss

A high fat, low carb ketogenic diet can help you lose weight via several mechanisms:

  1. Increased fat utilization (you burn fat instead of glucose)
  2. Decreased blood sugar, which leads to decreased insulin — a fat storage hormone
  3. Decreased appetite due to reductions in ghrelin (your hunger hormone) and neuropeptide Y (an appetite stimulator)[*]

Right. Not only do you burn more body fat on keto, but you also need less food to feel satiated. It’s a double whammy: less food in, more fat burned.

In addition to eating plenty of fat on keto — healthy choices like MCT oil and Keto Bars — you also need adequate protein. Protein preserves your muscles during fat loss. You already learned about that.

Wait, doesn’t protein kick you out of ketosis? Not necessarily. While too much protein may reduce your blood ketone levels, it shouldn’t interfere with your weight loss goals[*]. 

In a recent randomized pilot study, 25 healthy people received one of two diets: very-low-calorie and very-low-carb ketogenic[*]. The keto group was also given a whey supplement. After the intervention, researchers measured body composition in both groups.

Bottom line? Both groups lost weight, but the keto with whey group maintained more lean mass than the low-calorie group. More proof that whey spares muscle during weight loss.

But wait, there’s more. Whey protein powder also keeps you from losing muscle as you age.

Whey For Age-Related Muscle Loss In Women

To maintain muscle as you age, lose weight, or exercise — you need to maintain a positive net protein balance. Positive net protein balance means that muscle synthesis beats out muscle degradation. It keeps your muscles from wasting away.

To stay in the positive, you need a high-quality protein source — preferably one high in BCAAs like grass fed whey protein. That’s because BCAAs — leucine, isoleucine, and valine — promote muscle protein synthesis. In other words, BCAAs build muscle.

Consuming a BCAA-rich protein source is especially important for older people — a group that tends to lose muscle with the passage of each year. This age-related condition, called sarcopenia, leads to complications — including weakness, loss of stamina, reduced nerve signaling, and lower quality of life[*].

To combat sarcopenia, there are two non-negotiables: weight training and adequate protein intake. Both are necessary (but not sufficient) to maintain lean mass. Protein alone won’t get you there[*].

But it helps. And for preventing sarcopenia, whey protein — a protein rich in BCAAs — seems to help a lot.

In 2017, 70 older women were given either whey protein or a placebo before or after every weightlifting session for 12 weeks[*]. By the end of the program, the whey-supplemented women, compared to placebo, had significant improvements in lean mass, muscle strength, and perhaps most importantly: functional capacity.

Another finding? It didn’t matter whether the women consumed whey before or after the training session. Both groups had similar strength benefits.

Speaking of training, what about whey protein for the female athlete?

Whey For Active Women

The big gun amino acids in whey — BCAAs — are largely to thank for whey’s muscle-building and recovery benefits. Leucine, in particular, is especially handy for muscle growth and recovery post-workout.

Researchers had twenty active females do a sprint workout, then fed them either whey protein hydrolysate or a carbohydrate[*]. The whey-supplemented group had less exercise-induced muscle damage and better muscle recovery than the carb-supplemented group.

Whey also helps with recovery after weight training — and there are many examples of this in male populations[*]. What about female populations? You’ve already read an example: the 70 elderly ladies staying strong while taking whey[*].

Okay, enough about muscle mass and muscle building. Time to cover how whey can reduce your risk of disease.

Whey For Chronic Disease In Women

There’s much more to whey than BCAAs. There are at least a dozen other compounds that deliver well-researched health benefits in this milk-derived protein.

Cysteine is one of these compounds. This non-essential amino acid helps reduce oxidative damage in your body by boosting glutathione production. Glutathione is your body’s master antioxidant, crucial for cell health and immune function. And glutathione depletion is associated with most chronic diseases[*].

Whey also contains immune-boosting compounds like lactoferrin, alpha-lactalbumin, beta-lactoglobulin, lysozyme, and immunoglobulins, to name a few. These compounds help fight infection, control allergies, and can even boost brain health[*].

Getting to the point: the synergy of these compounds appears to protect against certain disease in women. Here are a few examples:

  • Liver Disease: NAFLD, or non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, now affects upwards of 20% of Americans. NAFLD presents as visceral fat around the liver, liver dysfunction, and glutathione depletion — and also increases the risk for other chronic diseases[*]. Whey protein, which contains plenty of cysteine to support glutathione production, may improve liver function and antioxidant capacity in obese women with NAFLD[*]. Promising.
  • Heart Disease: Twenty overweight, postmenopausal women were given either whey, casein, or pure glucose along with breakfast. Compared to glucose, both whey and casein improved their blood sugar response. Only whey-supplemented women, however, had significantly lower blood triglycerides — which represents an improvement in heart disease risk[*].
  • Metabolic Disorders: Metabolic conditions like obesity and type 2 diabetes often stem from problems with insulin, your blood-sugar regulation hormone. Here’s how that works:
  1. You eat too many carbs
  2. Your blood sugar stays too high for too long
  3. Your pancreas releases barrels of insulin to get that blood sugar out of your blood and into your cells
  4. Eventually, your cells stop listening to insulin — and stop taking up blood sugar (this is called insulin resistance)
  5. Your pancreases releases even more insulin to handle your blood sugar
  6. Your body now stores fat like crazy (insulin is a fat-storage hormone)
  7. The cycle repeats  

Breaking that cycle deserves its own article. But as it turns out, whey can help. In one study, 12 weeks of whey supplementation (compared to casein or glucose) improved insulin function and body composition in obese people[*]. Good to know.

Now for a bit of housekeeping on the dosage and timing of whey supplementation for women.

Dosage And Timing Of Whey For Women

By now you’re probably wondering: how much protein do women need? Fair question.

To start, the RDA for men and women alike is 0.8 grams per kilogram body weight. That’s about 51 grams of protein per day for the average, 140-pound woman[*].

Based on current research, however, the RDA is probably too low for sedentary women — and definitely too low for active or pregnant women. Some examples:

Study 1: Healthy Older Women

Researchers lumped 387 healthy older women (aged 60-90) into two groups: high protein intake (above RDA) and low protein intake (below RDA). These women (both groups) consumed an average of 72.2 grams protein per day. At follow up, the women in the high protein group had more lean mass and less fat than the low protein women[*].

Study 2: Female Athletes

Six female athletes did a sprint workout, then researchers measured their protein needs using a test called indicator amino acid oxidation (IAAO). The recommended amount of protein? 1.71 g / kg body weight. That’s about 109 grams of protein for a 140-pound female athlete[*]. Way more than the RDA.

Study 3: Pregnant Women

Pregnant women need plenty of protein to support her growing fetus. Using IAAO, researchers determined that women in early stage pregnancy need 1.2 g / kg body weight, and women in the third trimester need 1.52 g / kg body weight[*].

Hold on: isn’t it dangerous to eat a high protein diet? Maybe if you have existing kidney or liver damage[*] — but for healthy people, protein intakes upwards of 2 g / kg body weight appears to be safe.

For instance, 24 exercise-trained women were instructed to eat over 2.2 g / kg body weight protein per day (about a gram per pound body weight) over six months. No problems were reported[*].

So to maintain muscle and support an active lifestyle, women should be eating more protein than the RDA.

What about timing? Timing is less important, because (if you recall) older women supplementing whey protein both before and after lifting weights experienced similar positive effects on muscle recovery[*].

That said, try to eat protein in the morning. Protein helps reset your circadian rhythm by boosting serotonin, your happy neurotransmitter — and by shutting down melatonin, your sleep hormone. Research shows, in fact, that a high protein breakfast leads to higher quality sleep at night[*].

Whey For Women

By now it should be clear: women of all ages and activity levels can benefit from whey protein.

Enough already, you’re thinking. I get that whey is good for me! But repetition is how the brain learns best — so one more time, here’s what you learned:

  • Whey is a high quality, complete protein with all nine essential amino acids
  • Whey supplementation improves body composition in women
  • Women supplementing whey on a ketogenic diet lost weight and maintained muscle
  • Combining resistance training with whey protein has been shown to mitigate age-related muscle loss
  • Whey enhances exercise recovery in active women
  • Whey contains bioactive compounds like alpha-lactalbumin and beta-lactoglobulin that boost your immune system
  • Cysteine from whey helps boost antioxidant defenses
  • There’s promising research on whey supplementation for liver disease, heart disease, and obesity in women
  • Women need more protein than the RDA — perhaps upwards of 100 grams/day

Feels good to drive that knowledge into your brain, right? Now, let’s look at the big picture.

How To Choose the Right Whey Protein

There are hundreds of brands of whey protein out there. Here’s what to look for when choosing yours.

Always choose brands that are:

  • Gluten-free
  • Soy-free
  • Sugar-free
  • Soluble corn fiber-free
  • Free from artificial sweeteners, fillers, and other additives
  • From grass fed cows
  • A grass fed whey protein isolate, if you’re lactose-sensitive

Whey is about as good as it gets when it comes to science-backed nutrition. If you’re on the fence about whey protein, it might be time to give it a try.

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