Is Whey Protein Right for You? Dietitians Break Down the Benefits.


Are you just starting your fitness journey and considering adding protein shakes to your diet? Choosing the right protein can be overwhelming, but we're here to help! This article will guide you through the essentials of whey protein, explaining what it is, how to take it, and how much to consume per serving. Whether your goal is muscle gain or weight loss, understanding whey protein is crucial for your success. Let us help you make an informed decision and boost your knowledge about this powerful supplement.


 Countless studies have shown that eating more protein helps you build muscle and improve strength—and it can even help prevent muscle loss if you're trying to lose weight. But getting enough protein from food sources can be challenging for some people. If you're having trouble meeting your protein goals and are looking for ways to supplement your protein intake, one option is whey protein powder.

This popular supplement is a dairy-derived, complete protein that is an effective, convenient, and high quality way to reap the benefits of protein. Find out why registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) recommend whey, the pros and cons of use, and what is the best way to consume it. 

What Is Whey Protein?

Milk and dairy foods contain two types of protein—whey and casein. About 20% of the protein in milk is whey, and the remaining 80% is casein. Both whey and casein are high-quality, complete proteins that provide all of the essential amino acids. But whey tends to be the preferred form of milk protein.

Not only is whey protein found in all dairy foods, but it releases amino acids—the building blocks of protein—to your muscles much quicker than casein. Whey protein also is digested rather quickly and is one of the most concentrated sources of leucine, an amino acid responsible for building muscle. Research suggests that whey protein can even stimulate muscle protein synthesis to a greater degree than other proteins like casein and soy.

Health Benefits of Whey Protein

According to certified athletic trainer and registered dietitian nutritionist Dana Angelo White, MS, RDN, ATC, supplementing with whey protein is a reliable, convenient, and tasty way to help meet your protein needs. Plus, there are a number of potential benefits to using whey protein. Here are a few of the more notable ones.

Accelerates Exercise Recovery

Eating protein after a workout provides your muscles with the amino acids they need to repair and rebuild; and supplementing with whey protein is an easy way to make sure your muscles are getting what they need. Not only is it absorbed quickly into the bloodstream, but it also can be easy to consume after a workout—especially if you don't feel like eating the volume of food needed to meet your protein needs after a strenuous workout.

Increases Muscle Protein Synthesis

Whey protein also is well-known for its ability to promote muscle protein synthesis, which is essential for muscle growth, says Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, a sports dietitian in Dallas, Texas explains. This is because it’s the highest in leucine, a branched chain amino acid that is termed the "light switch to muscle protein synthesis" following a workout.

Goodson says consuming 3 to 4 grams of leucine is recommended immediately after a workout. “Whey protein is approximately 14% leucine, which means that in a 25 gram serving (typically about 1 scoop), there is approximately 3.5 grams whey protein.”

Promotes Weight Management

Whey protein can also help with weight management by helping you feel satisfied after meals or snacks and potentially helping to reduce overall calorie intake, explains Goodson. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition looking at the effects of high protein diets, satiety, and weight loss concluded that high protein diets—including those containing whey protein—can increase satiety, decrease calorie intake, and promote weight loss.

The Risks

Some people assume that if they are using a supplement like whey protein, they can skimp on the protein-based foods they eat. But, food should be your primary source of nutrients. You can add various types of protein to your diet from animal sources like poultry, eggs, meats, and fish and from plant-based sources like beans, tofu, nuts, and seeds. Milk and dairy foods naturally have whey protein as well.

“Whey protein is an isolated protein source, not a replacement for more nutrient diverse foods,” explains White. “Since many whey protein powders are sold as dietary supplements, consumers [also] need to seek out reliable brands and sources to ensure product safety.”

Also remember that whey protein is derived from milk and dairy foods. If you're allergic to milk, whey protein probably is not an option for you. If you're lactose intolerant, you may want to try whey protein isolate (rather than whey protein concentrate). Whey isolate contains the lowest in lactose, with less than 1%.

How Much Should You Take?

Deciding how much protein you should eat in a day is determined by your body weight and the type of activity performed, says Goodson. “Generally speaking, the accepted macronutrient distribution range (AMDR) for protein is 10% to 35%, meaning that a healthy individual can safely consume 10% to 35% of total calories coming from protein."

To dial that in a little tighter, Goodson recommends using the following calculations:

How Much Total Protein You Need (Based On Your Body Weight)

  • Endurance activity: 1.2 grams to 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram body weight (0.54-0.63 grams per pound of body weight)
  • Weight loss: 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram body weight (also recommended for those who eat a strictly plant-based diet)
  • Strength activity: 1.6 grams to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram body weight

How to Choose the Best Product

Whey protein is a convenient way to get the recommended amount of protein after a workout or boost the protein content of foods or recipes that are typically low in protein. Just ensure you include the protein you get from supplementing in your calculations for your daily protein needs.

You must also decide which form to use—whey protein isolate or concentrate. White says either option can be tasty and easy to use. “Whey protein isolate is slightly higher in protein and tends to be more expensive, [while] the concentrate form contains a little more carbs and fat and tends to taste a bit better," she says.

You should also look for a brand that has been tested for label accuracy. This means choosing third-party-tested whey protein to help ensure purity, quality, and safety. “This can be a product with a nutrition facts panel or one that has been third-party tested from a company like Informed Sport or NSF Certified for Sport," says White.

Goodson, who works with athletes and those who regularly engage in physical activity, recommends that the supplements also contain the stamp of NSF Certified for Sport or Informed Choice/Informed Sport.

Ways to Enjoy Whey Protein

According to both Goodson and White, you can incorporate whey protein powder into your meals and snacks in several ways. Below, you’ll find a few ideas:

  • Smoothies and Shakes: Blend whey protein powder with your choice of fruits, vegetables, milk, yogurt, or nut butter to create a nutritious and protein-packed beverage. 
  • Oatmeal and Breakfast Bowls: To boost the protein content of your morning meal, stir whey protein powder into your oatmeal or breakfast bowl. Mix it with cooked oats, yogurt, milk, or cottage cheese, and top it with your favorite toppings.
  • Baked Goods: Add unflavored whey protein powder to your favorite baked goods such as muffins, pancakes, waffles, cookies, and bread. Substitute half (or less) of the flour with whey protein powder to increase the protein content of your baked treats. 
  • Protein Bars and Energy Balls: Combine whey protein powder with nuts, seeds, dried fruits, oats, nut butter, and honey (or maple syrup) to create delicious and portable snacks that are perfect as pre- or post-workout fuel—or as a convenient on-the-go snack.
  • Savory Recipes: Whey protein powder is not limited to sweet dishes; it can also boost the protein content in savory recipes. Add an unflavored whey protein powder to soups, stews, sauces, and marinades for an extra protein punch without significantly altering the flavor. Mix it into savory dips, dressings, and spreads for added nutrition.

Bottom Line

If you want more protein—always remember to look at food first. To get more protein in your diet, consider supplementing your healthy, balanced diet with high-quality whey protein. If you're unsure how to do this, contact a registered dietitian for assistance.

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