The most important tenets of living a healthy lifestyle are rest, physical activity, and nutrients. It’s this last point—nutrition—that’s particularly important for our strength and physique goals. Most of this nutrition should come from the foods we eat—clean and whole foods with minimal processing to ensure that we’re putting as much good stuff into our bodies. For amateur lifters and those working out for general fitness, this makes most supplements mostly unnecessary.
That is, except for protein powder. While whey protein isn’t necessary to meet your workout goals, its benefits extend to such a wide range that it’s the closest supplement that comes to essential for both the novice and the pro. But despite its ubiquity, most people don’t know how to supplement with it properly. For example, many people might think that more is better. This makes sense, to some degree.
Protein is, after all, the building block of our muscles. It follows that the more protein we get, the bigger and stronger our muscles will be—right? The answer, as you might imagine, is much more complicated than that. To better know how much whey we should be taking, we first have to understand what whey actually is.
Whey is one of the two types of protein found in milk (the other one being casein). It’s found in the liquid that’s created in the cheesemaking process. If you’ve ever opened up a yogurt container and seen the water on top, that’s whey. The most studied supplement ever, whey has been shown to provide high-quality protein that’s useful for athletes and as a meal replacement for those looking to increase their protein intake. While one serving of whey contains anywhere from 20 to 27 grams of protein, 4 ounces of chicken breast will provide a similar amount of protein (24 grams).
The remaining nutrients are mostly composed of fats and carbohydrates in similar ratios to high-quality whey protein. Even though the majority of your nutrients should come from whole foods, whey protein supplementation is easy and extremely useful when properly implemented. Drinking a protein shake in between meals, for example, is a great way to up your protein intake without drastically changing your diet.
Whey is special because it provides a full protein make-up while also being easily digestible by the human body. As we know, protein is what helps us grow, repair, and maintain bones, cartilage, blood, and muscles. But not all protein is created equal. Out of 20 total amino acids that make a complete protein, seven of these can’t be produced by your body making them the essential amino acids (EAAs).
These EAAs have to be ingested from outside sources, such as whey. Whey provides all of these amino acids in enough quantities to keep our body satiated and developing. There are also the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) that are specifically broken down in the muscles, making them particularly useful for muscle-building needs. Whey also provides a fantastic source of these BCAAs.
All this is well and good, but how much protein are you actually supposed to take to see any benefits? A lot of this is going to differ from person to person. Depending on one’s genetics, activity level, and fitness level, the amount of necessary protein is going to be different. Things will also change depending on your long-term goals, in terms of physique, strength, and overall wellness. For a sedentary adult, the minimum recommended daily protein allowance is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. When looking at pounds, this comes out to 0.36 grams of protein. However, this is only the minimum daily recommendation for a generally healthy body.
However, you’re probably going to want to up this number if you’re looking for anything more. For a long time, the rule of thumb was one gram per pound of body weight. This was easy to remember and it’s stuck around, but research has shown that a better number is 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram. At the top end, this comes out to 0.72 grams per pound—double the minimum recommendation. If you’re an active individual, hitting 1.6 grams per kilogram for muscle gain is your best bet.
It’s also important to remember that more is not necessarily better. Up to 1.7 grams for your generally active individual is enough to elicit muscle gains, but more than that has quickly diminishing benefits. Over 2.2 grams is very likely completely unnecessary for most individuals, but a lot of the research in this area is conflicting. However, eating more protein can help when it comes to weight loss, and so it shouldn’t be completely discounted.
Eating protein for weight loss not only works because a high protein diet is more satiating, but also because your body expends more energy to digest protein than carbs or fats. This is the thermic effect of food, when your body uses energy to break down food for more energy. One study found that the thermic effect of protein was between 20 and 30 percent, while carbs were 5 to 10 percent and fats were 0 to 3 percent. Although a hard number is difficult to find, having a diet where 25 to 30 percent of calories come from protein is a good range to shoot for.
It’s important to remember that carbs and fats shouldn’t be completely ignored—both of them are vitally important for balancing hormone levels along with a host of other responsibilities. For example, a study from 2014 found that any more than 4.4 grams of protein per kilogram has no extra positive benefits on body composition. And again—this doesn’t mean you should go crazy with the protein and try to hit 4.4 grams. This stat only points to the fact that more is not better at a certain level.
But—you might be asking yourself—what if someone is super serious about bulking up, like in bodybuilding, for example? The above recommendations are even going to work for athletes, but if you’re looking to body build competitively, your protein needs are going to be slightly different. This is because you need to be preserving as much muscle mass as possible while still keeping your body fat very low.
In that case, eating 2.2 to 3.2 grams of protein per kilogram can be very helpful in maintaining muscle while cutting. However, you already have to be really lean for this to apply to you. Even if you’re 15% body fat, these recommendations won’t apply. Rather, men who are under 10% body fat might want to consider eating this higher amount of protein in order to maintain their lean muscles. But for everyone else, the prior recommendations are going to be the best way to develop their strength, physique, and wellness.
However, none of this really answers the question of how much whey we should be taking. Rather, the recommended values all deal with protein, the reason being that whey protein powders aren’t all built the same. Just as whey is made in the cheese-making process, different types of whey are created at different levels of processing and filtration. While exact values may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, there are three general groupings of whey powder. These three types of whey are whey concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate. Because of the different levels of processing they go through, you’re going to find different ratios of protein in each one.
The remainder usually consists of carbs and fats. Different producers will also sometimes blend these three types together to get a different percentage of protein. When trying out a new protein powder, it’s always a good idea to check out the nutritional values to ensure that you’re getting what you’re paying for. Your decision should be based on your goals, fitness level, and budget. Don’t fall into the “more protein = better” mindset, since this will likely end up being a waste if pushed too far. In the end, this means you’re going to have to take different amounts of whey protein in order to get your target protein intake. For example, if your goal is 20 grams of protein but your powder only consists of 70% protein, you’re going to have to supplement with 28 grams of the actual powder.
The least processed of the protein powders, concentrate goes through either a process of microfiltration or ultrafiltration. Either way, these methods result in a powder that has a 70 to 80 percent protein make-up. The rest of the powder consists of fats and carbs. If you’re trying to bulk up, these fats and carbs can prove to be useful for your goals. However, anyone trying to lose weight or go on a cut should try to minimize the number of fats and carbs they get from protein powder. But since this is the least processed option, it’s usually going to be the easiest on your wallet.
But this type of filtration also doesn’t remove an especially beneficial particle of protein—peptides. These peptides have a lot of jobs to do in your body, one of which is providing you with antioxidant properties. If you’re looking for a quick and easy protein powder that’s still packed with energy to fuel your gains, whey concentrate is the option for you. However, a diet that calls for fewer carbs or fats might want to look in other directions.
That’s when we might want to consider whey protein isolate (WPI). This option goes through more processing and it’s therefore going to contain more protein. These processing techniques include cross-flow microfiltration and ion-exchange chromatography. What results is a protein powder that crosses the 95% boundary of protein to fats and carbs. Compared to the low-end of 70% protein in whey concentrate, this is a significant jump that gets rid of a large portion of the extra fats and carbs.
If you’re looking to cut or just simply looking to lose weight, this is a much better option than whey concentrate. Although fats and carbs are generally necessary for overall wellness, cutting these macronutrients will lead to leaner gains and fat loss. This also makes whey isolate a great option for supplementing either before your workouts or right after.
Lastly, we have whey hydrolysate. The most processed out of the three, this type of whey goes through a process of hydrolysis. This technique essentially pre-digests the proteins for you by breaking them down into their constituent parts. This is done by introducing the protein to enzymes that break the bonds holding amino acids together. These constituent parts are the peptides that we discussed earlier. But more importantly, by breaking down these protein chains before they hit your body, hydrolysate is very easily digestible by your body. Because it’s absorbed faster than concentrate and isolate, this is the best option for taking as a pre-workout or post-workout supplement.
And since it’s pre-digested, this option is also a lot easier on the stomachs of people who might find whey difficult to digest. This even includes those with dairy sensitivities. One of the drawbacks is that the broken-down amino acids produce a more bitter taste than you might otherwise find in a protein powder. Otherwise, the price is definitely going to be a sticking point for a lot of people. That’s why this option is mainly recommended for top-level athletes that are consistently in the gym for longer periods of time. At this level, the benefits of hydrolysate become more apparent. An amateur lifter or someone working out for general fitness is likely not going to see any improvements that are worth the cost when opting for a hydrolyzed whey protein powder.
Although there really is no other protein powder like whey, there are plenty of other alternatives that introduce unique benefits to this area of supplementation. As we saw above, the name of the game is protein intake. Bioavailability and ease of digestion need to also be taken into account, but a complete protein is a complete protein. If you’re more of an amateur lifter and have a good diet, then any one of these could stand to benefit you if properly implemented.
Casein protein is the other protein that’s found in dairy products, and it can also be used to produce a protein powder. While it’s also a complete protein that benefits muscle building, it’s digested much more slowly than whey protein. So, while it’s not optimal for taking in the post and pre-workout stage, it’s a good option for those who want to minimize muscle mass loss during the night. Since your body goes into a fast during the night, it begins to break down muscle tissue for energy.
This can get in the way of maintaining a large amount of muscle, and so it’s a popular option for those who want to supplement before bedtime. Collagen is another animal-based protein that has recently become popular. This protein is the most common in the human body, but its maintenance at good levels can diminish over time. Therefore, many people supplement with it in order to help their muscles, joints, and skin.
Plant-based protein powders are also becoming more and more popular. They’re made out of things like brown rice, certain seeds, hemp, and peas. While no single plant-based protein provides a full amino acid make-up, combining different proteins makes a powder that can stand up to whey protein. And for those who are lactose intolerant, plant-based proteins offer an alternative that’s much easier to digest.
Common side effects of whey such as bloating can also sometimes be avoided. Plant protein can also reduce cravings because of its higher fiber content. Diversifying your protein sources is also a good way to maintain healthy gut bacteria. One criticism is how quickly plant proteins absorb into the body compared to whey. However, this largely depends on the protein in question and the manufacturing process.
If it wasn’t obvious before, it should be apparent by now—whey protein powder is one of the best ways you can take your nutrition to the next level, developing your physique and strength along with it. As always, remember that most of your nutrients should be coming from whole foods that have minimal processing. Even though whey protein powder can be used as a meal replacement, consuming clean, healthy foods will ensure that you’re getting a wide variety of micronutrients along with your proteins, fats, and carbs.
But once you’ve got a good diet secured, protein powder can really turbocharge your progress, along with other dietary supplements. But nutrition isn’t the only thing you have to be thinking about. Although it’s extremely important, the proper workout routine and sleep schedule are also both necessary for a healthy lifestyle and a head-turning physique. You can only properly use the fuel you put in your body by working hard—either in the gym or at a labor-intensive job.
And on the flip side, you can only have your muscles recover and grow by resting enough. Once these three pillars are taken care of, you’re going to be well into the process of creating the best version of your physical and mental self. Whey protein is a very useful tool, but it has to be backed up by hard work and a healthy lifestyle.