Whey Protein: is it healthy?

If you’re into your fitness or are on a health kick, you probably put a lot of emphasis on protein – after all, all the gym junkies and fad diets do, right?!

While you’ve been loading up on this muscle-building macronutrient, you might’ve noticed a special type of protein called whey protein popping up everywhere from protein shakes to fancy juice bars and even protein balls from the health food section of the supermarket.

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If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, here’s a quick explainer on this popular protein product.

What is whey protein?

To get started, you need to get up to speed on a few definitions. Whey is one of the two main proteins in milk, the other being casein. It is the liquid by-product of the production of cheese. Whey protein is the protein that has been extracted from liquid whey.

And now for a quick science lesson: proteins are built from amino acids. Different chains of amino acids produce different types of protein. There are twenty different amino acids, nine of which are ‘essential’, meaning they cannot be produced by the body and must come from food.

Whey protein contains all nine essential amino acids, which means it has a high biological value. That’s not particularly unique, given that all animal foods contain all of the essential amino acids (in case you’re wondering, plant-based proteins are usually lacking in at least one.)

What makes whey special, however, is that it’s high in a type of rapidly absorbed amino acid called leucine, which stimulates muscle growth and repair.

Should you be consuming whey protein?

While all of this sounds fantastic, for the average Joe, I wouldn’t recommended spending big money on fancy protein powders – whey-based or otherwise.

Yes, protein powder might be convenient when you’re short on time or don’t feel like eating much after a big sweat sesh, but at the end of the day, protein powder is a highly processed product, and nine times out of ten, you’d be better off opting for whole foods.

In case you’re wondering, women between the ages of 19 to 70 only need 0.75 grams of protein per kilogram of their body weight per day. If you weigh 75 kilos, for example, that means you need about 60 grams of protein a day – and that’s very easy to get from real food. To give you some context, a glass of milk contains 10 grams of protein.

If you’re a regular exerciser (read: you do 45 to 60 minutes every day), you’re requirements are bumped up to 1-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass per day. And if you’re really serious about exercise (exercising for over an hour each day doing both strength and cardio), your requirements jump up again to 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass per day.

Even at this very top end of the protein requirements scale, a 75 kilogram person requires 128 grams of protein per day – and that’s still quite easy to do with a healthy, balanced diet.

If you’re after a real food protein hit, meat isn’t your only option. Aside from beef, chicken and turkey, you can get a lot of protein from seafood and eggs, as well as plant-based options like legumes (beans, chickpeas and lentils), tofu, nuts and seeds.

Dairy foods and soy alternatives can also contribute a significant amount of protein, as can wholegrains, like rolled oats and brown grainy bread.

The verdict on whey protein

Whether you’re a fitness fanatic or not, protein is incredibly important, so I can understand the spotlight protein shakes demand.

My stance on most things in the world of nutrition, however, is that whole foods are always better than anything processed. My first preference would be to save some coin and meet your protein requirements with real food, which is very easy for most people.

If you’re quite active or struggle to meet your protein requirements, protein shakes might be a solution for you – and whey protein looks like a pretty good choice – but it’s a wise idea to check in with a dietitian before jumping on any protein powder bandwagon.

Melissa Meier is a Sydney-based accredited practising dietitian. You can connect with her on Instagram @honest_nutrition.