Whey protein, a byproduct of milk and cheese (often referred to as the gold standard of protein), was promoted for its health benefits as early as 420 B.C. At that time, Hippocrates recommended whey to his patients. These days, whey protein has been linked to health benefits such as:
Supporting your immune system, as it contains immunoglobulins
Helping you preserve lean body tissue (particularly during exercise) as it delivers bioavailable amino acids and cysteine
Maintaining blood pressure levels that are already within the normal range, and promoting healthy vascular function.
Whey Protein Promotes Weight Loss and Muscle Gain
Besides providing all of the essential amino acids your body needs, high-quality whey protein from organically raised pastured cows also contains three ingredients of particular importance for health: leucine, glutathione and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
Both leucine and CLA can be helpful if you’re trying to lose weight, while glutathione boosts your overall health by protecting your cells and mitochondria from oxidative and peroxidative damage.
While many recommend whey protein as a way of boosting your protein intake, I’d be wary of following a high-protein diet for weight loss.
It’s true that protein helps decrease hunger by making you feel fuller longer, and by affecting certain hormones (increasing certain appetite-reducing hormones while reducing the hunger hormone ghrelin).
Protein can also give your metabolism a boost, and a number of studies suggest high-protein diets produce greater weight loss. But there’s also compelling evidence suggesting too much protein may promote cancer growth by activating the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) mechanism.
Beware of High-Protein Diets
Rarely, if ever, do studies compare high-protein/high-carb/low-fat diets to high-fat/low-carb/moderate-protein diets. If they did, we might have more clarity on this issue. For example, in one study they compared the following diets:
- 15 percent protein, 35 percent fat, and 50 percent carbohydrate
- 30 percent protein, 20 percent fat, and 50 percent carbohydrate
They found the 30 percent protein group lost 8.1 pounds (lbs., or 3.7 kilograms) more than those who got 15 percent of their calories from protein. However, both of these diets are FAR from ideal in terms of nutrient ratios! Both are excessively high in carbohydrates and very low in fat.
I’ll discuss protein requirements below, but suffice to say for now, that while your body does need protein, and whey protein is an ideal workout supplement to boost muscle growth and repair, it’s important to track your protein intake from all sources, and don’t overdo it.
Thirty percent protein is three times the amount your body needs for optimal health. So whether it’s weight loss or general health and longevity you’re after, avoid high-protein diets and focus on increasing healthy fats and cutting out net (non-fiber) carbs instead, while maintaining a balanced, moderate protein intake calculated according to your body composition, which I’ll explain below.
Leucine — A Powerful Muscle Builder
Let’s take a look at those three ingredients that make whey protein such an attractive addition to your diet and fitness regimen, starting with leucine. While serving many functions in your body, leucine signals the mTOR mechanism to increase protein synthesis, thereby boosting muscle growth.
However you actually need VERY HIGH amounts of leucine to reap the optimal effect; far more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA), because most of the leucine gets used up as a building block rather than a potent anabolic stimulus.
Whey protein is ideal because it contains FAR more leucine than other foods. Just 3 ounces (oz.) of high-quality whey contains about 8 grams of leucine. To get that from other foods, you’d have to eat 1.5 lbs. of chicken, more than 1 lb. of almonds (over 3,000 calories!) or 16 raw eggs.
Glutathione Helps Other Antioxidants Perform at Peak Levels
Whey protein is also an excellent source of the precursors of glutathione, which is your body’s most powerful antioxidant. This “master antioxidant” is a tripeptide found inside every single cell in your body. As you probably know, antioxidants are crucial for eliminating damaging free radicals from your body.
Most free radicals are produced during the process of metabolism but they can also arise from exposure to toxins, radiation and heavy metals. Because free radicals are so destructive, cells have a network of defenses designed to neutralize them.
This antioxidant network involves vitamins, minerals and special chemicals called thiols (glutathione and alpha-lipoic acid). Glutathione is different from other antioxidants in that it is intracellular.
It has the unique ability of maximizing the activity of all the other antioxidants, including vitamins C and E, CoQ10, alpha-lipoic acid, and antioxidants found in the fresh veggies and fruits you (hopefully) eat every day.
Glutathione Is Important for Energy Production and Mitochondrial Function
Glutathione is also an essential factor in energy utilization, detoxification, and preventing the diseases we associate with aging, in large part by promoting healthy mitochondrial function. Deficiency has been linked to:
- Age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
- Coronary and autoimmune diseases
- Arthritis, asthma and other inflammatory conditions
- Muscle weakness and fatigue
Synthesis of glutathione is dependent on adenosine triphosphate (ATP), so when your ATP is low, you’ll also have lower glutathione levels. This is another reason why exercise is so beneficial for your health — among other things, it boosts your ATP and glutathione levels. And by enhancing internal glutathione production, you’ll also strengthen your immune system.
Whey Protein Boosts Glutathione Production
While glutathione can be found in supplement form, foods like whey are your best alternative. Quality whey provides all the key amino acids for glutathione production (cysteine, glycine and glutamate) and contains a unique cysteine residue (glutamylcysteine) that is highly bioactive in its affinity for converting to glutathione.
Whey also provides critical co-factors, immunoglobulins, lactoferrin and alpha-Lactalbumin (also a great source of cysteine), which together help create the right metabolic environment for high glutathione activity.
Most oral glutathione supplements have been shown to be poorly absorbed. What’s worse, glutathione supplements may actually interfere with your body’s own glutathione production. Your body is programmed to self-produce glutathione, and when taking a synthetic supplement your body decreases its own production, leaving you dependent on an outside source.
Another alternative is to take an alpha-lipoic acid supplement, which can help regenerate glutathione. (Alpha-lipoic acid also helps to regenerate vitamins C and E so they remain active longer in your body.) Red meat and organ meats are the best dietary source of alpha-lipoic acid. Vitamin D can also help increase your intracellular glutathione levels.
Some nutritional authorities recommend taking a form of cysteine known as N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), but I would advise against using this supplement if you still have mercury amalgam fillings because it could interfere with detoxification of the mercury.
CLA Has Many Health Benefits, Including Weight Loss
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) — a healthy type of omega-6 fatty acid found primarily in grass-fed beef and dairy products — is one of the most popular weight loss supplements in the world. Research shows CLA can help you shed weight via a number of different mechanisms, including:
- Reducing food intake
- Increasing fat burning
- Stimulating the breakdown of body fat
- Inhibiting the production of body fat while preserving muscle (with the greatest improvements occurring in those who combine exercise with dietary intake of CLA)
The key factor here is pasture-raised. When cows exclusively eat grass (which is their natural diet), the CLA levels in their meat and milk are typically 300 to 500 percent higher than in those fed an unnatural grain-based diet. CLA is available in supplement form, but foods that naturally contain CLA are generally far superior, easy to find and less expensive. Even more importantly, as noted by Authority Nutrition:
“[T]he CLA you find in supplements is NOT derived from natural foods. It is made by chemically altering safflower and sunflower oils, which are unhealthy vegetable oils. The linoleic acid in the oils is turned into conjugated linoleic acid via a chemical process … For this reason, CLA taken in supplement form does not have the same health effects as CLA gotten from foods.”
Besides its weight loss benefits, CLA also has a number of other health benefits. For example, studies have shown CLA to be a potent ally for combating:
Immune system invaders
High blood pressure
Food-induced allergic reactions
High cholesterol and triglycerides
Insulin resistance (CLA’s actions actually mimic the effect of synthetic diabetic drugs)
How Much Protein Do You Need?
Proteins are essential to the building, maintenance and repair of tissues such as your skin, internal organs and muscles. They are also a structural component of enzymes, cellular receptors and signaling molecules, and perform transport carrier functions.
Proteins are made up of amino acids, 22 of which are considered essential for good health. (The amino acid components of proteins serve as precursors for hormones and vitamins.) Your body can make 14 of these, but the other eight, known as essential amino acids, must be obtained from your diet.
Proteins are found in all types of food, but only meat, eggs, cheese and other foods from animal sources contain complete proteins, meaning they provide the eight essential amino acids.
However, opinions vary when it comes to how much protein you need on a daily basis. With advancing age, getting adequate amounts of high-quality protein is especially important. Your ability to process protein declines with age while your level of age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia) increases, thereby raising your protein requirement. That said, you’d be wise to monitor your intake to make sure you’re not overdoing it.
Americans consume the most meat per capita in the world — more than 175 lbs. of pork, poultry, and beef per year, and evidence suggests this is far too much for optimal health. There is an upper limit to how much protein your body can actually use. When you eat more protein than your body needs, it can stimulate mTOR, which plays an important role in cancer development and the aging process.
Making matters worse, the vast majority of this meat comes from animals raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), the quality of which is significantly inferior to organically raised, pastured, or grass-fed and grass-finished meats. Considering the fact that the majority of Americans are overweight or obese, I prefer using a formula that calculates an individual’s protein requirement based on lean bodyweight (i.e. muscle weight) only.
For optimal health, I believe most adults need about 1 gram of protein per kilogram of lean body mass (not total body weight), or 0.5 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass. Seniors, pregnant women and those who are aggressively exercising (or competing) generally need about 25 percent more protein.
How to Calculate Your Protein Requirement
To determine your lean body mass, subtract your percent body fat from 100. For example, if you have 30 percent body fat, then you have 70 percent lean body mass. Then multiply that percentage by your current weight to get your lean body mass in pounds or kilos. Next, multiply your lean body weight by 0.5 grams if you’re calculating in pounds, or 1 gram if you’re calculating in kilos.
To use myself as an example, I weigh 173 lbs. and have 10 percent body fat, which means my lean body weight is just under 156 lbs. Using the above formula, my protein requirement is about 77 grams a day, although I typically don’t go over 70 grams as for most of us, it is better to actually have less than more protein. I use a nutrition calculator to enter everything I eat and carefully calculate my protein requirement to the gram. I think it’s that important.
If you eat packaged foods, the number of grams of protein per serving is listed on the package. For whole foods, 3 oz. of most meats will provide about 20 to 25 grams of protein. A 4-oz. hamburger, which is processed, has about 20 grams of protein, while typical lunch meats have about 5 grams per slice.
One egg has about 6 grams of protein and a cup of milk (not typically recommended) has about 8 grams. Seeds and nuts contain on average 4 to 8 grams of protein per quarter cup, and most vegetables contain about 1 to 2 grams of protein per ounce.
Interestingly, while fish is typically considered a good source of protein, most fish contain only HALF of the protein found in beef and chicken and can be a good alternative if you tend to eat too much protein. (Just beware of the contamination risks. Wild-caught Alaskan salmon and smaller fish like sardines and anchovies are healthy options less likely to be contaminated with mercury and other environmental toxins.)
Choosing a High-Quality Whey Protein
If you want to supplement your diet with whey protein products, be mindful of your selection. Many of the whey and protein powders on the market are pasteurized and loaded with sugar and chemicals that don’t belong in a healthy diet. To ensure you’re getting a high-quality product, be sure your whey protein supplement has the following features:
The whey comes from organically-raised, grass-fed raw cows’ milk (to ensure the whey is free of GMOs, pesticides and hormones)
Cold processed, as heat destroys whey’s fragile molecular structure
Whey protein concentrate, not protein isolates
Sweetened naturally, not artificially, and low in carbohydrates
Highly digestible — look for medium-chain fatty acids (MCTs), not long-chain fatty acids
High-quality whey protein is an excellent source of important nutrients, including protein, leucine, CLA and glutathione — all of which can help boost muscle growth, body repair and weight loss, and much more. To learn more about how whey protein can boost your exercise performance when used as a post-workout recovery meal, please see this previous article, or check out my previous interview with fitness expert Ori Hofmekler.