There's lots of good stuff in whey protein supplements – not just protein. But, thanks to those other components, sometimes concerns or misconceptions tend to pop up.
The fat content of whey, for example, has raised some concerns over the cholesterol in whey protein. Let's take a closer look at the fats in whey and see how these can influence your cholesterol levels.
First, though, we need to discuss the different types of whey and their individual nutritional content.
What is whey protein?
Milk contains two types of protein, whey, and casein. When milk or milk products separate, there is a fatty portion that’s used to make cheese and a liquid portion that contains whey. The whey is either discarded or processed further to make whey protein powder.
There are actually several types of whey protein. Whey concentrate is the most common, mostly because it’s the cheapest and has the best taste.
Whey isolate is pretty common too. It has less fat and lactose, making it easier to digest for some people. This is the type of protein most often used for research.
Finally, whey hydrolysate is basically pre-digested whey protein. This helps your body absorb the whey faster. However, whey is already absorbed pretty quickly and it’s unclear if the difference with whey hydrolysate is worth the high price tag.
Does whey protein raise or lower cholesterol?
Whey concentrate, the most common type of whey protein, is high in fat compared to other types of protein. Therefore, there has been concern that taking whey protein on a regular basis could increase cholesterol.
However, research shows that the opposite is actually true.
There are two main types of cholesterol, LDL and HDL.
LDL is often called “bad cholesterol,” as it increases the risk for heart disease. On the other hand, HDL, or “good cholesterol,” removes cholesterol from the blood.
Many studies show that whey protein decreases LDL and increases HDL. Whey protein also contains lactoferrin, which may block LDL from oxidizing and hardening the arteries.
Whey protein concentrate vs isolate: does it matter for cholesterol?
We briefly touched on the difference between whey protein concentrate and isolate before, but there’s a lot more to how they’re made up nutritionally.
Whey concentrate is usually about 70 percent protein with considerable levels of natural sugar and fats. Whey isolate is processed further to increase the protein content to 90 percent and dramatically decrease the amount of sugar and fat.
People assume that the difference in fat and sugar makes whey isolate the more cholesterol-friendly option.
However, it depends on the type of fat the whey contains. Whey protein that contains more polyunsaturated fats will have a stronger positive impact on cholesterol.
Whey concentrate is also higher in beneficial substances like lactoferrin.
What are the benefits of grass-fed whey protein?
A cow’s diet strongly impacts the nutritional quality of the whey protein it produces. Vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fat composition all depend on what the cow ate.
Grass-fed whey protein comes from cows who ate a grass-fed diet. This is the most healthy, high-quality protein you can buy because it packs the most nutrition. It’s also the best for the environment.
Grass-fed whey protein contains all nine essential amino acids, immune-boosting compounds, more heart-healthy fat, and less saturated fat.
If cholesterol is a concern, grass-fed whey protein is the way to go.
Because it provides a high amount of heart-healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids, studies show that using whey protein (especially grass-fed) actually improves cholesterol levels.
Will whey protein make me gain weight?
You need to be in a calorie surplus to gain weight. That means if the whey protein you consume causes your total daily calorie intake to be more than you’re burning, you will gain weight over time.
However, excess calories from any food will cause weight gain.
It’s common for people who want to build muscle mass to use whey protein as part of their calorie surplus to intentionally gain weight.
Building muscle means you’re adding mass, which requires more calories and protein.
But depending on the amount of whey protein you’re consuming, it can also help you lose weight, as long as you operate on an overall calorie deficit.
Protein shakes and smoothies are relatively low in calories compared to regular snacks, but they also increase the sense of satiety.
By helping you feel full for longer, whey protein can promote stable energy levels and prevent cravings for unhealthy snacks, which will help you better manage your weight.
How much whey protein should I take per day?
The amount of protein you need every day depends on your body composition, activity level, and specific goals. Here’s a basic guide to help you figure out how much protein you need:
- Fat loss: 1.3 - 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram bodyweight
- Muscle gain: 1.4 - 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram bodyweight
- Maintenance: 0.8 - 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram bodyweight
You can also check out this protein calculator to get an accurate recommendation for your needs.
One serving of whey protein powder typically provides 20 to 30 grams of protein, depending on the brand. Naked Whey provides 25 grams per 2-scoop serving.
If you’re maintaining your weight with moderate protein needs, it will be easy to meet your needs with plenty of high-quality protein foods and maybe a serving of whey protein each day.
If you’re losing fat or gaining muscle, your protein needs are much higher. For example, someone who is building muscle and weighs 200 pounds may need up to 200 grams of protein per day. In this case, taking one or two servings of whey protein could help meet your needs.
Whey protein and its many benefits is a popular subject for continued research. Although it’s higher in fat than other types of protein, many studies show that whey protein lowers “bad” cholesterol and increases “good” cholesterol.
Whey isolate is easier for some to digest than whey concentrate, but may lack some of the beneficial fat and nutrients of whey concentrate.
Grass-fed whey protein will have the most heart-healthy fats and more beneficial substances like antioxidants. It’s also the best for the environment and least likely to contain added fillers.