Whey protein supplements have many health benefits in addition to being a great source of protein. However, sometimes people have concerns about the nutritional profile of this popular supplement.
For example, there are some concerns about the fat and cholesterol in whey protein.
This article will explain the nutritional profile of whey protein, the effects of whey protein on cholesterol levels, and what to look for when choosing a whey protein powder.
What is Whey Protein?
There are two types of protein in milk: whey protein 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 protein concentrate is the most common, mostly because it's the cheapest and has the best taste.
Whey protein isolate is a more pure form of whey protein. It also is typically easier to digest and contains less fat and lactose compared to whey concentrate. However, whey protein isolate is typically a more expensive protein powder.
Whey hydrolysate is another form of whey protein that is pre-digested and therefore is broken down and absorbed very easily by the body. However, whey protein is already absorbed pretty quickly and it's unclear if the difference with whey hydrolysate is worth the high price tag.
The next sections will explain what cholesterol is, and the effects of whey protein on cholesterol levels.
What is Cholesterol?
We all hear about the importance of lowering our cholesterol, especially our bad cholesterol. Lower cholesterol is associated with a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome.
But many people don't fully understand what cholesterol even is. Before delving into the details of how whey protein impacts cholesterol, it's important to understand what cholesterol is.
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that we make in our bodies and also get from food. Cholesterol is important to build cells, certain hormones, vitamins, and helps make bile so we can digest our food.
Blood cholesterol levels refers to the cholesterol circulating in our bodies, while dietary cholesterol refers to the cholesterol we get from food.
What Are The Two Types of Cholesterol?
There are two main types of cholesterol, low density lipoprotein (LDL) and high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.
HDL is considered a "good" cholesterol because it takes cholesterol from the blood and transports it back to the liver, and from there it is removed by the body.
LDL is considered "bad" cholesterol because it contributes to fatty buildup in the arteries which is a risk factor for heart disease.
Total cholesterol is a combination of both LDL cholesterol levels and HDL cholesterol levels.
When people talk about trying to lower cholesterol levels, they are most often referring to lowering their LDL cholesterol levels, to in turn reduce their risk for heart disease.
Does Whey Protein Raise or Lower Cholesterol?
If you are an avid whey protein consumer, you may be wondering about the effects of whey protein on cholesterol.
Fortunately, most research points to the benefits of whey protein powder on blood cholesterol.
Even though whey protein concentrate, the most common type of whey protein, is high in fat, it does not seem to increase cholesterol.
Randomized controlled clinical trials suggest that diets high in fat, especially saturated fats, may be linked to high cholesterol. Therefore, there has been concern that taking whey protein supplements on a regular basis could increase cholesterol.
However, research shows that the opposite is actually true. In fact, studies suggest that those who consume whey protein have lower total cholesterol levels (1).
Many studies show that consuming whey protein may lead to a significant decrease in LDL and increase HDL (2).
Whey protein also contains a compound called lactoferrin, one of many beneficial milk proteins that may help prevent LDL from hardening the arteries. In fact, lactoferrin makes up 1-2% of whey protien.
Will The Cholesterol in Whey Protein Increase My Cholesterol?
A common misconception is the notion that foods high in dietary cholesterol will increase blood cholesterol. However, this is largely untrue.
Over the years, nutrition research and many randomized controlled trials have found that foods high in dietary cholesterol – such as dairy products, shellfish, and red meats – do not in fact raise total cholesterol levels.
Rather, it's the foods high in saturated fats, trans fats, processed carbohydrates, and added sugars that are more likely to contribute to high LDL cholesterol levels.
Therefore, if your whey protein supplement contains cholesterol on the nutrition facts label, this does not mean it will raise your cholesterol. It's more important to take note of added sugars or saturated fats, as these are more likely to be risk factors for driving up total cholesterol.
Whey Protein Concentrate vs Isolate: Does It Matter for Cholesterol?
While whey protein concentrate and isolate are similar products, there are slight nutritional differences that are important to understand, especially when it comes to how they each may impact cholesterol levels.
Whey protein concentrate is approximately 70% protein, along with considerable levels of natural sugar and fats. Whey isolate is processed further and has a higher protein content, at around 90%, with less sugar and fat, comparatively.
It makes sense to assume that whey protein isolate would have more favorable impacts on cholesterol levels. Plus, whey protein isolate is higher in lactoferrin, which as mentioned earlier may help increase good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol.
Not to mention, most research on whey protein and cholesterol looks at those who take whey protein isolate. While whey protein concentrate may also offer benefits for cholesterol, more research is needed to better understand how this form of whey protein powder impacts blood cholesterol.
However, it likely doesn't make too much of a difference if you choose to consume whey concentrate or isolate – at least when it comes to cholesterol.
If whey protein supplementation is part of your daily protein intake, it's important to choose a high quality protein, whether that be from whey protein isolate or whey protein concentrate.
The next section will explain some important things to look for when choosing a whey protein powder.
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 consume 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, compared to whey protein from non-grass-fed cows.
Interestingly, grass-fed milk even contains more dietary cholesterol compared to regular milk from non-grass-fed cows. However, as we learned earlier, foods high in cholesterol do not necessarily increase total cholesterol in the body.
If cholesterol is a concern, grass-fed whey protein is the way to go.
There are many cheap whey protein supplements on the market with milk sourced from conventionally-raised cows. The milk and resulting whey protein from these animals is lower in heart-healthy omega-3 fats, and higher in inflammatory fats.
Anti-Inflammatory Benefits of Grass-Fed Whey Protein
You may be wondering how grass-fed whey protein can play such a big role in total cholesterol. Although scientists are not completely sure of the mechanisms in which this works, it's understood that the higher omega-3 fatty acid content in grass-fed whey protein likely plays a role in its cholesterol-lowering abilities (3).
Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation in the body, which may also help lower cholesterol.
High cholesterol is associated with inflammation, which can be evident from elevated c reactive protein levels, reflected in routine blood work.
However, the anti-inflammatory omgea-3 fatty acids found in grass-fed whey may help reduce cholesterol.
Will Whey Protein Make Me Gain Weight?
Although weight gain is complicated and there are many contributing factors to gaining weight, it's often a result of consuming more calories than you burn.
Most people 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 might experience weight gain over time.
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.
However, whey protein can also be effective in helping people lose weight, too. Research suggests that high-protein diets can be supportive of healthy weight loss and a more favorable body composition.
Diets high in protein can not only help with satiety, but may help regulate high blood sugar and improve symptoms of insulin resistance, which both can support weight loss goals.
Consuming whey protein as part of your diet can help you feel full, promote stable energy levels, and reduce the tendency to snack on empty calorie foods.
How Much Whey Protein Should I Take per Day?
The amount of whey protein you need every day 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 amounts of protein, you can simply incorporate high protein foods along with a daily serving of whey protein to meet your needs.
If you're losing fat or working to increase muscle mass, 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 to help give the body more protein and more calories.
What To Look For When Choosing a Whey Protein Powder
When choosing a whey protein powder, it's important to look for a high-quality protein product, and one that is from grass-fed cows.
Plus, be sure to opt for a brand that is well-trusted and contains no artificial ingredients or added sugars in their products.
Some supplement companies even conduct their own clinical nutrition trials, which further suggests the trustworthiness and legitimacy behind the organization making your supplement.
Whey protein is one of the most commonly consumed protein supplements. Although it's higher in fat than other types of protein, many studies show that whey protein can help reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol and increase “good” HDL cholesterol.
Whey protein isolate is easier for some to digest than whey concentrate, but may lack some of the beneficial fat and nutrients of whey concentrate.
However, the differences between the types of whey protein powder is quite small and it likely doesn't make a difference which kind you choose when it comes to total cholesterol.
In general, whey protein supplementation seems has many health benefits. Research suggests it to be beneficial for blood cholesterol levels as it can lower cholesterol and reduce the risk for heart disease.
But, it is important to ensure you're consuming a high-quality, grass-fed whey protein supplement, as this will give you the most heart-healthy fats. Plus, grass-fed whey is better for the environment and is less likely to contain artificial ingredients or additives.