You likely already have a basic understanding of what whey protein is. However, when it comes to all the adjectives that get thrown around when it comes time to purchase protein powder, where do you even start?
Concentrate, isolate, hydrolysate… what does it all mean? Let’s go back to basics and focus on one of the simplest descriptors used for whey protein: lean.
What exactly is lean whey protein? What does the addition of the word “lean” mean?
Just Plain Whey
To fully grasp the concept of lean whey protein, a bit of a refresher course in the world of food science is warranted. Although it sounds odd when you consider milk, it is actually a combination of liquid and solid portions.
When heat, acid, enzymes, or other curding agents are added to milk, the liquid and solid portions separate. The solids clump together and float to the top of the mixture – these are the curds, which are strained off to make cheese or casein protein powder.
The remaining liquid is whey. Before it is sold in a tub as protein powder, it must go through varying degrees of processing – including dehydration and powdering at the very least. The type of whey protein depends on its processing method.
The three most popular types of whey protein are:
- Concentrate: Typically contains 70 to 80% protein, some fat and lactose, and usually the cheapest and most common type of whey protein available.
- Hydrolysate: A pre-digested form of whey protein that allows for quicker absorption.
- Isolate: Contains 90% protein or higher, with less fat and lactose.
Now that we understand the basic idea behind whey, let’s tackle the “lean” concept.
Lean, Mean Protein
Typically, describing something as “lean” means it has little to no fat, and it may conjure up the idea of an extremely fit, muscular person. However, when it comes to food, the meaning of “lean” is slightly different.
Lean foods are indeed low in fat, but they also generally include a fair amount of protein. The concept of lean protein is significant because many protein sources are rich in fat and high in calories.
For example, 100g of steak contains about 28g protein, which is fantastic! Unfortunately, this protein comes bundled with 9g fat and 194 calories. Meanwhile, the same amount of boneless skinless chicken breast provides 31g protein, 4g fat, and only 165 calories. Chicken breast, then, is a lean protein – or at least, it is leaner than steak.
So, how does whey compare? The standard serving of whey protein (30g) contains 25g protein, 2g fat, and just 120 calories. In comparison to the steak and chicken examples – 100g whey would provide 75g protein, 6g fat, and 360 calories.
A quality whey is an incredibly lean protein.
Leaner Than Others
Although whey is a naturally lean protein, some types of whey are better than others. Most dairy cows from which whey is sourced are fed diets high in chemically-treated grains.
Aside from other potential problems associated with this practice, any dairy products made from the milk of these cows tend to have a higher saturated fat content.
Pasture-fed cows that are allowed to graze freely on grass typically produce healthier milk. This means a whey that is lower in saturated fat and higher in beneficial fat sources such as omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
What’s So Great About Lean Whey Protein, Anyway?
If you’re trying to lose weight, consuming lean whey protein sounds like the logical choice. However, what if your goal is to bulk up or gain weight? Luckily, lean whey protein is flexible in this capacity and can provide a variety of benefits not afforded by other types of protein powder.
Lean whey protein is a complete protein, which simply means that it contains all of the essential amino acids (if you skipped physiology class, those are the amino acids that your body cannot make by itself). Whey protein is also known as a “fast” dietary protein, meaning that it tends to be absorbed faster than other types.
Lean whey protein is also high in leucine, a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) that has been studied for its ability to promote protein synthesis in skeletal muscle (and therefore, muscle growth) that exceeds the growth potential of all other amino acids.
In conjunction with resistance training and compared to casein protein, whey protein has been found to provide greater increases in strength, higher gains in lean body mass, and a significant decrease in body fat. Additionally, lean whey protein has been found to decrease inflammation within the body, as evidenced by decreased levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a biomarker for inflammation.
One 2015 meta-analysis examining the correlation between whey protein and CRP levels determined that supplemental whey protein significantly decreased elevated levels of CRP in participants with chronic conditions such as COPD, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, and obesity.
Whey protein is currently being examined for potential use in treating some types of cancer and improved symptom control in children with asthma. Whey protein has also been found to decrease blood pressure, total cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol in adults with pre-hypertension or stage 1 hypertension.
Similarly, lean whey protein supplementation has proven successful in decreasing fasting triglycerides, total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and fasting blood glucose levels in obese and overweight adults.
Whey protein has even shown some promise for use in the treatment of immune disorders such as psoriasis and atopic dermatitis, and animal trials have concluded that whey protein may someday be used to treat non-alcoholic fatty liver disorder (NAFLD).
Regardless of what your specific fitness, physique, or athletic goals are, lean whey protein is an inexpensive, flexible option to meet your protein needs without filling up on fat, calories, or other ingredients that aren’t needed.
If you find it difficult to include enough protein in your diet, adding lean whey protein is simple, safe, and effective.