We’re long overdue for a good, solid post on whey protein. I include it in my Primal Fuel shake mix, a number of readers asked about it after last week’s dairy post, and it’s one of the more commonly used nutritional supplements around, so it’s a no-brainer of a post.
Whey is a byproduct of cheese production. It’s that pseudo-clear liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained that used to be tossed aside as waste material. Today, we know that it houses an impressive array of proteins: beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, and serum albumin. These are complete proteins, comprised of the essential amino acids central to protein synthesis and increased muscular hypertrophy. Our bodies can produce non-essential amino acids from lesser amino acids, but we cannot produce the essentials ourselves; we must eat quality protein sources. Whey is a naturally occurring, essential protein that satisfies the body’s protein requirements – hence its popularity.
Whey contains trace elements of lactose, so the extremely intolerant may have problems digesting it properly. Because whey is, by definition, the stuff that separates from the casein when it curdles, it has even less casein (save for trace amounts), rarely enough to be noticeable to anyone but the most casein-intolerant. But that’s pure whey; whey protein powder has even less of both.
Lactose may pose a problem, but casein almost certainly will not.
As for whey protein powder, you’ve got a couple options. Whey protein concentrate contains some fat and lactose, while whey protein isolate is pretty much pure protein with very little of the other dairy elements remaining. Concentrate is less processed and more whole, but has less protein. Isolate is about 90-94% protein, but it’s subjected to a more rigorous refinement process. Bodybuilders are drawn to the “purity” of whey isolate, lured by the moderately higher protein counts. Isolate is also considerably more expensive than concentrate, and the purported boost in beneficial effects on protein synthesis are overstated; drinking any kind of whey protein shake will have a beneficial effect on your muscle recovery and protein synthesis. If cost is not an issue, or you’re mildly sensitive to dairy, then isolate is your best choice. Otherwise, it’s probably fine to go with concentrate for most applications (or otherwise further you could just eat a steak instead).
Whey hydrolysate is predigested whey protein that’s easily absorbed and virtually free of any potential allergens, but it’s (in my opinion) horribly overpriced. Whey in general is already highly bioavailable and easily absorbed by our bodies, so absorption is rarely an issue with whey. Hydrolysate is great marketing. That’s about it. The elite of the elite – those hulking magazine cover superheros with tanned, smiling faces atop straining, veiny necks – may have actual cause to maximize protein absorption, but you guys definitely don’t need to fuss over that stuff.
Whey protein falls into the 80/20 category. It isn’t strictly Primal (and certainly not paleo) in that it wasn’t available to Grok, but it can be an effective, occasional high-protein meal replacement with most – if not all – of the potential allergens mitigated or negated. It’s an analog, a bit like dairy itself. If you can’t handle any dairy, skip it (or try whey isolate) and take the time to prepare a meal. If you can handle dairy without a problem, a whey protein powder is a pretty good way to shuttle nutrients into your body, especially if you’ve chosen to go the post-workout nutrition route – which I usually don’t.
Going Primal means acknowledging both the limitations and the advantages of modern life. I wish I could laze around on the savannah for days following a successful kill. I wish I had ten hours of leisure time every day. The reality is that we’re a busy bunch of people, and if we’re truly serious about maximizing our quality of life, slamming down a quick protein shake so we can get to the office a little earlier might mean we can leave earlier, too, and get home in time for a date with the significant other, a hike at dusk, or an extra couple chapters on that great book we’ve been meaning to read. If that isn’t a feature of modern life that can help us follow the Primal ways more easily, I’m not sure what qualifies.