You may think of protein supplements as a concern only for weight lifters, but they’re for everyone—provided that you choose the right one for you. You need dietary protein for your body’s day-to-day upkeep and to age well, and it can really help you recover from intense training. Up to a third of older adults don’t get enough protein for various reasons, like reduced appetite and changing tastes.1 There are lots of ways to get protein, and here, I’ll go through the different forms of one of the most convenient, beneficial, and powerful types of protein supplements: whey protein.
Whey Protein Isolate vs. Whey Protein Concentrate vs. Whey Protein Hydrolysate
When choosing a whey protein powder, you’ve got three options:
Whey protein concentrate
Whey protein isolate
Whey protein hydrolysate
Whey Protein Concentrate
If you’ve ever seen a product called “whey protein,” that’s probably whey protein concentrate. After whey is separated during the cheese-making process, removing the liquid from the whey produces whey protein concentrate. Concentrate is about 80% protein, with some residual fat and lactose. These residuals give whey protein concentrate a slightly thicker consistency when blending into shakes. The added fat and lactose shouldn’t cause any problems unless you’re very sensitive to lactose or on a strict low-calorie diet and need to eliminate any extraneous carbs and fat.
Compared to whey isolate and whey hydrolysate, whey protein concentrate is less processed and more whole, but has less protein. Otherwise, it’s probably fine to go with concentrate for most applications (or otherwise further you could just eat a steak instead).
A 20 gram scoop of plain whey protein concentrate will have about 16 grams of protein, 2 grams of fat, a gram of lactose, and assorted trace minerals like calcium and potassium.
Whey Protein Isolate
Whey protein isolate is about 90-94% protein, and is made up of pretty much pure protein with very little of the other dairy elements remaining. To get there, it goes through a more rigorous refinement process than whey protein concentrate.
For strictly protein-related needs, whey protein isolate is obviously superior. More protein means more essential amino acids our bodies require to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and build more muscle and strength. More protein means we can recover better in the gym. More protein means we can get the protein we need while minimizing extraneous calories from other sources.
For health, whey protein isolate is also superior. Whey protein, after all, isn’t just straight isolated amino acids. The “protein” in whey consists of other bioactive peptides like lactoferrin or beta-lactoglobulin, both of which have unique effects on immunity and metabolic function. More protein in whey isolate means more of these peptides. Also, if you’re sensitive to lactose, whey isolate has little to none.
For more info on the health and muscle-building benefits of whey, be sure to read this post on whey protein. The majority of the studies listed there deal with whey isolate.
You get what you pay for, and isolate is more expensive than concentrate. Using 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.
A 20 gram scoop of plain whey protein isolate will have 18-19 grams of protein.
Whey Protein Hydrolysate
Whey protein hydrolysate is “predigested” whey, or whey that has been partially broken down using hydrolysis. This breaks up longer peptides into shorter ones and makes the amino acids easy to absorb. Although whey is one of the least allergenic dairy components, hydrolysis may also break down certain allergens in whey into inactive forms.
One catch? By changing the structure of the peptides, hydrolysis may actually dampen the biological activity of lactoferrin and beta-lactoglobulin. You get amino acids but lose the unique structure that made whey protein so good for immune health.
Another catch? It’s expensive. But is it worth the extra cost?
Whey in general is already highly bioavailable and easily absorbed by our bodies, so absorption is rarely an issue with whey concentrate or isolate. Compared to whey concentrate, whey hydrolysate has a small effect on fat loss but no additional effect on muscle protein synthesis.2 Another study in older women found that hydrolysate led to more weight loss than concentrate, but not by a ton.3
Hydrolysate is great marketing. That’s about it. The elite of the elite—those hulking magazine cover superheroes with tanned, smiling faces atop straining, veiny necks and enhanced protein requirements—may have actual cause to explore hydrolysate, but most of us definitely don’t need to fuss over that stuff.
The exception would be if you are old enough to have dental issues or compromised digestion that would make it hard for you to absorb protein. In that case, skipping a few steps in the breakdown process may be a good thing. Also, if you’re keto, keep in mind that whey protein hydrolysate could spike your blood sugar.4
A 20 gram scoop of plain whey protein hydrolysate will have about 18 grams of protein.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDI) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, or 0.36 g protein/lb.
That’s the official, on-the-books answer, but it’s almost certainly far too low to anything but surviving. If you want to thrive, I have differing opinions. I’ve been an elite competitive athlete, and I have lots of friends who have various reasons to optimize their protein intake. Protein needs are highly individual, and depend heavily on your goals, age, and activity level.
Aiming closer to a gram per pound of bodyweight is better for most people in my experience. You don’t have to hit that every day, or even every other day. But it’s a good figure to shoot for.
Few people need whey protein supplements, but they certainly make life easier and the reality is that we’re a busy bunch of people. 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 you’re looking for a high quality whey protein isolate with a little extra coconut milk powder and natural sweetener, try Primal Fuel.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.