The Benefits of Whey Protein Isolate: A Complete Guide
The time in the gym, the exercise routine, the sweat, the group fitness classes – those things get a lot of attention in our minds. But they aren’t the only components you need to get right if you want to meet your fitness goals.
The other component you need to get right can be boiled down to just one word: diet.
And we’re not talking about food restrictions or some crazy fad that says you can only eat meat or only eat foods that are green. We’re talking about the right fuel to get your body the nutrients it needs to perform at its peak and recover properly.
And there’s one particular ingredient we want to focus on here: whey protein isolate.
This is not a new ‘wonder ingredient’. And it’s not going to be the sole reason you go from Bruce Wayne to Batman. But it is one of the most heavily researched ingredients in the world. And that research keeps coming back to the same conclusion. Whey protein isolate works.
If you’ve walked into a supplements store, or browsed online lately, then you’ll know that there’s a crazy amount of choice out there now. There used to be four to six major brands out there, and protein powder was protein powder.
Now there are literally hundreds of choices. And protein has become a bit like milk. With milk, it used to just be from cows. Now ‘milk’ can come in oat, coconut, soy, almond and macadamia varieties.
It’s the same with protein. Rice, pea, soy, hemp, and hydrolysed and vegan proteins are just a few of the options now. But not all protein is created equal.
Some are just better than others.
What is it About Whey?
Whey comes from milk. More specifically, it’s the liquid that separates from milk when cheese is manufactured. If you’ve even opened a tub of Greek yoghurt, then you’ve seen whey: it’s the liquid that sometimes sits on top of the yoghurt. That’s the reason that so many yoghurts on the market now can claim the benefits of high protein content; it’s simply a naturally occurring part of that food.
It takes some additional steps to turn that liquid into powder, but that’s what the supplements industry figured out how to do. There’s a range of benefits to transforming the ingredient in that way.
Powder is easily transported, has a longer shelf life and, as a nice addition, can be combined with other ingredients to give it a fuller nutrient profile or better taste. Powder is also ideal for use as an input into other foodstuffs ranging from muesli bars to cereals and just about everything else you can think of.
So, What Makes Whey Protein Isolate Special?
Now that we’ve got the basics of whey sorted, we can dive into the sub-parts. There are actually multiple types of whey protein. Whey protein concentrate has about 7–8 grams of protein per 10-gram serve. The remaining 2–3 grams are made up of a mix of fat and naturally occurring milk sugars.
Whey protein hydrolysate is an extra-refined version of whey. This extra processing makes it far easier to digest, and the body makes use of it very quickly. On the flip side, this rapid uptake also can cause a higher insulin spike in some people, so is best avoided for those with diabetes. The extra processing also means extra cost, which makes whey protein hydrolysate the most expensive of the pack.
Whey protein isolate is in a bit of a sweet spot. It contains about 9 grams of protein per 10-gram serve. That means that it is better on a ‘pound for pound’ basis than whey protein concentrate when comparing protein profiles. The lack of milk sugars (lactose) also makes it easier to absorb for some people. It’s also less expensive than whey protein hydrolysate.
It is also the most heavily studied variant of whey protein. It’s likely this is because the ‘purity’ of the protein profile allows researchers the best opportunity to measure cause and effect relationships between the protein and the interventions they are investigating. So when you read an article about the benefits of whey protein, chances are the study that looked at those benefits was using whey protein isolate in its experiment.
Benefits of Whey Protein Isolate
Now for the good part – what are the measurable, proven benefits of using whey protein isolate?
- Bioavailability – our bodies are finely tuned to take the right nutrients from the food we eat. The nutritional profile of food is pointless unless our bodies are adapted to use it in the right way. Numerous studies have shown that whey protein isolate is highly ‘available’ to the body to digest, absorb and put to work in muscle growth and recovery.
- Muscle growth – think about this analogy: houses need bricks to be built and provide lasting strength. Amino acids found in high-quality whey protein isolate are the same as those ‘bricks’, but for muscle. Put simply, moving all the heavy weights you want won’t do anything without those building blocks. Muscle synthesis and growth requires amino acids and protein. And both are found in abundance in whey protein isolate.
- Beneficial chemical changes – at a chemical level, the body is incredibly complex. Certain chemical reactions are required to generate certain results. These can be called ‘precursor’ reactions. Digesting whey protein isolate can give you the required chemical precursors to naturally release anabolic hormones in your body. And those hormones make muscle growth far more likely.
- A complete protein - there’s a good argument that whey protein isolate ticks almost all the boxes you want ticked when it comes to its nutrition profile. That’s because whey is one of the few ‘complete’ proteins out there. That means that it has the full range of amino acids required for protein growth and repair after a challenging workout.
- A ‘pure’ supplement – other types of protein such as whey protein concentrate have a more ‘mixed’ nutrient profile. In addition to protein, they also contain carbohydrates and fat. Despite what fad diet marketing will have you believe, there is nothing wrong with either of these – both carbohydrates and fat play an important role in the healthy functioning of the body.
But for people looking to add muscle mass or build lean muscle, the most common nutrient deficit is in high- quality protein. Often, these people are getting enough carbohydrates and fat from other sources in their diet. So, the only thing they want to add to their diets is the additional protein required to get them to the ideal level. That’s the beauty of whey protein isolate. Because it is 90% pure protein, it is ideal if the person taking it is only seeking to add to their base-level amount of protein consumed.
- Food satisfaction benefits – as we discussed above, whey protein isolate is a more ‘pure’ protein than others, so when you take it, you are getting a high dose of protein per gram. Studies on supplementing with protein generally have shown that having a higher percentage of your daily intake from protein can have benefits on food cravings. In fact, one study showed that food cravings more than halved when the diet pivoted to having one-quarter protein as part of its make-up.
- Taste benefits – the scientific food satisfaction benefits tie into a less scientific but important variable: taste. Having something that is high in protein but that tastes terrible is not likely to encourage its consumption. It can be as ‘good for you’ as it likes, but a supplement that tastes awful is just going to collect dust on the pantry shelf until it hits its use-by date and will end up in the bin. In contrast, the flavour profile of whey protein isolates is known to be tasty. That might be hard to measure scientifically, but behaviourally, it definitely helps stick to the protein supplementation schedule that you’ve set up to meet your exercise goals. In addition, whey protein isolate can come in unflavoured or naturally flavoured varieties (e.g., vanilla, banana, strawberry), which makes them perfect for combining with a serve of fruit in a smoothie.
- Digestive benefits – stomach upsets are a known side effect of consuming protein supplements. When it comes to protein powders, these symptoms are often blamed on the increased protein intake. But for many people, that digestive discomfort comes down to the milk sugars in some protein powders in the form of lactose. Our bodies are able to handle less and less lactose as we age. Supplementing with protein powder can mean that the lactose tolerance is exceeded very quickly, especially if there are already other sources of it in your diet. However, whey protein isolate manages to avoid that downside. The processing of this type of protein powder removes a large percentage of lactose from the end product. That means that even people who experience digestive discomfort from other types of protein blends can consume whey protein isolate with no uncomfortable side effects.
For a high-quality range of protein powders, mass gainers and supplements, including whey protein isolate products, be sure to check out our online store. Our highly researched and extensively tested range of supplements are available alongside our training programs and coaching resources to help you get the exact results you want from your training and diet commitments.