Given the recent flurry of attacks on supplements (shorthand: omega-3s and vitamin D are maybe ok, everything else is out-consumer reports and others) it was odd to see one of the top selling supplements left out. So I went looking for some of the supplements that didn’t make the list, wondering if perhaps the evidence was just that much stronger for the things they didn’t mention.
Whey protein is one of the top selling supplements, having just recently barely missed being given the ok to replace breast milk for allergic infants. Everyone needs whey, except we still aren’t sure. Because, despite selling tons of the stuff to everyone from babies to weightlifters to lung patients, we really haven’t done large scale studies on what whey does for you.
If you want to get bulked up, then: “Nutritional supplements are very popular especially among athletes although some studies show either controversial or even negative results. However, whey protein and creatine seem to have positive effects on muscle size, strength and athletic performance without major adverse effects and high costs. Most studies have shown that supplementation of whey protein can enhance muscle growth in response to resistance training. Some studies also suggest that whey may enhance recovery.” (study here)
In rats, “Recent studies showed that a combination of carbohydrate and protein was more effective than carbohydrate alone for replenishing muscle glycogen after exercise.” (study here)
So it’s good for people and rats! Sign me up.
But what are its long-term effects? “To date, only one study has conducted a comparative investigation on the relative effects of the two main intact milk proteins on BP and vascular function. While both milk proteins were shown to reduce BP, only whey protein improved measures of arterial stiffness” (study here)
If you look at mouse studies (here), there may be benefit to the heart from whey, but we don’t have human studies to confirm any benefit.
Given the ubiquity of whey protein on the market, and the much vaunted effects that weight-lifters claim from it, maybe it is time to see if whey protein might really help other segments of the population. Maybe, like we’ve found for mega-doses of vitamins, the effect of all that whey may not be so positive after all.
On the other hand, there are a number of studies that point to other possible benefits: “suggest a therapeutic role for whey protein in diseases of intestinal barrier dysfunction, perhaps, in part, by regulating claudin expression” (study here) So there may be huge, unexplored benefits to whey. We just don’t know.