Whether you want to put on muscle mass, lose weight, or level up your overall health and wellness, consuming adequate protein is important. But there’s a particular kind of protein that may be especially beneficial to those goals: whey protein.
Hailed for a slew of fitness and recovery benefits, whey protein has long been a go-to for gymgoers—and now, research suggests it also makes a perfect appetizer. That’s right, you might just want to start pre-gaming your meals with whey. Here’s why.
- About Our Experts: Brittany Michels, R.D.N., L.D.N., C.P.T., is a registered dietitian, certified personal trainer, and an in-house nutritionist for The Vitamin Shoppe. Jim White, R.D.N., Is a dietitian, exercise physiologist, and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios.
What Makes Whey So Awesome?
Protein, broadly speaking, is a macronutrient that makes up every cell and tissue in our body, as well as supports a number of essential human functions. Our bodies use protein for muscle growth and repair, to support overall energy levels, and to support the production of antibodies, enzymes, neurotransmitters, and hormones, says The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D.N., L.D.N., C.P.T. Consuming enough protein is important for everything from weight management and hormone production to healthy mood and sleep.
All protein is made up of chemical building blocks known as amino acids (there are 20 of them), but different protein sources contain different sequences of different amino acids, explains dietitian and exercise physiologist Jim White, R.D.N., owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios.
Whey protein, specifically, is derived from milk (it forms after milk has been curdled and strained). While it is available in foods like yogurt, cheese, and milk, powdered whey supplements have made this protein a household name.
Because of its unique amino acid profile, whey protein is famous for being quick to digest and unparalleled for supporting muscle growth and repair. “Whey has a high concentration of an amino acid called leucine, which supports muscle protein synthesis,” says Michels. Actually, leucine has been shown to support muscle repair between than all of the other amino acids (aside from isoleucine, and valine). As such, research has shown that athletes who take whey protein following training experience greater strength gains than those who downed soy protein or casein.
Whey isn’t just for fitness fanatics, though. It can help all sorts of people with all sorts of health needs and goals—particularly those who struggle to get in enough protein throughout the day, which is actually most people, according to Michels. (It’s a serious issue for middle-aged and older people, about half of whom fall short on protein.)
Getting enough protein (how much is “enough” is different for different groups of people) supports energy, weight management, healthy hair and nails, immune function, and ample muscle mass. Whey protein is a convenient, shelf-stable, and generally tasty way to ensure you get there, Michels says.
Pre-Gaming Your Meals With Whey
Clearly, the benefits of whey protein are many—and recent research has added more to the list. One 2023 review published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that drinking a whey protein shake before a meal can help lead to stable blood sugar levels following the meal, even if you have blood sugar issues like type 2 diabetes.
What’s the big deal? Stable blood sugar levels support overall cardiovascular health, as well as improve energy and mood. This means that sipping on some whey before chowing down could not only make for a happier, more energized you in the short term but could also have payoffs for long-term health. Oh, and because being properly hydrated supports stable blood sugar levels, too, the fact that your protein shake contains some liquid base helps it work double-duty against spikes, says Michels.
The researchers found a pre-meal whey shake was linked with stable blood sugar levels whether the shake was consumed 30 minutes, 15 minutes, or directly ahead of the meal. So, whether you consume a shake on your way from the gym to dinner, while cooking, or as an appetizer, you’ll reap the same reward.
Read More: 5 Health Benefits Of A High-Protein Diet
The review also showed that whey protein slowed gastric emptying rate, or how long it takes food to move through the system. In practice, this means that you’ll feel fuller for longer following meals you pre-game with whey, says Michels. This could mean less mindless snacking and therefore support your weight loss goals.
So, whether you’re struggling with cravings, need some support on your weight management journey, want to balance energy or mood, or just like the idea of promoting stable blood sugar and cardiovascular function, timing your usual whey protein shake before a meal could be a good move.
Advice For Choosing A Whey Protein Powder
If this info has inspired you to hop on the whey bandwagon or refresh your routine, the experts have some shopping advice to offer.
One consideration: Michels suggests looking for a whey protein supplement with the highest ratio of protein to calories. This is especially important if you’re trying to maintain lean mass or lose weight. The higher the protein content and the lower the calories, the better. A whey protein isolate will be your best bet here.
In addition to calories, White also recommends looking at a few other things on a product label (and avoiding others). “In general, phases like ‘grass-fed’, ‘hormone-free’, ‘no artificial dyes’, ‘free from sweeteners’, ‘no added flavorings’, and ‘acid and bleach-free processing’ are all signs of a whey protein powder that supports your overall health,” he says.
Finally, don’t hesitate to try a new whey protein powder each time you buy a new tub! Finding a supplement—whey protein included—that agrees with your personal body chemistry and digestive system can take time, White says. Plus, switching things up is a good way to figure out what flavor you’ll enjoy sipping on again and again.
The Bottom Line
Found in real foods as well as protein powder supplements, whey protein is a powerful ingredient that can support muscle repair, weight loss, and healthy blood sugar goals. In general, consuming enough protein overall is more important than when you consume it—but if you want to really tap into whey’s ability to support stable blood sugar and a healthy weight, recent research suggests that consuming a whey shake ahead of meals can help.