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Whey as a Medical Food: why to recommend it and how to choose a quality product

In the realm of training, protein is usually thought of in terms of muscle hypertrophy and strength gains. Going beyond this, in the context of training and everyday life, adequate protein is needed for functions other than muscle repair.

The type, along with the quality of protein, largely dictates the extent of training adaptations and general health.

The body does best when the majority of proteins come from unprocessed whole foods- but, in moderation, a good quality protein supplement has several benefits. The benefits are amplified if it has a favorable amino acid composition and contains bioactive compounds such as fractions. Whey has a unique and beneficial amino acid profile and is high in bioactive compounds. While whey is a protein, because of its active constituents, it is also classified as a “Medical Food”. Whey serves as a great recommendation for clients who are looking to lose weight, increase muscle mass and overall health.

Beyond Muscle Synthesis and Recovery

It’s common knowledge that when leading a client through a training program, protein requirements increase. Ensuring adequate protein is necessary for recovery and the adaptive results brought on via training.

It is estimated that 75% of women are not meeting the minimum protein requirements. This is due to a number of factors such as:

- Under consumption of energy (calories)

- Overtraining

- Increase in plant-based diets, and subsequent increase in lower bioavailable proteins

- Over estimation/Miscalculation of protein content in food

Ex- including vegetables such as broccoli and bell peppers in protein count

Ex- 1 cup of dried beans and legumes = ~40g protein, but cooked yield ~15-20, and many don’t take this into account

- Misinformation about protein sources, such as a serving of spirulina and quinoa being touted as an adequate source

- Malabsorption and gastrointestinal dysfunction

Note: plant-based diets can provide adequate protein, but typically education is needed in this area to ensure this. Without the proper education grams per day of protein can be low, and even if protein by weight is being consumed, there can be deficiencies in certain amino acids.

Above training, protein is needed by the body to build immune cells, promote immune cell function, synthesize enzymes that are used by all the metabolic reactions in the body and to conjugate to water soluble toxins in the phase II liver detox pathways. A diet lacking sufficient, bioavailable protein will yield slower results, often result in difficult weight loss, contribute to fatigue, lethargy and increase susceptibility to infections. A viable option in terms of increasing protein intake and supporting the body is recommending a whey protein supplement- especially to your female clients.

Why whey?

Whey protein has a unique amino acid profile that affords it benefits not seen in other protein supplements. It is known as a complete protein as it contains all the essential amino acids and has a high bioavailability, meaning it’s readily digested and easily assimilated within the body. Perhaps most important, Whey protein contains several fractions which contribute to immune health. Fractions are not only beneficial in maintaining healthy immune function but they have been extensively studied in pathological immune conditions such as cancer with great success.


Glycomacropeptide- Increases cholecystokinin (CCK), a hormone that triggers bile production and increases satiety. This is one of the reasons that the introduction of whey can help those looking to lose weight.

Bovine Serum Albumin: Involved in the immune process, it increases t-cell activity

Immunoglobulins: These proteins inhibit pathogen binding, are antimicrobial, are involved in the activation of phagocytosis and exhibit anti-inflammatory properties. Immunoglobulins are an essential component of the immune system.

Lactoferrin: A novel compound, lactoferrin is an immunomodulator. It is actively studied in cancers for its anti-tumor properties. It Binds to iron, leaving iron-dependent pathogens void of a food source and there’s a wealth of research highlighting its antiviral and anti-fungal capacity as well as its ability to promote healthy bone turnover.

Unique Amino Acid Profile

There are two distinctions when it comes to the amino acid profile of whey. It has a high concentration of both Leucine and Cysteine.

Leucine- A branched chain amino acid, leucine is indicated in muscle protein synthesis as it upregulates the mTOR pathway, more than any other amino acid, including the two other branched chain amino acids. It also has a unique ability to preserve lean muscle. In addition, the carbon skeleton of leucine can be used to generate ATP, aka, energy.

Cysteine- This amino acid, serves as a precursor to glutathione, the body’s most abundant antioxidant. Because cysteine increases endogenous synthesis of glutathione, it is needed for functioning liver detoxification pathways. On its own, cysteine has the ability to bind to a variety of chemicals and toxins, most notably heavy metals. It also primes T-cells, a vital part of the immune system to proliferate and function at a high level.

Detox and Whey

In another blog post, which you can read here- we explained that when there is a rapid reduction in weight loss, chemicals known as Persistent Organic Pollutants are released from adipose cells. These toxins are harmful and need to be metabolized via the liver to be excreted from the body.

Glutathione, which is synthesized in the body from cysteine, is needed in both phase I and the Phase II detox pathways. Since glutathione is needed by every cell in the body, oftentimes the liver pathways can become congested, due to a lack of available glutathione.

By nature glutathione is unstable, making most supplements ineffective. Due to this, the body needs the building blocks to make glutathione. To date, cysteine is the most direct way to increase glutathione levels in the body.

In addition to the cysteine content in whey and resulting increase in glutathione levels- it supports the detoxification by providing high quality, usable protein and conjugates.

How to choose a good whey

Considerable attention must be given when choosing a whey product. The amount of both cysteine and leucine is determined by the processing techniques, as are the micronutrients and number and quality of the fractions.

There are three forms of whey protein

Concentrate: Whey concentrate has a variable protein count ranging from 35%-80%, and contains the highest amount of lactose. Due to the higher amount of lactose, it can be harder to digest and it increases carb count. In addition to lactose, whey concentrate contains a significant amount of fat.

Isolate: A whey isolate, has most of the non-protein components removed. It sits at about 90% protein and has nearly all of the lactose and fat removed. Whey isolate contains the highest amount of lactoferrin, but concentrate has a higher amount of the other fractions. It has a higher bioavailability than concentrate.

Hydrolysate: Whey in this form has been hydrolyzed, which equates to it being pre-digested. Out of the forms, a hydrolysate is the most processed. It is absorbed rapidly with the caveat that it can cause up to a 43% larger insulin spike than whey isolate. It’s the most expensive form, and usually contains sweeteners or sugars due to its naturally bitter taste and out of the three forms, it has the least amount of bioavailable fractions.

Of course, the type of whey you recommend to clients will be dependent on their goals, but generally speaking an isolate is the most favorable option.

Extraction Methods

When looking for a whey protein, the Ion Exchange method of extraction is the least favorable. It has been shown to denature the protein during the production process. This leads to a lower pH, and subsequent ionization of certain amino acids, such as cystine. This results in lower amounts in the final product. There is also a loss of fractions during this process. When choosing a whey protein product, look for ones that use ultrafiltration or advanced microfiltration, along with cold processing.

Other considerations:

  1. Opt for grass-fed- ideally sourced from New Zealand

  2. Check to see the number of fractions contained

  3. Look at the farming practices - studies show happy, healthy cows produce more fractions

  4. Look for sweeteners and added sugars

  5. The addition of glutamine or enzymes can help the digestive process.

Whey protein is a great way to increase bioavailable protein in the diet, support the body’s innate detox pathways, and modulate the immune system. Oftentimes the introduction of whey can decrease time to results, facilitate in weight loss, provide more energy and help your clients feel great- while minimizing the chemical exposure from the release of Persistent Organic Pollutants from adipose tissue!

Author: Lisa Kowalyk CNP, B.kin

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