Whey to Go: The Best Kept Health (& Weight Management) Secret
As the mother of a high schooler, who puts in long hours studying and on the hockey field, I am rather shocked by how hard these kids work and play. As a parent, I want to make sure my daughter is getting the nutrition she needs to be at her optimum. Something that repairs and rebuilds muscle and tissue, and especially addresses the body’s nutritional needs during hormonal changes. Fitness buffs are all too familiar with protein, and like the word ‘fiber’, mentioning ‘protein’ is enough to get the health conscious to listen. Protein, an important nutrient comprised of essential and non-essential amino acids, is responsible for the repair of body cells, the building and repairing of muscles and bones. It is also a source of energy and controls vital processes related to metabolism. But the best kept health food (and weight loss) secret is probably whey protein. So versatile a food is whey protein that athletes, lactating mothers, body builders, the elderly, patients and those interested in weight loss, can all benefit from it.
“The first time you taste whey protein powder it may be unusual, but give it a chance. For me, it works best in fruit smoothies for added proteins. Especially if I want that smoothie to be a meal replacement, it helps to meet my nutritional needs better,” says Zaira Ahmad, a Registered Dietician in Somerset, New Jersey.
Whey is the watery liquid left over after the curd is formed during the making of cheese and fermented or acidified dairy products. However, as Haider Khattak, Director, Islamic Food and Nutrition Council, Canada, points out, whey is halal only if it has been produced by enzymes from halal, zabiha sources. “Enzymes have to be sourced from microbial or plant sources to be considered halal by most halal certifying organizations,” he says. “Rennet, on the other hand, is an enzyme that is extracted from the stomach of a calf or lamb, and used to coagulate milk to make cheese. It too needs to be certified to ensure that it is from halal slaughtered animals,” he says.
“Whey protein is separated from milk during the process of making milk into cheese. It has one of the highest levels of protein digestibility and is more rapidly digested than other proteins such as casein, that is also found in cow’s milk,” adds Zeshan Sadek, Halal Administrator at Halal Food Council of Europe (HFCE).
Protein promotes the rebuilding of tissue. While that is what makes proteins and whey protein important for bodybuilders and athletes, it is also important for those recovering post surgery, incisions and even wounds, says Sarene Alsharif, a nutritional consultant in Rockford, IL. The growth of new skin is jump-started by protein and its amino acids. While the body can create non-essential amino acids, the only way for it to make essential amino acids is when we eat high quality protein foods. A lack of protein in our system, or the consumption of poor quality proteins, can slow down the healing process. Whey protein is often recommended for patients who have had surgery and even those undergoing burn therapy, Alsharif explains.
Pregnancy can increase the expectant mothers need for protein by up to 33%. According to Jednak, M., et al (1999), in the American Journal of Physiology — Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology, “Protein meals reduce nausea and gastric slow wave dysrhythmic activity in first trimester pregnancy”. Similarly, the body needs more protein during hormonal changes such as adolescence, lactation and menopause, and whey protein can provide the body with much needed amino acids during this time.
“Breast milk is best for infants,” says Sadek. “When that is not an option, opt for infant formulas that contain whey protein, even for premature infants, as it contains alpha-lactalbumin, which is also found in human breast milk.” He adds that certain kinds of whey protein based infant formulas have also been shown to help reduce crying in colicky infants, according to a study by Lucassen, P., et al. (2000) published in the journal, Pediatrics.
“Babies need protein for normal growth and development and to tackle big challenges like rolling over, crawling and walking. Whey protein is a high-quality, easily digestible protein,” concurs Christine Steele, Ph.D., Director of Science, Innovation and Education, Abbott Nutrition. Globally, Abbott Nutrition sells hundreds of IFANCA halal-certified products that contain whey protein, including infant formula, therapeutic nutrition and nutritional shakes. The IFANCA Crescent M symbol appears on their halal certified line of products.
However, since the second most abundant component in whey protein is alpha-lactalbumin, one of the main whey proteins in human breast milk, it is best to consult a doctor to be sure whey protein is right for you if you are pregnant or nursing.
Whey protein, which is nutrient dense, is found in many weight loss and meal replacement products. While portion control, fat-free, sugar-free and reduced calorie approaches to weight loss have been around for a while, trends today suggest eating foods that promote satiety or a feeling of fullness. Hence the recommendation to eat protein and fiber rich meals. Whey protein works similarly even though it is easily digested and efficiently absorbed by the body. Leaving us feeling full, it keeps us from reaching for that extra helping at meals. Research finds that compared to the protein casein, which is found in cow’s milk, whey protein wins when it comes to providing a feeling of fullness.
“The body uses more energy to digest protein than other foods (thermic effect) and consequently allows the body to burn more calories after a protein meal. Further, protein helps to stabilize blood glucose levels by slowing the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream. This in turn reduces hunger by lowering insulin levels and making it easier for the body to burn fat,” according to the Whey Protein Institute. “Whey protein also contains bioactive components which stimulate the release of two appetite-suppressing hormones: cholecystokinin (CCK) and glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1).”
“An individual who exercises has greater caloric needs in a day. Whey protein can be an easy way to bulk up smoothies, shakes, or oatmeal with those extra calories. I’ve had a client who had very little leisure time in a day, and spent that time exercising. He wasn’t trying to lose weight, just maintain it, and wasn’t much of a snacker,” says Ahmad. “I recommended he add whey protein to his oatmeal or have a shake with breakfast because it is a quick way to get in those extra calories he needed on days he was working out.” However, if you lead a sedentary lifestyle, consuming whey protein will provide satiety but it will also pack on the pounds.
Jay R. Hoffman and Michael J. Falvo represented the Department of Health and Exercise Science, The College of New Jersey, Ewing, New Jersey, at the International Society of Sports Nutrition Symposium, in 2005. Comparing the biological value of various proteins, they ranked whey protein even higher than eggs, milk or beef.
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Reading labels is part and parcel of the halal consumer’s grocery shopping experience in the West. That practice is important to determine if a product has an acceptable amount of whey protein and/or whey protein isolate. The more there is of an ingredient, the closer it is to being listed at the beginning of the nutrition label. For whey protein beverages, either Whey Protein Isolate or Whey Protein Concentrate should appear first on the labels. Whey protein isolate ranks highest for being easily digested and retained by your body. If you are lactose intolerant, whey protein concentrate may not be for you. Many whey protein bars and beverages such as smoothies also contain gluten. Again, as in almost every diet related decision, do ask a registered dietician for professional advice.
About the Writer: Naazish YarKhan is Director, Content Strategy at IFANCA and contributing writer for numerous media internationally including NPR, Aramco World magazine, Huffington Post and Common Ground News Service.