Why Whey!?!?

Did you have a panic attack when you looked over the Whole Life Challenge contest rules and saw that whey protein is “outside” of the contest rules? Did you wonder what everyone was all upset over? Do you even do a protein shake after working out?! Either way, congrats. Your nutritional awareness is activate and you’re already flexing your “conscious decision-making” muscles, by wondering. That’s what the Whole Life Challenge is all about.
With so many options and so much conflicting information on protein supplements and post workout recovery swirling around us, how do we decide?  If whey isn’t Paleo, what’s an athlete to do!? How do we solve the dilemma of deciding, what conscientious decision DO we make, given that dairy is out and whey protein is a milk-based product? Scientist and USA Rugby athlete, CJ Hildreth tackles the question, Why Whey?.


Let’s delve into this question full force (I’m never one to hold back from peppering you with the latest and greatest high-performance science), but first it seems proper to start with an introduction as this is my first article. Luckily, all you need to know about me can be easily summed up, because I’m obsessed with three things:

  1. Improvement
  2. Science
  3. Empirical Observation
Improvement? This is easy to define. It’s thrilling and energizing to be a constantly improving version of yourself.
Science? What is a better pleasure read than some hard, cold, repeatable, peer-validated science?  (Wait, what? TMZ Celebrity Gossip? YIKES. This might be the wrong read for you.)
Empirical observation. I love that which you can verify by opening your eyes and looking at what the heck is going on around you.  Eight or nine of the top 10 performing competitors from the CrossFit Games take in carbs plus amino acids pre/during workout, then consume carbs plus whey protein (isolate/hydrosylate) post workout? Approximately 99 out of 100 Olympians do that?  And, 999 out of 1,000 NFL athletes do as well?
I don’t care much about what the one person who is an exception does, because that guy might haves something like, say, incredible genes, an insane work ethic, heart-burning passion, a slew of ritualistic behaviors (likely pre-packed meals with precise macronutrient quantities), intelligent supplement use (definitely fish oil and vitamin D3), and even a bit of dumb luck.
Yes, those people exist.
Also, while my empirical numbers could well be off, my concept and gist are not. Empirical observation is not meant to be exact, but rather to get you interested in what other high-performing individuals know that you don’t. Once you are curious, you are going to go seek out the science. So, let’s roll up our sleeves and delve into that hard-core science that I promised, which I’ll translate into English for those of you have an allergy or aversion to the “geek-speak.”
Essentially, when you are training hard, the day becomes broken up in two periods of time – rest periods (the times when you’re not training) and peri-workout periods (pre/during/post workout). Those are the two parts of the day that exist. So, how do these two intervals differ from a nutritional context?Simple. During the rest periods, your body can be properly fueled by high-quality, wholesome, nutrient-dense foods. Meaning, lean proteins, healthy fats, heaps of veggies and possibly a few fruits, and lots of water (more than you’re drinking now).
However, for the peri-workout period, everything changes. Our physiology changes, our biochemistry changes, our signaling pathways change (including which receptors are open on our muscle cells), even our gene expression changes (meaning, what proteins your body’s DNA decides to create and fold into three-dimensional structures.)  So, we need to treat this period of time a differently. For this period, what you care about is what you can shuttle into your body for a high-performance power boost, allowing you to put more weight overhead than you did yesterday.
That said, there are plenty of approaches to get to the same result, especially when it comes to nutrition.  Because nobody’s built quite the same, there are unlikely to be universal truths beyond certain simple rules like “eat food.” So, there will always be someone with a different nutritional perspective and it could well be valid.
Having said that, the nearest equivalent for the peri-workout period is this:
Take in carbs and amino acids both pre and during your workout, and immediately afterward, consume carbs along with whey protein (isolate or hydrolysate).
I’m highlighting that, because this whole article just got summarized into that one sentence.
For the pre/during amino acids, you can either source that as complete protein or you can source it as specific essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. While the science to support adding amino acids to carbs for improving exercise performance is not exact, it is overwhelmingly robust. TONS of people are studying it, and thanks to various tracer and biomarker techniques that allow us to track pathways involved in protein synthesis, we’re getting a constantly improving understanding of what happens when we ingest these carbs and amino acids within the peri-workout window.
For our purposes as athletes, the big amino acid that we should all know, love, and gossip about while foam rolling, is the amino acid leucine.  The reason is that leucine is the one essential amino acid that can be transferred rapidly and with minimal effort from the gut to the blood stream. This means our body has a solid evolutionary reason to rely on leucine as the major signal of, “Hey, I just ate a wooly mammoth.”
Virtually every study I’ve ever seen has demonstrated that the addition of essential amino to carbs turns on protein synthesis (with the essential amino acids being consumed either as complete protein isolates or as specific essential amino acids in various combinations).
For whey protein in particular, there is a large population of longitudinal studies that have consistently shown the repeatable benefits of:

  • Strength gains
  • Increased lean body mass
  • Decreased body fat
  • Enhanced recovery
  • Enhanced immune system function
In addition to the robust body of science that supports its use, another reason that I’m biased toward whey protein as a source of amino acids to couple with carbs in order to trigger peri-workout protein synthesis is the quick bioavailability of whey protein from the gut to the bloodstream. While casein is a slow-digesting (milk-based protein) that can take upward of 2-3 hours to become absorbed, whey is much faster digesting protein (in the order of 30-45 minutes, in some cases) that has been demonstrated to effectively takes advantage of the peri-workout changes that occur within our body.
The absorption profiles for hemp and other paleo proteins (whole egg protein / egg white protein / beef protein isolates) are less known, and I would be delighted to see well-designed, peer-validated studies about their absorption profiles and performance enhancing capacity – as compared to whey.  Meaning, for performance nutrition, we’ve got to beat the baseline, folks!
Also, whey is a leucine-heavy protein. Meaning, it provides both a strong “call to action” with its leucine content, and subsequently provides a spectrum of other essential amino acids that your body can use to build your new muscle tissue.
While hemp protein has become increasing popular, several sources have indicated that hemp protein is not a complete protein. Meaning, when its amino acid profile is considered, it is appears to be weak in lysine, and to also be low in leucine and tryptophan. So, while hemp seed protein has all the essential amino acids, they don’t appear to be present in the optimal proportions. Furthermore, there is a smaller population of scientific research exploring the capacity of hemp protein to trigger a performance boosting effect.  However, if you are already aware of this nutritional profile and you elect to ingest hemp protein instead of whey, then congrats, your conscious decision-making is in full-force and I am proud of you!
In summary, whey protein is a thoroughly validated, quickly absorbing, leucine-heavy, functional post-workout protein source.
Wow, that’s a mouth-full (pun intended).
Also, it’s useful here to make a distinction here among the types of whey, with whey concentrate being the slowest digesting form, followed by whey isolate, and then whey hydrolysate as the fastest digesting form. Here it is in clearer visual form:
The Milk-Based Proteins
Casein – A slow-digesting milk-derived protein that absorbs in 2-3 hours, depending on what you eat with it, the digestive environment, and more. (Some studies have suggested it could take longer.)
Whey Concentrate – Slowest digesting whey protein.
Whey Isolate – Fast digesting whey protein.
Whey Hydrolysate – Fastest digesting whey protein (already partially pre-digested by enzymes to allow faster absorption).
Additionally, my empirical estimate (meaning, my personal observation) is that upwards of 990 out of a 1,000 Olympic level athletes are currently ingesting whey protein during the peri-workout window. This is likely because this is what there is the most science to support at this time. For instance, there have been 2,572 scientific articles published about whey protein to date, versus only 1,114 published about hemp protein (search courtesy of my favorite website, a scientific database called Pubmed.com). In 2013, there were 246 articles published about whey protein, versus 65 articles published about hemp protein, meaning, about that 4X more scientific investigation currently occurs for whey protein.
May there be other exceptional peri-workout protein sources than whey?  Certainly. In fact, that one guy out of 1,000 who is in the NFL and is not ingesting whey may already have figured one out. Or, a genius blogger with three Ph.D’s in Nutritional Biochemistry may suggest a different approach. In which case, I say, “Go forth and be your own study of one!” I love a good study of one as much as the next guy or girl, because without it, you can’t customize what works uniquely for you.
So, I’m all for trying something new, but first, know what optimal baseline you can achieve using the known high-performance science (in this case, whey protein). Then, go forth and use your study of one to test whether or not you can beat that baseline.
Plus, since science and technology is always improving, so a better protein source than whey protein could certainly emerge in the future. (Note: Be skeptical about listening to anyone about nutrition who isn’t willing to say that they have been wrong. I prefer the Bayesian approach of recognizing that what we know now will change and that we’ll have to incorporate future knowledge into it, possibly modifying what we now to understand as “true.”)
Having said that, for some folks, milk-based proteins like whey protein (and casein, too) simply don’t work well within their system. Or, they may have made a 100% deviation-free commitment to eating paleo.  Others reading this article may just want to get a perfect score on the Whole Life Challenge. RESPECT to all of you!
If you are one of these types, here are two great paleo-friendly, milk-free protein sources to choose:
  1. Paleo Protein Powder – A lean beef, whole egg, and egg white based protein powder (http://paleoproproducts.com/paleo-protein-powder/)
  2. Hemp FORCE – A hemp-based protein power (https://www.onnit.com/hemp-force/#ingredients-use)

While neither of these protein sources has as thorough of a body of scientific evidence to support their capacity to generate the performance benefits of whey, these protein options are excellent choices for those people described above – meaning, the milk-adverse, Paleo Pros, and Whole Life Challenge Champs. Also, for the hemp protein, you could consider adding a leucine supplement to it to help cue initial protein synthesis.
In summary, when it comes to ingesting whey protein during the Whole Life Challenge, there’s not a right or wrong answer, but instead a “conscious decision” to make. Personally, I’ll be consuming it, because of its amino acid profile and ability to consistently demonstrate positive performance, physique, and recovery functionality. However, for those of you that do select a protein alternative, please share with us which one you choose and the empirical evidence that you collect from experiencing it!May your 2014 be filled with high-performance nutrition, regardless of what protein supplement you ingest, and may you be constantly improving, observing, and even enjoying a dash of science.

AUTHOR: CJ Hildreth, B.S., M.S., D.M.D.

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