Could a protein milkshake hold back the ageing process?
Published: 01:43, 28 August 2012 | Updated: 01:43, 28 August 2012
Whey protein is high in essential fatty acids and branch chain amino acids
A watery by-product of cheese-making might seem the most unlikely health tonic.
Yet whey, produced when milk is coagulated to make cheese, is being touted as hugely beneficial for a range of ills.
Whey powder — made when the liquid is commercially dried, and then mixed with milk or water to form a flavoured ‘milkshake’ — is currently hogging the limelight in the food supplement world, with promises it will help you lose weight, keep you mobile into older age, and result in a host of other benefits from a boosted immune system to cancer prevention.
It has traditionally been marketed to bodybuilders and is often seen in oversized tubs on the shelves of health food shops.
Now companies such as Maximuscle and the Good Whey Company are promoting it as a daily requirement not just for fitness addicts but for anyone — old and young — who wants healthy muscles and bones, and as an aid for weight loss.
The manufacturers say we begin to lose muscle mass with age — some even experience a decline from their mid-30s — and they claim sipping these whey shakes from middle age onwards can help keep us mobile into older life.
‘Exercise is crucial for creating and maintaining muscle, but feeding our muscles through a healthy diet is just as important,’ says promotional material from the Good Whey Company.
Indeed, whey is already the preferred dietary aid of the Hollywood set and many Olympic athletes.
Scores of celebrity trainers are recommending it to enhance the effects of rigorous A-list workouts and the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow are consuming whey protein shakes as part of their detox regimens.
But is whey really such a cure-all?
Some experts warn that Britons already eat too much protein and the shakes are suitable only for those taking rigorous exercise.
Whey has long been reputed to hold health benefits.
Hippocrates, the Greek father of medicine, recommended it to his patients and fashionable medical spas in Switzerland prescribed it for its healing properties in the early 19th century.
Now, taking it has become much more straightforward.
The likes of Gwyneth Paltrow are consuming whey protein shakes as part of their detox regimens
Supplement makers transform whey liquid into one of three different forms of whey protein powder: whey isolate, whey concentrate and whey hydrolysate.
These differ slightly in their composition, but all are low in fat and easily absorbed by the body.
Commercial products tend to contain a mixture of all three types and it is these extracted proteins that are reputed to have such potent effects on health.
Certainly, much of the emerging evidence into whey’s effects seems promising.
Whey protein is high in essential fatty acids and branch chain amino acids — compounds that evidence suggests may help the body to build or maintain lean tissue, as well as boosting fat-burning, and increasing the efficiency of the immune system.
A study conducted a couple of years ago at Washington State University found drinks that contained whey protein helped lower blood pressure significantly, reducing the risk of stroke and heart disease.
Susan Fluegel, a nutritional biochemist who led the study, found daily doses of a commonly available whey product brought more than a six-point reduction in blood pressure (in some cases the levels dropped from an elevated 140/85 to a healthy 123/78).
‘It’s low cost and whey protein has not been shown to be harmful in any way,’ Ms Fluegel said.
Others have shown it may play a role in cancer prevention.
When Ohio State University food scientists treated human prostate cells with whey protein, they found that cellular levels of glutathione, known to help control cancer-causing free radicals, increased by up to 64 per cent.
Although more studies need to be done to confirm the effects, the researchers suggested regular whey protein consumption could have similar effects.
Since human prostate tissue is particularly susceptible to oxidative stress, which produces free radicals, the presence of such high levels of glutathione could help to prevent the build-up of free radicals that are often associated with both cancer and heart disease, the researchers concluded.
Whey has also been shown in some studies to have a positive effect on blood sugar in diabetics.
And a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggested it lowered levels of fat in the blood following a high-fat meal in overweight people, a factor that is implicated in a raised risk of heart disease.
When it comes to body-honing, whey protein can help boost muscle recovery after a workout — which can lead to an increase in muscle strength.
During exercise, muscle fibres undergo a cycle of breakdown followed by rebuilding and growth.
A study at McMaster University in Canada last year showed whey to be more effective than casein, another popular protein supplement, in boosting this process.
But the links with muscle tone and weight loss exist only when exercise is fairly intense and consistent and includes some resistance work (such as weight training), as well as aerobic work of a reasonable intensity (running or cycling with fast bursts).
Digesting protein in amounts that exceed your body’s needs will lead to weight gain.
And we already eat too much in the UK, with men typically getting 88g and women 64g of protein a day, above the recommended daily allowance (RDA) which is 55.5g for men aged 19-50 (53.3g for men aged over 50) and 45g for women aged 19-50 (46.5g for over-50s).
James Collins, the sports nutritionist for Arsenal football club and Team GB athletes, says extra whey protein can be useful for older people who are prone to loss of muscle mass through ageing — a condition called sarcopenia.
This usually starts at age 45 and results in a 1 per cent loss of muscle mass per year. But, he says, a daily dose of 25g of whey protein in supplement or shake form is all that’s needed.
‘Any more doesn’t increase protein synthesis or other benefits,’ he says.
Sports dietitian Jennifer Low, of the British Dietetic Association, says: ‘If you opt for whey protein shakes over and above your normal diet, then you will gain weight if you are not increasing the exercise you do.’
While whey protein powders are convenient, Ms Low says, you can get the benefits of whey protein from drinking milk — although you would have to consume the equivalent of 11 glasses to get the same amount of whey protein containing in one shake.
Ms Low adds: ‘Natural foods such as milk offer a complete health package of protective nutrients that you just don’t get in supplements.
‘A 200ml glass of semi-skimmed milk contains 3.6 per cent protein and about 20 per cent of this is whey protein.
‘Unless you are exercising heavily, it’s unlikely you need a supplement for the beneficial effects. Whey protein powder is not a magic fix.
‘Don’t make the mistake of drinking it thinking you will transform your shape by doing so.
‘Losing weight and gaining muscle tone requires effort.
‘Celebrities don’t look the way they do just by drinking a daily shake.’