Walk into just about any gym locker room, health food store, or frat house kitchen and you will see it. The giant, cauldron-sized tubs lurk behind discarded towels and stained undershirts, the unmistakable powder christens coats its exterior. We’re talking, here, about whey protein, a nutritional supplement that you’ve no doubt heard about if you’re involved in athletics or physical training of any kind. Big, hulking men swear by it and scrawny upstarts consider it a holy sacrament in the development of their weight training programs. But how effective is whey protein in building muscle? And are you getting the most out of it when you do use it? Let’s deconstruct the whey protein phenomenon and focus in on its benefits—and what you need to know to take full advantage of them. This includes considering the whey protein digestion process to understand how long it takes your body to absorb.

Whey Protein Background

First of all, let’s define the stuff. Whey protein is a specific protein isolated from whey, which is what you get when you curdle and strain milk. It’s also referred to as milk serum, and it is chock-full of globular proteins like beta-lactoglobulin and alpha-lactalbumin. Sounds less appetizing, right? But those are the real key to whey protein’s effectiveness, so be polite and try not to insult them. These proteins are rich in amino acids, which are broken down by the body and used as building blocks for muscle when you tear down the muscle fibers by lifting weights and working out. But there are proteins in tons of foods that we eat, so why do people use whey protein supplements? Because whey protein has the highest Biological Value (BV) of any other protein, meaning it is more efficiently absorbed and utilized for muscle-building purposes than any other protein. So that’s why it’s out there, in those giant tubs. Let’s examine exactly how that absorption thing works, and why dosage and timing is extremely important. whey protein digestion

Whey Protein Digestion Process

One thing about these proteins, especially in liquid form, is that you can’t just stuff them down your gullet and expect to swell up like Popeye. When it comes to muscle gain and protein consumption, it is not necessarily a question of quantity. The rate of absorption of these proteins has a limit over a given period of time, beyond which limit increased consumption of protein does no good and is simply turned into waste and excreted. According to research there is only a 1.5 hour-long window during which liquids like protein shakes are in the section of the digestive tract where the absorption takes place. After that, it’s down the tube and into the toilet. And protein can only be absorbed at a maximum of 8-10 gram per hour, meaning only 15 grams of protein absorption is possible when consuming a protein shake. So when you see containers with labels flashing “48 GRAMS OF PROTEIN PER SERVING” just know that most of that won’t be absorbed at all. So don’t get carried away.

Increasing Protein Absorption

Digestion Concept As noted in the above article, there is some research being done on how to maximize protein absorption, and results are still relatively unclear. One method that did prove useful was supplementation of whey protein intake with certain digestive enzymes. In general, though, it’s best to remember that whey protein—although a great source for amino acids—can only go so far and that once it’s reach its limit, no amount of powder makes a difference. Another recommended method is the stimulation of hydrochloric acid secretion in the body by eating certain foods. Hydrochloric acid is released in the stomach and helps with the digestion of all foods, but proteins in particular. The more hydrochloric acid present in the system, the more efficient will be the absorption rate. Bitter herbs, apple cider vinegar, onions, and garlic are just a few examples of food that stimulate the production of hydrochloric acid.

Multiple Protein Uses

There are more useful side effects of whey protein consumption than solely protein absorption. Let’s take a look at a few other potential advantages.

Appetite Suppressant

One aspect of healthy eating and getting that shapely bod you’ve been craving is building muscle. But another crucial aspect of trimming excess fat if you’re trying to lose weight is simply consuming fewer calories. In that sense, whey protein shakes are helpful supplements for more than just muscle rebuilding. They will help you stave off hunger and keep yourself from satiating that ravenous post-workout appetite with a bunch of stuff you’ll regret later (Oreos dipped in peanut butter, deep-fried dough balls covered in cheese, etc.).

Insulin Production

Whey protein can be a great aid for people with diabetes, as studies have shown it to increase levels of insulin production in the body. “In a 12 week study with overweight adults 54 grams per day of whey protein as part of the diet decreased fasting insulin by 11 percent and improved markers of insulin sensitivity by 10 percent.” Not only does it release insulin directly, according to the research, but it also stimulates the release of hormone signals in the digestive tract that boost insulin function.

Allergy Prevention

Some research has suggested that whey protein powder works in children as an allergy preventative. When given to children “at high risk” for allergies (usually as a substitute for breast milk) hydrolyzed formulas of whey protein powder were shown to reduce risk of contracting certain allergic diseases. More research needs to be done on this front, but it’s definitely something to look into for whey protein supporters. As you can see, whey protein is a very hot topic these days—and for good reason. It has a ton of potential for aiding and supplementing the healthy functioning of the human body. It has its limits, but if used correctly and consistently might provide just the boost you need you maximize your health.

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