The first time you heard the word “whey,” it was probably in conjunction with Little Miss Muffet. But the milk protein has become a health buzzword in recent years. Although whey powder was initially used among the bodybuilding set, today it’s mainstream thanks to celebrity trainers like Jillian Michaels and Harley Pasternak, who swear by the stuff.
Studies have shown unequivocally that whey protein can help build muscle. But is it useful for people who want slimmer hips and thighs, rather than bigger and stronger biceps?
“Absolutely,” says Paul Arciero, Ed.D., director of the Human Nutrition and Metabolism Lab at Skidmore College. “Whey is perhaps the most effective dietary strategy to aid weight loss because it is the most thermogenic food source you can eat. This means it burns the most calories after you eat it.”
Add whey protein to your meals and snacks, and your metabolism will stay high all day. What’s more, whey protein—and really any protein—will keep you feeling full for longer than other types of foods, says Arciero, which means you’ll likely snack less.
But there’s a third reason why whey protein is recommended for people trying to lose weight: “It’s the most effective food you can eat to help you turn on a process called protein synthesis, which starts the building new muscle,” says Arciero. In layman’s terms, extra protein will ensure that you hold on to the muscle you already have—muscle mass is often a casualty during weight-loss attempts—and it will help you gain muscle more easily too. This is important because the more muscle you have, the more calories your body burns.
Of course, to get the best results, add exercise. Research published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that strength training plus whey resulted in more weight loss than whey alone.
How exactly do you add whey protein to your diet? “Whey can be easily incorporated into lots of different foods,” says Arciero. “You can eat it in a shake or cook and bake with it.”
Whey protein powder is sold in health food and vitamin stores and it’s also available as an add-on at most smoothie bars. Whey can be separated from milk or harvested during cheese production, but it’s low in lactose, which means it may work fine even for people who are lactose-intolerant. The average woman can safely consume 40 to 60 grams of the stuff each day, aiming for no more than 20 grams at a time, Arciero recommends.