Whey protein is a proven workout supplement. But it's a good idea to know the best time to take whey protein powder. While you may get some benefits from consuming this complete protein at any time during the day, taking the powder mixed in water, juice or milk first thing on an empty stomach can boost your workout results and your overall nutrition — a smart diet strategy.
About Whey Protein
Whey is one of two primary proteins found in milk. It's the liquid you see floating on top of a container of yogurt. Once routinely discarded during the cheese-making process, researchers eventually discovered its value. It's now separated and dried to be sold as a powder you conveniently add to shakes or baked goods.
Look for whey protein without a lot of added ingredients. Read the nutrient label to ensure the product you choose doesn't have added carbohydrates, chemicals or refined sugar.
Nutrients published a paper in February 2018 pointing out that whole protein foods, such as meat or fish, contain additional valuable nutrients that support good health. Having a serving of whey protein powder is a convenient way to add 25 to 50 grams of protein on top of your daily intake from those whole foods.
Just remember that whey protein should be a complement to whole food sources of protein. Granted, it can be convenient — especially when you need a quick breakfast on the go — but shouldn't be a sole source of protein.
Benefits of Whey Protein
You may choose whey protein if you're a bodybuilder or gym enthusiast or if you just need more protein in your diet. Whey protein can assist with weight loss, too, by helping fill you up with relatively few calories.
Read more: Does Whey Protein Cut Belly Fat?
A paper published in the September 2018 issue of Frontiers in Nutrition reasserted years of research promoting whey protein as a valuable supplement for muscle repair and growth. When compared to exercisers who ingest just carbohydrates after an intense workout, those who consume whey protein have an improved rate of recovery. The researchers noted that whey protein can be particularly beneficial for those participating in high-intensity, explosive sports.
Recent research in the July 2017 issue of Nutrients also confirmed that whey protein supplementation enhances whole body muscle growth and has the potential to improve recovery after a strenuous session of strength training.
Published in March 2015, research in the Journal of Food Science shows that whey protein is a superior protein source, given its rapid digestibility and amino acid content. These qualities make whey valuable in maintaining muscle mass as you age, too. Resisting sarcopenia, the natural loss of muscle that occurs with aging, may help with chronic disease prevention, maintaining functionality with age and boosting quality of life.
Whey protein is one of the highest quality proteins and can stimulate protein synthesis — or growth — more so than other options, including soy and casein.
How to Use Whey Protein
Debate surrounds the "perfect" time to consume whey protein to get the most out of its muscle repair and growth benefits. While it was once suggested that it's best to take whey in a narrow 30- to 60-minute window post-workout, January 2017 research published in PeerJ found that the interval for ideal protein intake may be as wide as several hours before and after exercise. You can have whey protein prior to a workout or afterward and get similar muscle benefits.
While you may benefit from whey protein at many times during the day, having a serving of whey protein for breakfast or as a pre-workout meal for an early morning session is a smart move. You've gone several hours without any nutrients. Whey protein offers a complete array of amino acids to fuel muscles and foster workout results.
Whey Protein in the Morning
Shake whey protein with water or milk (dairy or alternative) before you leave to hit the gym floor in the early morning. It gives you fuel without making you feel too full. Consume a full breakfast of bacon and eggs and you may regret it when you squat heavy or bench your max weight.
Plus, taking whey protein prior to exercise prevents your body from moving into a state in which it uses muscle for energy. The amino acids from the protein are delivered to working muscles to prevent muscle breakdown.
Promotes Muscle Building
When you consume whey protein first thing in the morning prior to exercise, the amino acids will be available the moment you start to do damage to your muscle fibers. Your body can start the repair process immediately and doesn't have to wait for you to refuel.
As a review of research published in Sports Medicine in January 2015 showed that protein supplementation can enhance muscle mass and physical performance when combined with a stimulating workout. This means you can get better gains by taking whey in conjunction with consistent weight training.
Protein Makes You Full
Even if you don't have a full workout on the docket, a dose of whey protein can keep you satisfied when you have it first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. Consuming high-protein diets is linked to improved satiety and appetite control, as noted in a March 2018 study published in Nutrients. When you choose a whey protein with no added sugar or fillers, you get a low-calorie, satiating breakfast.
You may also choose to work out in a fasted state and have whey protein immediately following. This can make you feel full and reduce your overall energy intake for the day, without impacting your maintenance or growth of lean muscle mass. A study published in the European Journal of Nutrition in November 2016 showed that consuming whey protein after a resistance training session reduces later calorie intake. The researchers conclude it may then be of value in helping people stick to a low-calorie diet for weight loss.
- Nutrients: "Achieving Optimal Post-Exercise Muscle Protein Remodeling in Physically Active Adults Through Whole Food Consumption"
- Frontiers in Nutrition: "Effects of Protein Supplementation on Performance and Recovery in Resistance and Endurance Training"
- Nutrients: "Whey Protein Supplementation Enhances Whole Body Protein Metabolism and Performance Recovery After Resistance Exercise: A Double-blind Crossover Study"
- Journal of Food Science: "Supplemental Protein in Support of Muscle Mass and Health: Advantage Whey"
- Sports Medicine: "The Effects of Protein Supplements on Muscle Mass, Strength, and Aerobic and Anaerobic Power in Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review"
- Nutrients: "Protein for Life: Review of Optimal Protein Intake, Sustainable Dietary Sources and the Effect on Appetite in Ageing Adults"
- European Journal of Nutrition: "Whey Protein Consumption After Resistance Exercise Reduces Energy Intake at a Post-Exercise Meal"
- PeerJ: "Pre- Versus Post-Exercise Protein Intake Has Similar Effects on Muscular Adaptations"