How Whey Protein Boosts Athletes

Whey protein has become very popular. But what is whey and what is its role in athletic performance?

Whey is one of the two fundamental proteins found in cow’s milk. Whey protein is a result of the cheese-making process – milk is separated using an enzyme, leaving the curds (used to make cheese) and whey (a liquid protein). It used to be that the liquid whey was discarded – that is, until research began to suggest that whey, a high-quality protein, was indispensable to an athlete’s diet. Today, the liquid whey is pasteurized and dried into a powder for various uses.

Protein is an essential nutrient your body needs daily. Beyond protein’s well-known role in building and repairing lean muscle, protein controls many metabolic processes in the body, aids in the repair of body cells and assists with building and maintaining healthy bones.

Whey protein is one of the best sources of the amino acid leucine. Leucine is a branched chain amino acid which is metabolized directly by the muscle tissue (as opposed to being metabolized by the liver) – assisting in the promotion of muscle synthesis. Additionally, whey protein is fast absorbing and easy to digest.

Whey protein is naturally found in cow’s milk, cheese and yogurt, but can also be found in the form of powder, or as an ingredient in energy bars, drink mixes and other foods. Look for “whey protein isolate,” “whey protein concentrate,” or “hydrolyzed whey protein” in a food product’s ingredient list.

Whey protein powder is very convenient and can be added to everything from smoothies, oatmeal and baked goods to soups, sauces and dips.

For additional information on dairy and whey protein, including nutrition research and recipes, visit

Athletes can train harder and perform better with proper nutrition. Visit our sports nutrition page to read more about milk as an exercise recovery beverage and learn how to eat for peak athletic performance.

By Jenna Allen, M.S., RDN

Jenna is a registered dietitian with a passion for communicating science in an approachable way. She has been part of the Dairy MAX team since 2008. When she isn't working, Jenna is trying out new recipes with her three kids and working on her food photography. Learn more about Jenna.

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