If you do any amount of reading about weightlifting, you'll find people singing the praises of whey protein, usually consumed in the form of protein shakes, for post-workout recovery, muscle growth, and so on. Initially, I was skeptical. First, because I had a hard time believing that I wasn't already getting more than adequate protein from my diet. Second, because whey protein powder is a by-product of cheese manufacturing, and barely qualifies as a food in my eyes.
But, I did a little more reading, and it turns out that the question of how much protein is "enough" is a little more complicated than I thought. For most people, about 0.5 g protein per kg of bodyweight per day will prevent protein deficiency symptoms. The USDA recommends 0.8 g/kg just to be on the safe side. Books on sports nutrition generally recommend 1.2 to 1.4 g/kg for endurance athletes, and up to 2 g/kg for strength athletes. And we'll pass over what the bodybuilding websites recommend, because it's just ludicrous.
So, despite my lingering doubts about whether a desk jockey who does fairly intense aerobic exercise a few times a week and lifts weights a few times a week really qualifies as any kind of athlete, it is possible that I should be getting as much as 90 to 150 g of protein a day. The last time I actually plugged my numbers into FitDay, I was running about 70 to 130 g of protein a day. So, while I'm clearly not in any danger of protein deficiency, I might not be hitting my optimal range every single day.
In addition, there is a fair amount of research that shows that whey protein does aid muscle recovery when consumed close to a workout.
So, I've been running a little experiment on myself for the last month or so, trying to see if consuming whey protein before or after a workout has any effect on the degree of delayed onset muscle soreness that I experience later. Basically, for each of my strength training workouts, I've either consumed a) no extra protein b) whey protein powder mixed with water about 15 minutes before a workout or c) whey protein powder mixed with water just after a workout. And then I've attempted to rate the degree of muscle soreness I've experienced for the next two days.
The results are not entirely conclusive, because there's a lot of variation in the degree of soreness I experience from workout to workout, but there does seem to be a definite trend towards less soreness after consuming whey protein. What seems to work best for me is to drink the protein just before the workout - I'm not sure if the difference in soreness is statistically significant, but it does seem to give me a bit of a boost during the workout, especially if I'm working out more than a couple of hours after my last real meal.
So, then we come to the second question: does this stuff qualify as food? I went to Whole Foods, and bought one each of every brand of whey protein that they made available in a single-serving sample pack. (Plus a vegan protein for comparison.) Because my source was Whole Foods, all of these powders were sweetened with stevia, which unfortunately I found to have a bit of an unpleasant aftertaste. Basically, none of the whey protein powders are things that I would consume merely for pleasure, but a few qualify as almost tasty. Some are frankly disgusting. This is one area where you should definitely try before you invest in a 5 lb. tub of the stuff.
In case anybody's interested, here are the protein powders I tried with my evaluations of them. Almost Tasty
These protein powders could nearly be described as tasty, if it weren't for the odd aftertaste. Tera's Whey Organic Dark Chocolate Whey Protein
. The only chocolate-flavored powder that actually tasted like real chocolate. If not for the stevia aftertaste, this is something one could consume with pleasure. Tera's Whey Organic Blueberry Whey Protein
. I slightly over-diluted this when I mixed it, so it was a little watery, but not bad. Jay Robb Tropical Dreamsicle Whey Protein
. If, like me, you loved dreamsicle pops as a kid, this is for you. I think the citrus flavor is remarkably effective at masking the stevia aftertaste. Acceptably Palatable
These protein powders tasted good enough that I could imagine being willing to consume them regularly if that was the price of better workout recovery. Jay Robb Strawberry Whey Protein
. This actually tastes remarkably like what I remember Strawberry Quik tasting like. If that's your thing, you'd probably put this in the "Almost Tasty" category, but I'd rather get my artificial fruit flavor from the Tropical Dreamsicle. Jay Robb Vanilla Whey Protein
. Smells like an explosion in a twinkie factory. The vanilla flavor is very artificial, and not quite strong enough to overpower the stevia aftertaste. Tera's Whey Organic Vanilla Whey Protein
. The label specifies "bourbon vanilla", but despite the gourmet pretensions, it's got a mild artificial vanilla flavor. MRM Rich Vanilla
. It tastes pretty much like the other vanilla powders. Bleh
These were powders that I really didn't have any particular desire to choke down on a regular basis.
MRM Dutch Chocolate. Didn't really taste much like chocolate. Jay Robb Chocolate Whey Protein
. Again, not very much chocolate flavor, and a very strong chemical aftertaste.
Biochem Sports 100% Hemp and Whey, Vanilla Flavor. This one was gussied up a bit compared to the other protein powders I tried, having hemp protein, medium chain triglycerides, fig extract, and some other jazz thrown in. It mixes up as a fairly nasty looking gritty grey-green liquid, although it tasted about on a par with the other vanilla-flavored powders. However, it hit my stomach like a ton of bricks - it made me feel bloated and I couldn't eat normally for the rest of the day. Vega Sport Performance Protein, Vanilla flavor
. This was a vegan whey-protein alternative. It's green, and slightly gritty in texture, and mixes up in a rather larger volume than most of the other powders I tried, which gives you a lot more to choke down. Taste-wise, it had a too-mild vanilla flavor and the usual weird aftertaste.