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Whey Protein vs. Plant Protein: What's the Difference?
- Both whey protein and plant protein can effectively build muscle, improve recovery time, and promote a healthy weight.
- If you want a complete protein source high in BCAAs and do not have any dietary restrictions, whey protein may be a better choice for you.
- Plant protein will likely fit your lifestyle better if you are lactose intolerant, vegan, or have digestive issues.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PROTEIN
Regardless of your fitness goals, your body needs protein. It plays a key role in building and repairing tissues, regulating hormones, making enzymes, and carrying oxygen throughout your body.
Protein also helps athletes repair and strengthen their muscle tissue, preserve lean muscle mass, and promote muscle growth.
Without adequate dietary protein, you may experience brittle hair and nails, stress, muscle loss, decreased immunity, and fatigue.
In recent years, there has been an ongoing debate on whey protein vs plant protein and which is better.
In this article, we’ll dive a little deeper into the topic of protein and take a closer look at whey protein vs plant protein to help you decide which one is best for your unique fitness goals and lifestyle.
AMINO ACIDS IN PROTEIN AND WHY THEY ARE IMPORTANT
Amino acids, often referred to as the basic building blocks of protein, are vital for your body to function properly. Protein is composed of 20 amino acids. Nine of them are considered to be essential amino acids, meaning your body cannot make them, and they must be obtained through your diet.
During digestion, protein breaks down into amino acids. Your body uses these amino acids to break down food, repair tissue, promote muscle growth, and produce energy.
Usually, whey protein and plant based protein powders have similar protein content and contain between 15 and 25 grams per scoop.
However, since it is derived from animal products, whey protein powders have a superior amino acid profile. In fact, whey protein powder contains all nine essential amino acids and is a complete protein.
Whey protein powder is also higher in branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) than most plant protein. The three BCAAs, leucine, isoleucine, and valine, have been proven to support muscle growth, shorten recovery time and support a healthy immune system.
WHAT IS WHEY PROTEIN?
Whey protein is an animal protein made by isolating whey, the liquid portion of milk that separates from the curds when making cheese.
After the liquid is collected, the fats, carbs, and water are removed. The protein that is left is dried to form a powder.
Whey protein is one of the most popular protein sources among athletes looking to put on muscle and lose weight.
WHAT IS PLANT PROTEIN?
Plant protein comes from pea, brown rice, hemp, and soy.
These major plant protein sources can be combined or blended with other ingredients to improve their amino acid profile. When looking at plant protein sources, you’ll want to be sure to choose high quality sources such as a blend of rice and pea protein.
Rice and pea protein blend perfectly because pea protein is low in the amino acids methionine and cysteine but high in lysine. In contrast, rice protein is low in lysine but high in cysteine and methionine. When the two pair together, it creates a superior amino acid profile than most single plant sources.
Soy protein powders are considered to be complete proteins. However, its use remains controversial because it is highly allergenic, contains estrogen that can interfere with hormone production, and is usually genetically modified in some way.
THE BENEFITS OF WHEY PROTEIN AND PLANT PROTEIN
Both whey protein and plant protein powder are effective at supporting muscle growth, improving strength, and promoting a healthy weight.
However, each protein powder has a different nutrient profile and composition that may align better with your lifestyle. Let’s discuss the benefits of each.
- Efficiently Digested and Absorbed
- Quickly Utilized by the Body
- Repairs and Builds Muscle
- Aids in Fat Loss
- High in BCAAs
- High in Calcium and B Vitamins
- Low in Fat and Carbohydrates
One of the primary benefits of whey protein is that it has a high biological value. This means it is digested and absorbed more efficiently than other proteins.
Whey protein is often a top choice for bodybuilders since it can quickly be utilized by the body to help repair and build muscle while losing fat. As mentioned earlier, it contains a high amount of BCAAs to support athletic performance.
Whey protein is also high in calcium and B vitamins while being low in fat and carbohydrates. You’ll also likely find a larger variety of flavors in whey protein compared to plant protein.
- Pea, Rice, Hemp, and Soy Proteins
- Great for Plant Based Diets and Lactose Intolerances
- Easy to Digest
- Nutrient Dense
- Digestive Enzymes Increase Absorption
Plant protein powders that contain peas, rice, or soy are high in protein and contain BCAAs.
They are an excellent option for those who follow a plant-based diet, are lactose intolerant, or simply do not enjoy the taste of whey protein.
Since plant protein powders do not contain milk, they are typically easier on the digestive system and less likely to cause inflammation.
Additionally, most plant protein powder is very nutrient dense. It has both soluble and insoluble fiber as well as digestive enzymes that can help ease digestion and increase nutrient absorption.
Plant protein powders also contain antioxidants and fatty acids from different plant proteins.
For those looking for a cleaner source of protein, plant based protein powders often contain fewer additives than whey protein and are hypoallergenic. This results in a more bland, natural taste compared to other protein powders on the market.
THE NEGATIVES OF BOTH
As you can see, both whey and plant based protein powders have incredible benefits.
However, as with most things, they each have disadvantages as a supplement that may be a dealbreaker for some.
Whey protein powder may cause digestive problems because it is more difficult to digest.
Since it is derived from a cow’s milk, it contains lactose, which is a common food sensitivity.
Many whey protein powders on the market also contain artificial sweeteners and other additives that may not benefit your overall health.
Look for a whey protein that uses protein from grass-fed cows and contains zero artificial ingredients, colors, and flavors.
Plant protein is not a complete protein and doesn’t contain all the essential amino acids we need. However, if you choose a blend of plant proteins or soy protein, it will likely have all nine essential amino acids.
If you have a soy allergy, you’ll want to steer clear of soy protein powder.
Some studies show that regular soy consumption may negatively impact testosterone levels in males.
For example, one study in 35 men found that drinking soy protein isolate for 54 days led to an overall decrease in testosterone levels.
One large review of 15 studies found that soy foods and isoflavones had no significant effect on testosterone levels in men.
With so many conflicting studies, we need more research to verify the impact of soy on testosterone levels in males. Still, many men choose to avoid soy protein to be on the safe side.
Some plant proteins, such as pea protein, can cause gas, bloating, and abdominal pain if you have irritable bowel syndrome.
Plant based protein powders are also usually higher in carbohydrates compared to whey protein powder.
WHICH IS BETTER?
Each protein powder has its benefits depending on individual preferences and health conditions. Let’s take a look at which one is better for different goals and lifestyles.
GOAL: BUILD MUSCLE
Whey protein isolate is considered to be the gold standard protein powder to build muscle. This is because it is a complete protein and contains high amounts of leucine, the BCAA most associated with its ability to build muscles.
However, you can still build muscle with plant protein powder as long as you choose a quality brand with a combination of plant proteins.
Regardless if it is plant or animal based, the total amount of protein you’re getting each day combined with strength training are key factors in building muscle.
GOAL 2: LOSE WEIGHT
Both plant based protein and whey protein can support your weight loss goals and promote satiety while preserving lean muscle mass.
However, plant protein has more fiber and is slower to digest, which may help you feel full longer.
DIGESTIBILITY AND FOOD SENSITIVITIES
Plant based proteins are generally better for those with digestive problems or food sensitivities. If you have a milk allergy or lactose sensitivity, you’ll want to choose a plant based protein powder. They are also easier to absorb and unlikely to cause digestive discomfort.
Protein is a key nutrient that our body needs to function. Whey protein and plant protein powder can be a great way to support muscle growth, shorten recovery time, and help you meet your protein needs.
Depending on your lifestyle, health concerns, and individual goals, you’ll likely find that one fits your needs better.
Generally speaking, if you are vegan or have lactose sensitivity, you’ll want to choose plant based proteins. If you do not have any dietary restrictions and want a quick absorbing protein that will rapidly repair muscles after a workout and support muscle growth, whey protein might be a better option for you.