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Whey vs Plant Protein: Which One To Choose?
Nutrition

Whey vs Plant Protein: Which One To Choose?

HR_author_photo_Edibel
Written by Edibel Quintero, RD | Medically reviewed by Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD check
Published on August 4, 2022
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11 min

Discover what’s inside protein powders, how is whey protein obtained and what are the common types of plant protein for vegans. Find out how whey protein and plant protein can help you build muscle or lose weight.

whey vs plant protein

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On average, a 150 pounds person needs 52.5 grams of protein per day to function properly. Among the best sources of protein are animal products (poultry, fish, dairy, eggs) and some legumes such as beans and lentils. For instance, having two boiled eggs for breakfast can provide about 26 grams of high quality protein.

The need for protein is higher among athletes and people who do high-impact workouts for building muscle mass. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends to consume 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day for athletes, depending on training intensity. 

For a 200 lbs person, the recommended protein intake is 160 grams of lean protein, which is hard to get from conventional foods.

Protein supplementation is proving to be a game-changer for these people because it reduces the time and resources spent on growing muscle mass. There are a lot of protein supplements and powders on the market today, so sometimes it’s hard to pick one that works for you.

Generally speaking, a protein is described as being high quality or complete if it satisfies two requirements. First, it must contain adequate amounts of essential amino acids for growth and development. Secondly, it must be easily digested and quickly absorbed by the body.

Because protein powders are considered a supplement, they’re not regulated by the FDA — meaning you don’t always know what’s in them and how they work.

To help you decide what’s right for your health and fitness goals, we are going to provide you with an overview of what’s inside protein powders and delve deeper into the types of proteins and their benefits.

Whey vs Plant Protein Comparison

Whey proteinPlant-based protein
Vegan-friendlyNoYes
Lactose-freeNoYes
Helps build muscleYesYes
Might help to lose weightYesYes
Complete proteinYesNo (except specific mixes)

Known as an animal protein, whey protein is derived from cow’s milk and is considered a dairy product. 

In 100 grams of whey protein isolate powder, there are 359 calories, 58.1 grams of protein, 29.1 grams of carbohydrate, and 1.16 grams of fat. There is also a high concentration of micronutrients in it, notably 872 mg of potassium, 233 mg of magnesium, and 698 mg of calcium.

Plant proteins found in legumes such as peas, soybeans, etc. are also excellent source protein and essential vitamins. They can be an effective alternative to dairy products for lactose-intolerant and vegan people.

For example, 100 grams of soy protein isolate powder contains 388 calories, 55.6 grams of protein, 28.9 grams of carbohydrate, and 5.56 grams of fat. However, it has much less micronutrients than whey protein isolate, 95 mg of calcium, 22 mg of magnesium, 714 mg of  potassium.

How Is The Whey Protein Made?

Whey protein powder is derived from cow’s milk that is of the highest quality. Producing whey protein powder is a complex and costly process. It requires a high standard of equipment and modern technology.

You may be surprised to learn that making one 5 pound bag of whey protein takes 720 pounds of raw milk, but it’s true!

As a first step, high quality organic milk is collected directly from farmsteads with cattle breeding and transported to the manufacturing facility. Milk is pasteurized to ensure it’s safe and free of bacteria, and it’s then separated into curds, or casein protein, and liquid whey. 

Whey protein is processed to remove lactose and fat from the liquid and dried to separate the solids from the liquid. The resulting protein has a higher biological value and nutrient density with a lower fat content.

Finally, whey protein concentrate in the form soluble and flavorless protein powder is obtained.  Protein powders are available in different forms, including protein concentrates (30 to 90% protein content), protein isolates (over 90% protein), and protein hydroisolates (predigested form easier to absorb).

What Are The Types Of Plant Protein?

There are many plant-based protein powders, and their composition varies. The most common plant protein sources are from peas, hemp seeds, brown rice, and soybeans.

Pea protein powder derived from yellow split peas contains 75 grams of protein per 100 grams, and it is loaded with fiber (5 grams), so it is an ideal choice for vegans. It is also high in micronutrients such as calcium and potassium. However, it’s low in essential amino acids lysine and leucine. So it’s not a complete protein.

Hemp protein powder contains 38.7 grams of protein per 100 grams, much less than pea protein powder. But it contains 35.5 grams of fiber, which is a record-breaking amount. It is also an excellent source of calcium, potassium, and iron.

Hemp protein is considered to be one of the best vegan protein sources, as it contains all nine essential amino acids, as well as essential fatty acids, and minerals.

Brown rice protein powder contains 70.6 grams per 100 grams and only 2.9 grams of fiber. It is as rich in calcium as pea protein powder. It is derived from whole grain brown rice and is one of the least allergic ones.

Soy protein powder contains 47.6 grams of protein per 100 grams and might or might not have fiber content depending on the manufacturer. Since soy contains a high amount of phytoestrogen, it is not recommended to consume large amounts of soy protein powder because it might alter natural hormonal balance.

Protein Content And Essential Amino Acids In Whey vs Plant Proteins

One of the biggest reasons protein is so important to muscle growth is the amino acids they contain. Our bodies need 21 different kinds of amino acids to function. Of those 21, 12 can be produced in our bodies, while 9 can’t and must be acquired from food.

As a complete protein, whey contains all nine essential amino acids. As opposed to whey protein, plant-based proteins are not complete proteins. They have varying combinations and amounts of amino acids.

Studies have found that plant proteins are less effective than whey proteins at promoting bone health and muscle growth. This is due to their lower digestibility and lower essential amino acid content, especially leucine. 

Pea protein, for example, has only 6.4 grams of leucine per 100 grams, while whey protein has 8.6 grams.

By increasing the amount of plant proteins that complement each other, it will make up for the lack of nutrients in plant protein.

Which Protein Is Best For Food Sensitivities

People with food allergies may be particularly sensitive to whey protein derived from milk, so they should opt for plant-based protein powders instead, such as fortified rice protein or pea protein powder.

Protein supplementation can cause side effects such as constipation, bloating, stuffy nose, etc. Whey protein side effects are most often related to poor lactose digestion. 

This is why those with lactose intolerance should consider using plant based protein powders instead of whey protein.

Plant based protein powder extracted from peas is the best choice for the digestive system. Pea protein is lactose-free and allergen-free, making it suitable for people with dairy and egg sensitivities. 

Because peas are legumes, people with allergies to other legumes like peanuts and soybeans should be careful when introducing pea protein into their diet because of the possibility of developing an allergy.

Digestibility of Whey vs Plant Protein

Whey protein is digested much more rapidly than plant protein, and it is absorbed into the body more readily, which helps building muscle. Meanwhile, plant-based proteins are digested more slowly, so they can help you reduce your calorie intake.

In terms of digestibility, net protein utilization, and biological value, animal-based sources of protein such as meat, eggs, milk, and its constituents are better than most plant protein sources.

Plant-based proteins, with the exception of soy protein isolates, have lower digestibility than animal proteins. That’s to say, whey protein vs plant protein is definitely more effective for gaining and maintaining muscles.

Whey vs Plant Protein: Which Is More Effective For Muscle Growth?

Whey protein ranks highest in terms of its effectiveness in boosting muscle mass, largely due to its higher content of BCAAs.

Generally, whey protein is more popular for muscle growth, but studies show that most plant proteins, especially pea and hemp, can be just as effective.

Consuming whey protein for 8 weeks compared to consuming pea protein for the same period of time for men and women who do high intensity functional (HIFT) workouts 4 times a week gives similar results on body composition, muscle thickness, force production, WOD performance, and strength after 8-weeks.

Rice or whey protein at daily doses of 24 grams had the same effect on body composition and performance of trained men when combined with an 8-week resistance training program. 

Whey vs Plant Protein: Which Is Better Promoting Weight Loss?

Weight loss can only be achieved through healthy eating habits, a balanced diet, and moderate exercise. However, if you consume too many excess calories and animal protein, replacing it with more plant protein is a good place to start.

Plant protein powder combines high fiber content with extra protein and low fat content to help you lose weight. Decreased intake of animal protein and an increased intake of plant protein can decrease fat mass, by 1.45 and 0.88 kg respectively.

The low content of certain BCAAs in plant protein vs whey protein makes it a good weight loss aid. Studies have found that plant proteins with low levels of BCAAs, such as leucine, have a positive effect on reducing body fat mass.

Moreover, lowering the intake of certain amino acids, such as leucine and lysine, reduces insulin resistance in overweight people.

What are the differences between whey and plant protein

Whey protein differs from plant protein in both structure and effect on the body. Whey protein vs plant has a higher nutrient density and absorption rates.

Whey protein contains all nine essential amino acids and is easily digested which helps to deliver these amino acids soon after you drink your protein shake for muscle protein synthesis, compared to plant proteins.

While plant protein powders can increase muscle mass, they are not complete and do not provide all nine essential amino acids that the body needs for growth and metabolism.

As these types of proteins digest slower than animal-based proteins, it is recommended to combine them with digestive enzymes to ensure that important amino acids are available to your body right after you exercise.

Benefits and Downsides of Whey Protein Powders

Benefits 

Sports nutrition products such as whey protein powder and supplements are designed primarily to gain muscle mass. They’re made for people who do a lot of high-intensity workouts to get more protein. 

Taking whey protein within an hour after exercise can improve muscle recovery and build stronger muscles.

Downsides 

Adding protein powder to your diet without the right intensity of workouts can cause weight gain, digestive problems, and insulin resistance.

While whey protein is a hot trend among healthy lifestyle enthusiasts, it cannot replace neither food nor exercising. It isn’t a meal in and of itself, but a supplement.

Benefits and Downsides of Plant Protein Powders

Benefits

Fiber in plant protein powders helps to control calorie absorption and blood sugar levels. This is beneficial for people who are trying to lose weight or follow a healthy diet.

In spite of the plant protein debate, plant protein provides longer lifespans and lower mortality when compared to animal protein.

Downsides 

There is a wide variety of plant protein powders depending on where the manufacturer comes from, so it is easy to get confused and be deceived by advertisements.

These plant protein powders may have low nutritional density and may lack enough amino acids to be useful, so they may not be worth the time or money.

They may also contain contaminants that can harm your health.

FAQs

Is whey protein vegan?

Whey protein is an animal protein, so it cannot be considered vegan. It is a highly concentrated form of lactose-free, ultra-processed cow’s milk that is used as a protein supplement. Instead of whey protein, vegans can take plant-based powders made from peas, hemp, rice or soybeans.

Is whey a complete protein?

Whey protein is a complete protein source because it contains a high ratio of all the essential amino acids needed by cells to grow and develop. It is also very fast to absorb by the body. It is especially useful for building muscle mass as it contains branched-chain amino acids like leucine.

Where is whey protein from?

Whey protein is a type of protein found in cow’s milk. It is a by-product of the cheesemaking process, formed after pasteurized milk is separated into whey liquid and curds. It is a highly concentrated protein formed from the powderization of liquid whey, removing unwanted components to obtain a high level of protein content.

Are vegan protein powders healthy?

Vegan protein powders offer great nutritional benefits and are completely safe. Choose protein powders without artificial sweeteners and other chemicals. Also, make sure any vegan protein powder you consume is of the highest quality to ensure no contaminants are present.

A word from Our Personal Trainer

When people start exercising, they hope to lose weight and feel better. After a while, they notice improvements in their bodies, and realize they may want to see more muscle definition and less body fat.

Resistance training can help to gain muscle and develop a more dense bone structure. However, the more often you train, the more you damage your muscles, so without a good diet containing a lot of protein, your training will not be effective.

In a perfect world, all of your dietary requirements would be covered with foods that are healthy, nutritious, and easily available, but this can be difficult or impossible sometimes. Fortunately, protein powder can help.

The best timing for consuming protein shakes is within one hour after strength training . This will ensure active muscle building, aka protein synthesis. Drinking a shake before exercising is also fine, but make sure you wait at least two hours between drinking your shake and heading to the gym.

Conclusion

The purpose of sports nutrition products such as whey protein powder and supplements made from animal products is to improve performance, nutrient intake, and support muscle growth in athletes. You’ll need them only if you do regular strength and power training.

Protein from plant sources like pea, hemp, and rice proteins may be the best option if you don’t get enough protein from food or don’t eat dairy because of lactose intolerance.

Plant-based protein mix-in powders or beverages are a great option for vegans and vegetarians, especially if it is a mixture of a variety of plant sources such as pea, soy, and brown rice protein to make a “complete” protein.

There are many protein powders on the market that claim to give you super strength and make your dreams come true. It is hard not to try another one. However, It is important to eat protein with meals rather than just relying on a protein supplement alone.

HR_author_photo_Edibel
Written by
Edibel Quintero is a medical doctor who graduated in 2013 from the University of Zulia and has been working in her profession since then. She specializes in obesity and nutrition, physical rehabilitation, sports massage and post-operative rehabilitation. Edibel’s goal is to help people live healthier lives by educating them about food, exercise, mental wellness and other lifestyle choices that can improve their quality of life.
Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD
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