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Whey vs Plant Protein
What’s the Difference and Which Is Better?

Jason Hughes
Published by Jason Hughes
Fact checked by Markus Oliver, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: April 26, 2022

The great whey protein vs plant protein debate; it may seem overwhelming to those who just got introduced to adding protein powder into their diet. I had a new client talk to me recently, and they wanted to know if whey protein was plant based.

It’s not, and they were worried that plant protein wouldn’t give them all of the nutrients they needed. They had also heard that plant protein wasn’t as effective as whey protein for muscle growth.

I understood their concerns and told them that it was possible to get all the protein you need and still have muscle development from plant protein. Let’s talk about the whey vs plant protein differences and similarities.

What Is The Difference Between Whey Protein And Plant Protein?

The most obvious difference between plant protein and whey is their protein source.

Whey is from a dairy source (milk) that gets separated during the production process of cheese and also separated from casein which is a different dairy protein.

After the whey gets harvested, it got through an intense process of heating, microfilter, pasteurizing, and drying. Sometimes sweeteners and preservatives are added. I often get asked, “Is whey protein a complete protein?” It is, and it makes it easier to get your nutrients.

Plant protein comes from various plants like peas, rice, and hemp. Plant-based protein sources actually go through minimal processing to make it into a protein powder.

It isn’t always a complete protein, and sometimes, two proteins will get blended into a powder to make it more complete. It’s important to research what amino acids you are getting with a plant based protein powder.

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Whey Protein

What Are The Main Types Of Whey Protein?

three powder scoop

There are three primary types of whey protein with slightly different makeups. Here is what they are:

  • Whey protein concentrate (WPC) - WPC can vary in the amount of protein it has. It depends on how concentrated it is and can range from 30 to 90% protein. It also has low levels of fats and carbohydrates. (1)
  • Whey protein isolate (WPI) - It goes through a process that removes all fat and lactose. It does tend to have large doses of protein containing at least 90% protein.
  • Whey protein hydrolysate (WPH) - WPH goes through a partial hydrolysis process which helps make it quicker for the body to digest and absorb protein. This means that muscle protein synthesis happens sooner.

What Are The Benefits of Whey Protein?

Top athletes often use whey protein. I drink my six-pound whey protein all the time...it gives you all the recovery you need from a hard day of lifting and running. - said Rob Gronkowski, NFL Player.

There are other benefits of whey protein supplements besides muscle recovery, though. It can potentially lower cholesterol and reduce the chances of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. It can even help treat type 2 diabetes.

Whey protein can moderate blood sugar and increase insulin levels. Whey protein with a high-carb meal is a great way to moderate blood sugar in those with type 2 diabetes and healthy people.

Additionally, whey protein has also been found to promote muscle growth. As you probably already know, our muscle mass declines with age. This can ultimately lead to fat gain and puts us at a higher risk for several chronic diseases. However, high protein foods coupled with strength training can help slow and prevent this.

A high protein source like whey is rich in a branched-chain amino acid known as leucine. It can help prevent age-related muscle loss and can improve strength.

Are There Any Negative Side Effects of Whey Protein?

man with headache

Despite the low lactose content, some people allergic to milk may also be allergic to whey. If you are lactose intolerant, you may want to skip trying whey protein and stick to plant proteins instead. (2)

There are generally no side effects of whey protein unless you take more than your body needs.

High intake of protein can cause:

  • Sto​​​​mach pain
  • Digestive issues
  • Reduced appetite
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Fatigue

Plant Protein

plant protein

What Kinds of Plant Protein Powders Exist?

  • Soy - Soy protein is different from other plant proteins because it’s a complete protein by itself. It’s also rich in branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) that are imperative for muscle building and fueling your body.
  • Peas - Pea protein powder is made from the pea with the highest protein - yellow split peas. It also has BCAAs making it a potentially great option for those looking to build muscle. (3)
  • Hemp – Hemp protein is considered a complete protein, but it’s low in the essential amino acid called lysine. You’ll want to consume legumes or quinoa to ensure that you get enough nutrients. It also contains a lot of fiber, iron, zinc, magnesium, and omega 3-fat.
  • Pumpkin Seed - When pumpkin seeds are made into a powder, most of their fat gets removed, reducing calories and making this a healthy plant protein. It’s an incomplete protein, but it contains a lot of nutritional value like magnesium, zinc, iron, and more.
  • Brown Rice - Brown rice protein is also an incomplete protein, but it does contain BCAAs that support muscle growth.
  • Protein blends - You can often find plant protein powders with a mix of different plant proteins to optimize your chances of getting all the necessary amino acids with your protein intake. A popular blend is rice and pea proteins.

If you're unsure which protein powder to choose, check out my Vega Organic Protein & Greens review.

What Are The Benefits of Plant Protein?

man holding a tumbler
  • Unlike whey protein, only plant-based foods contain fiber. It also contains several vitamins and minerals that whey protein doesn’t have
  • Rice protein is just as effective as whey protein for body composition improvement and exercise performance
  • Pea protein promotes muscle thickness when combined with resistance training
  • Pea protein also helps with weight loss due to its ability to reduce hunger cravings
  • Pea protein may reduce blood pressure
  • Soy protein can reduce cholesterol and the risk of heart disease
  • Plant protein powder is easy to digest for those with lactose intolerance

When you choose plant based protein, you will find it can supply you with nutrients, fiber, and antioxidants you can use to improve your overall health. Many fitness enthusiasts even recommend using a protein supplement like this 15 to 60 minutes after their workout. This is the anabolic window and is the perfect time to get the most out of the nutrients found in your plant based protein.

Are There Any Negative Side Effects of Plant Protein?

There really are no side effects of plant protein when you use the right amount. You should be more concerned about the quality of the protein. Choosing organic ingredients helps against potential pesticides in your protein powder.

Furthermore, plant proteins are not usually considered complete proteins. Some are high in carbohydrates and aren't ideal for people following a low-carb diet. They are typically also more expensive than whey protein options.

Why Is Protein Important?

protein powder written

Protein is important because your body needs it to build, repair, and maintain itself. Proteins are made from amino acids, and there are 22 different kinds that your body needs.

Nine of these are not produced by your body and need to be introduced into your diet. These 9 are called essential amino acids.

If you hear food being referred to as a complete source of protein, it means that it contains all 9 essential amino acids.

If you can’t get all these essential amino acids through food, then protein supplements may be able to help you.

Is There a Difference in Nutritional Value?

Plant protein can also have other nutritional value that whey doesn’t have. You can also get valuable nutrients like zinc, iron, magnesium, and more, depending on the product. Whey protein contains all 9 essential amino acids.

Plant protein may also have all of the essential amino acids, but some only have a few of them. However, don’t let this put you off from plant protein. If you use a plant protein powder that is an incomplete protein, it’s simple to use your diet to fill in the gaps.

Eating a combination of incomplete proteins provides the essential amino acids your body needs. While you don’t have to eat the complementary protein foods at the same meal, try to eat a variety of complementary incomplete proteins throughout the day.

- Trinh Lee, MPH, RD

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Is Plant Based Protein Better Than Whey Protein?

I prefer plant based proteins because it has all of the benefits of whey, but it also contains fiber and additional enzymes. It also fits into my vegan diet, and I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything important by not taking whey protein.

In the whey vs plant protein debate, it depends on your own personal needs for protein. I recommend trying a few protein powders to determine what works best for you.

What Ingredients Should I Look For In Whey Or Plant Protein Powder?

ingredients to look for

When looking at the ingredients in protein powder, you should also know where the protein comes from. Whey, pea, hemp, rice, or other protein may have slightly different benefits.

You should check to see if the ingredients are natural and non-GMO to ensure that you get the highest quality of protein.

When looking for a quality protein, you should also keep an eye out for artificial sweeteners, processed additives, and anything that doesn’t help your overall physical goal. Those powders may not be the best choice for you.

Try one protein powder and test it. See if it delivers great results or gives you side effects. Ask your friends as well, so you'll know what works for them.

Is Plant Protein or Whey Protein Easier to Digest?

Determining if plant protein or whey protein is easier to digest may vary from person to person. If you are lactose-intolerant, whey protein will probably not settle well. The alternative is plant protein which is great for digestion. It has fiber and enzymes that aid with the digestive process.

On the other hand, if a milk allergy isn’t a problem for you, you will want to consider a protein powder with whey protein hydrolysate (WPH). It’s already gone through a partial hydrolysis process that makes it faster to digest in the body.

Which Protein Powder Is Best for Building Muscle?

Rice, peas, and soy protein powders are the best plant-based protein powders for building muscle. They have all 3 BCAAs needed for muscle growth and muscle gain. One research study suggests that 48 grams of whey or rice protein can create the same muscle development in the same two month period.


Related Articles:

Which Protein Powder Is Best for Weight Loss?

Pea protein powder is the best plant-based protein for weight loss. Research has shown that it can reduce hunger cravings. You may also want to consider a plant-based protein powder due to the additional vitamins and minerals it has.

Overall, the exact type of protein powder doesn’t make a difference in weight loss as much as getting enough protein in your diet. (4)

How to Choose the Right Protein Powder for You

There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing the right protein powder. It’s helpful to discuss how much protein you may need with a doctor or registered dietician.

Here are some questions to consider when determining the best protein powder for you:

  • Is the protein source whey or plant-based?
  • Does it have artificial sweeteners or additives?
  • What else in the list of ingredients?
  • Does it have any other vitamins or minerals?
  • How much protein is in one serving?
  • Does this match my health needs?

If you are looking to build muscle, you want to choose a protein powder with a higher biological value. This value measures how well the body can absorb and utilize a protein. Whey protein and whey isolates are your best options in this case.

Whey protein is also the best option if you are a beginner looking to get lean and increase muscle mass. It has all the essential amino acids and is easier to digest - as long as you don't have a sensitivity to milk.

If you want to increase your fiber intake, lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and other types of cancers, and you need to find a better program for weight loss management, then plant based protein may be more beneficial. Plant based proteins also do not contain the unhealthy compounds typically found in meat like saturated fat and cholesterol.

Our Final Thoughts

Conclusion

In the whey vs plant protein debate, they both can help you achieve your fitness goals.

It’s possible to get all of your essential amino acids from both and get enough muscle protein or lose weight.

I prefer plant proteins because it’s a vegan-friendly option. It also has fiber which helps digestion, and the added nutrients that often come with plant-based proteins are another benefit.

I believe I get a better well-rounded source of nutrition, and I think you will too if you choose plant proteins.

Feel free to check out our recommended plant-based protein powders page or our other articles, where we give you tips and advice on how you can reach fitness goals easier.

Leave a comment about your journey below!

Feel free to check out our recommended plant-based protein powders page or our other articles where we give you tips and advice on how you can reach fitness goals easier.

Leave a comment about your journey below!

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References:

  1. ScienceDirect, Whey Protein Concentrate, retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/whey-protein-concentrate
  2. Carly Schuna, Can Lactose Intolerant People Drink Whey Protein Shakes?, retrieved from https://healthyeating.sfgate.com/can-lactose-intolerant-people-drink-whey-protein-shakes-11706.html
  3. Anne Danahy, The Nutritional Value of Yellow Split Peas, retrieved from https://www.livestrong.com/article/258824-the-nutritional-value-of-yellow-split-peas/
  4. Erica Julson, MS, RDN, CLT, Pea Protein Powder: Nutrition, Benefits and Side Effects, retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/pea-protein-powder

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