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

Jason Hughes
Published by Jason Hughes
Fact checked by Markus Oliver, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: December 19, 2020

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 wasn’t going to 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 totally 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 the source of their protein.

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 a variety of 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 together into a powder to make it more complete. It’s important to do your research on what amino acids you are getting with plant protein.

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 30-90% 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?

Whey protein is often used by top athletes. 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. - Rob Gronkowski, NFL Player.

There are other benefits of whey protein besides muscle recovery though. It can potentially lower cholesterol and reduce chances of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

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)

Other than that 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 potential great option for those looking to build muscle. (3)
  • Hemp - Hemp is considered a complete protein, but it’s low in the amino acid called lysine. You’ll want to consume legumes or quinoa to ensure that you are getting 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 which reduces calories and makes 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 is also an incomplete protein, but it does contain BCAAs that support muscle growth.
  • Protein blends - Often you can find plant protein powders that have a mix of different plant proteins to optimize your chances of getting all necessary amino acids. A popular blend is rice and pea proteins.

If you're not sure which protein powder to choose, check out my review of Vega Organic Protein & Greens.

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 risk of heart disease
  • Plant protein powder is easy to digest for those with lactose intolerance

Are There Any Negative Side Effects Of Plant Protein?

There are basically 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.

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.

9 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. Depending on the product, you can also get valuable nutrients like zinc, iron, magnesium, and more. Whey protein contains all 9 essential amino acids.

Plant protein may also have all of the essential amino acids, but some of them 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

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 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

The ingredients that you should look for in protein powder is what did the protein come from. Whey, pea, hemp, rice or any other protein may have slightly different benefits.

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

You should also look out for any 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, then whey protein will probably not settle well with you. 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, then 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. One research study suggests that 48 grams of whey or rice protein can create the same muscle development in the same 2 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 with a doctor or registered dietician to discuss how much protein you may need.

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?

Our Final Thoughts


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

It’s possible to get all of your essential amino acids from both as well as getting enough muscle protein or losing 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 comes 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!


  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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