May 30, 2021 10 min read
When it comes to our fitness goals, the diet is by far the most important aspect. It’s often said that you can’t out-train a bad diet. Proper eating will give you muscle gains and fat loss, helping to maintain a healthy body.
One of the keys to a healthy diet is protein. In fact, it’s one of the most important aspects when it comes to training—but not all proteins are built the same.
While whey has been the most popular option for a long time, plant proteins are becoming increasingly popular due to their unique benefits. But which one is better? That’s what we’re here to find out.
There are three macronutrients that all work together in order to help maintain our bodies, but it’s protein that holds a special place. When it comes to building muscle, losing weight, and being all-around healthy, it’s protein that has become synonymous with this lifestyle—and for good reason.
Protein is what helps promote the repair, growth, and maintenance of bones, cartilage, blood, and of course, muscle. Muscle growth is especially predicated on good protein intake since working out is all about breaking down muscle fibers so they grow back larger and stronger.
There are no gains to be had if there isn’t protein on your plate. Along with this muscle growth, protein is also essential for maintaining the gains you’ve already earned. And in the post-workout period when you’re body is recovering, protein can help you recover faster and more efficiently—even after you’ve injured yourself.
Along with the muscle benefits, protein is also necessary for keeping your hormones in balance and also managing weight. High-protein diets are able to keep you fuller for longer, effectively suppressing your appetite and leading to weight loss.
Compound this with protein’s positive effects on working out, and you’ve got one hell of a reason to ensure enough protein intake throughout the day.
Protein intake, as with most things, depends on what kind of lifestyle you lead and your genetic predisposition. For example, a sedentary adult should be consuming about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (or, 0.36 grams per pound). For the average dude that equals out to 56 grams of protein per day and 46 grams for women.
However, factors such as illness, injury, goals, genes, and activity level will all play a role. If you’re bulking and looking to pack on some muscle, you want to be eating on the higher end of the protein range—you should be getting anywhere from 10% to 35% of your daily calories from protein.
For those who are athletes or very active, 1.2 to 2.0 grams is recommended per kilogram of bodyweight. But keep in mind that more is only better to a certain extent, and benefits begin to drop off. This is important when comparing plant protein to whey protein.
It’s important when considering the comparison because all proteins are not built equal, and to understand this we have to look a bit closer at what makes a protein, a protein. While protein is the building block of your muscles, amino acids are the building blocks of proteins—20 amino acids, to be exact. And these amino acids aren’t created equal as well.
For example, 7 of these are created by your body which classifies them as non-essential. Four of them tend to be sufficiently made by your body, but it depends on sickness or activity level—they’re called “conditionally essential.” The last nine is what we’re interested in: the essential amino acids (EAAs) that we often hear about.
Your body isn’t able to make these on its own, which is why it’s important to get them from outside sources of protein. How “complete” or “incomplete” a protein depends on how many of these essential amino acids it contains—but not only do all nine have to be present, they also have to be present in enough quantities.
It’s obvious that protein is important and that getting more into your diet has a lot of benefits (assuming you’re not already loading up on the protein). But as we just saw, not all protein is created equal, so which one are you supposed to choose? There are two main types of protein supplements: whey protein and plant-based protein powders.
Although relatively similar when it comes down to it, they do have important differences that make one or the other a better choice for you and your goals. The most obvious difference is that one is an animal-derived product (whey) while plant-based proteins are, well… plant-based.
Right off the bat, this gives you a lot more options if you’re trying to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. But even if you’re sticking to the meat, there are several reasons why you might want to consider going green as well. Down below we’ve broken down the details that make whey and plant proteins special from one another.
Of course, keep in mind that you should be getting your protein from a variety of sources: not just supplementing. Only a well-rounded diet can give you the whole array of micronutrients you need to function well.
The classic choice for protein, whey powder comes from the liquid that sits on top of yogurt containers. During the yogurt and cheese-making process, it’s taken and processed into the powder that we know and love. Coming from milk products, whey is chock full of protein and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) that are essential for muscle growth and maintenance.
It’s a favorite source of protein for a reason and it’s by far the most popular supplement for gym-goers. There are two types that you’ll often find when shopping around: whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate. While the former contains anywhere from 30 to 95% pure protein, the former contains 90 to 95% protein. Isolate also contains significantly less lactose than concentrate.
There are several different plants that tend to make up a plant protein powder. The most common are brown rice, peas, soy, quinoa, hemp, and chia seeds. Oftentimes, these are mixed together in a specific ratio.
Different plants have different qualities, which makes this type of protein much more dependent on manufacturer standards. However, it’s still a terrific source of protein that can give you all of the essential amino acids when different plants are combined.
The biggest shortfall of plant proteins is in their amino acid makeup. While whey offers all nine essential amino acids in one “product,” there isn’t a plant protein that can do the same—although some come close.
Another important aspect is the availability of branched-chain amino acids. These compounds consist of leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They’re important for muscle growth because they’re broken down in the actual muscles, making them particularly useful if you’re looking to bulk up. While whey offers 26 g of BCAAs per 100 g of protein, plant proteins usually range between 18 to 19%.
While whey protein is clearly the winner when taken by itself, it’s important to keep in mind that plant proteins are often mixed together in order to make a complete profile of amino acids. Whey protein does offer a faster-acting source of protein, however, since plant proteins are broken down over a long time period.
Whey protein is the winner when it comes to protein, but it falls short of other important nutrients. For example, plant protein offers vitamins, omega3 fatty acids, and antioxidants—most of which aren’t present in whey protein.
But while whey protein tends to contain more sugar and saturated fats, plant protein contains more carbohydrates. This difference is important when taking into consideration your goals and health background.
Both types of proteins are good for weight loss, but for different reasons. Whey protein decreases the amount of the hormone ghrelin in your body, which is the compound that tells you how hungry you are. This is part of the reason why protein-rich diets are much more satiating than other diets.
However, plant protein is also beneficial because it takes longer to metabolize than plant protein, leaving you fuller for longer. There’s also the fact that whey contains more fat and plant protein contains more carbs—depending on your goals, one of these will work better for you.
If you’re lactose intolerant, plant protein is the most obvious choice. Because whey is a milk product, it can cause gas, stomach discomfort, and bloating. However, if you can handle milk then whey is extremely good—it’s digested fast and allows for quick muscle recovery and growth.
On the other hand, plant-based proteins are very easy to digest for most people—unless we’re talking about a soy-based protein.
When it comes to the flavorings added to protein powders, there is a very wide variety. However, this variety is more often found in whey powders. This is partially due to the relative popularity of whey protein over plant protein. However, it also has to do with the fact that whey by itself doesn’t taste as great as plant powder without flavorings. That’s why you’re more likely to find plant protein without any crazy flavors or as wide of a variety.
Another aspect is that manufacturers tend to lean into the “health” aspect of plant protein. If it’s better for the environment and more popular with people who opt not to eat meat, then it makes sense that a more “natural” flavor would be popular. However, there are definitely exciting flavors to try if the natural flavoring isn’t your cup of tea (or cup of whey).
Whether or not environmental concerns are at the front of your mind when you’re in the gym, it has to be mentioned that plant proteins are easier on the environment. Although whey protein is a by-product in dairy products, it still relies on animal farming to produce it.
Animal products are much more resource-intensive than agricultural farming and it has a much greater effect on the earth and the atmosphere. This is also on top of the hormones and antibiotics fed to cows in order to boost milk production, making plant sources a clear winner in this regard.
Since supplements aren’t as strictly regulated as drugs, the most important part of buying protein powder is to check the ingredients. In the worst-case scenario, a protein powder can contain a lot of fillers and other additives that don’t necessarily benefit you or the compound.
This goes for both whey and plant proteins, but the latter does tend to differ more when it comes to their nutrients since different ratios of different plants are used from manufacturer to manufacturer. It’s also a good idea to look at the sugar and carbohydrate levels in the powders you buy.
While plant powder contains more carbs, whey protein can potentially include more sugar due to sweeteners and flavorings. You want to find something that’s within a reasonable norm and works for your goals. For example, if you’re looking to lose weight then you should be paying special attention to these other components of a protein powder.
But on the other hand, if you’re looking to bulk then you should be making sure that your protein contains a lot of BCAAs and other amino acids, such as those found in whey protein. Committing to goals and understanding how to achieve them is a big part of choosing the correct supplement. There are also health concerns that you should be keeping in mind.
Although you and your physician will know these better than anyone, you should obviously be avoiding whey protein if your lactose intolerant, for example. If you have high sugar levels or diabetes, then you should be trying to find a protein powder with low sugar and carbs.
On the other hand, people with kidney issues should try to find powders with lower levels of protein. This is because the kidneys help to break down protein, and issues in this region can cause complications otherwise.
Plant protein has some obvious benefits over whey protein. For example, it’s safe for those who are lactose intolerant and for those sticking to a vegan diet. It’s also easier to digest and it includes a high amount of fiber and other micronutrients that are also important for a well-functioning body.
However, if you’re looking for a fast-acting and complete protein that’s guaranteed to get you swole, whey protein is the way to go. Not only does it contain more BCAAs, but it’s also a complete protein—something you can only find if you mix different plant proteins together (such as rice protein and pea protein).
Whey protein also tends to all be similar in composition, since there’s only one source for it. With plant proteins, you’re going to have more variety due to the different ratios of plants that manufacturers use. Either way, both are solid options and it wouldn’t hurt to experiment with both.
Let’s say that you’ve set your mind on a particular type of protein, but how do you incorporate it into your daily diet? The great thing about protein powder supplements is that they’re extremely easy to use. If you’re looking to bulk, mix some with milk and sip it throughout the day: not only will the protein powder load you up with calories and protein, but so will the milk.
Even just mixing with water and drinking it between meals is a good way to bulk up and include more protein into your regular diet. However, there’s plenty of ways to spice it up further. For example, including protein in a protein shake or fruit smoothie will give you a bunch of micronutrients along with the protein.
Another idea is to mix it with yogurt and top it with fruits in order to make a parfait. You can also mix it into oatmeal, add it into baked goods by replacing some of the dry ingredients with protein powder, or just make some protein balls with dried fruits and nuts.
Whether you choose a plant or whey protein, the benefits will be numerous and you will see results in your training, activity levels, and recuperation. However, we can’t rely on protein powder (as good as it may be) to do all of the heavy lifting. Any sort of long-term gains and healthy lifestyle changes need to be built on a foundation of a proper diet, high-quality rest, and enough exercise.
Without any one of these, you’ll be kneecapping your gains and there’s no amount of protein powder that can make up for it. So, while protein is absolutely essential, you need to balance it out with healthy sources of complex carbs along with healthy fats.
And while protein is necessary for recovery and growth, sleep is when your gains are really going to be consolidated—getting eight hours is important if you’re looking to maintain a high level of fitness. Lastly, you’ll be wanting to put all that extra protein to work by pushing your body hard and consistently.
Once you’ve got this solid base incorporated into your routine, a high-quality protein powder is going to be able to push you to even greater heights. Help protein powder help you—whether whey or plant—and the gains will come in short order.