what is whey protein

Plant Protein vs Whey Protein, Which is Better?

May 22, 2021

Which is better? Protein that comes from the ground or protein that comes from the animals that eat the things that come from the ground? In recent years there has been a hot debate surrounding animal protein vs plant protein and what is better. In this article we will take a look at whey protein (from milk) and plant based protein that comes from soy, peas, hemp and rice. Brief synopsis, is that the better protein choice is largely dependent on the individual preferences and goals of the person.  Regardless, whatever high-quality protein you choose it's a step in the right direction to improving your body's health and function.


When considering protein intake, people have many options these days. Protein made from animal sources and protein made from plants. Protein powder made from animals include whey protein and casein protein (both made from milk), egg protein and insect protein. Plant-based protein powders include soy protein, pea protein, hemp protein, brown rice protein and mixed plant protein.

The most common debate centered around protein powder is; what is better plant protein or whey protein. To give a more thorough answer, one must set the benchmark for judging whether plant-based protein is better than whey protein or not. The two main determining factors in whey protein versus plant protein are the quality of the protein and the digestibility of the protein. The secondary factor to consider when choosing a which protein is total nutritional value. taste. Lastly, some people would like to judge protein based on other criteria such as taste, environmental and ethical factors.

What is a Quality Protein Source?

There is a scientific method for ranking protein quality called Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS). In layman’s terms protein quality is based on the capability of the protein source to aid in healthy growth or maintenance of body mass. A high quality or “complete” protein should be easily digested and must possess all 9 essential amino acids with the right ratios.

At the end of the day, you need to judge protein on your individual preferences and goals.

Related: Build Muscle Mass

What are amino acids?

Amino acids are vital for your body to function properly. They are made of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen combined with a variable side chain group. There are 20 total amino acids. Nine of them are considered essential amino acids because they aren’t produced by our bodies and must be consumed via food sources. The nine essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, pheylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.

plant vs whey protein powder

What are the nine essential amino acids and what do they do?

Here’s a glimpse of why these amino acids are so essential. Three of these essential amino acids are branched-chain amino acids (isoleucine, leucine and valine) which directly encourage muscle growth and recovery.

Histidine: It preserves the myelin sheath, the protective barrier surrounding your nerve cells. Histidine also is used to produce histamine which is a neurotransmitter that plays a big role in your digestion, immune response, sexual function and sleep-wake cycles.

Isoleucine: One of the three branched-chain amino acids that is involved in muscle metabolism and is in muscle tissue. This amino acid is vital for energy regulation, hemoglobin production and immune function.

Leucine: Another branched-chain amino acid that is responsible for protein synthesis and muscle repair. Amazingly, this amino acid produces growth hormones, aids in regulation of blood sugar levels and quickens wound healing.

Lysine: Supports hormone and enzyme production, protein synthesis and the absorption of calcium. Also helps with production of collagen and elastin, energy production and immune function.

Methionine: Needed for metabolism and detoxification it also helps with tissue growth. Supports the absorption of zinc and selenium.

Pheylalanine: A antecedent for the neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine and tyrosine. Vital in producing other amino acids and in the function and structure of proteins.

Threonine: The major part of structural proteins that make up your skin and connective tissue including collagen and elastin. Also supports immune function and fat metabolism.

Tryptophan: A precursor to serotonin which is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate appetite, mood and sleep. Many people know this one for the Thanksgiving dinner turkey hangover that causes drowsiness.

Valine: One of the three branched-chain amino acids this helps to stimulate muscle growth, repair and regeneration. This amino acid is also involved in energy production.

What is Whey Protein?

Whey is one of the proteins in milk. It is separated from casein, the other protein found in milk. Whey protein can be produced as a byproduct of making cheese or yogurt. Whey protein is a complete protein as it contains all nine essential amino acids. It is a combination of alpha lactalbumin, beta-lactoglobulin, bovine serum albumin and immunoglobins.  It is generally low in lactose content and is a favorite supplement of bodybuilders to put on more solid muscle and aid in weight loss.

Is Whey protein Good for you?

As long as you don’t have a lactose sensitivity whey protein is one of the best options for people to add more protein to their diets. It is a high-quality protein source that’s convenient to take and is easily absorbed then utilized by your body. Whey protein for bodybuilding is commonplace because it allows for muscle building and strength gaining while losing fat.

Benefits of Whey Protein

Below are some benefits of whey protein backed by multiple scientific studies. There are more purported health benefits for consuming whey protein but additional research needs to be completed before confidently confirming them.

Aids in Muscle Building: Whey is one of the highest quality proteins with significant amount of branched-chain amino acids such as leucine that when combined with resistance training leads to muscle growth.

Helps with Weight Loss: Whey protein can lead to reduced calorie intake by helping you stay fuller for a longer amount of time. It will boost metabolism and aid in muscle building resulting in more calories burned.

Reduces Blood Pressure and Cardiovascular Disease: Whey protein has bioactive peptides called lactokinins that inhibit angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) which regulates peripheral blood pressure.

Strengthen Anti-oxidants: Whey protein is high in cysteine which is an amino acid that supports the formation of glutathione. Glutathione is a major antioxidant that helps fight off chronic disease.

Reduces Inflammation: More research is needed but whey protein in high amounts may reduce inflammation by reducing the blood levels of C-reactive protein.

Helps to Regulate Blood Sugar Levels: Helps to moderate blood sugar through increasing the sensitivity to insulin as well as the levels of insulin. Whey protein taken with or before high carb meals helps to regulate blood sugar in both healthy people and people with Type 2 diabetes.

Related: Master Your Metabolism

whey protein powder

Are there Different Types of Whey Protein?

There are three main types of whey protein; whey protein isolate (WPI), whey protein concentrate (WPC) and whey protein hydrolysate (WPH). When milk is processed into cheese or yogurt the leftover liquid is called whey. Before milk is processed it is made of around 80% casein (slow digesting protein) and 20% whey proteins.

Here’s a brief look at each whey protein...

Whey Protein Concentrate: Usually concentrated to protein percentages between 30-90 percent with lower levels of fats, carbs and lactose. Cheapest of the three whey proteins.

Whey Protein Isolate: More processed than WPC resulting in higher protein percentages with at least 90% also with less fat, carbs and lactose.

Whey Protein Hydrolysate: Whey protein that has gone through hydrolysis makes it more easily digestible by the body. Used in medical protein supplements and infant formulas.

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Is Whey Protein Safe?

Whey protein is safe to take for most people. However, some people that are allergic to milk or have a lactose intolerance should avoid taking whey protein. In some cases, the consumption of whey protein in high amounts can cause:

  • Nausea
  • Cramps
  • Stomach pains
  • Reduced appetite
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Acne

The benefits of whey protein far exceed most of these potential side effects but as always consult with your doctor before beginning any new diet or supplementation.

What is plant-based protein?

This protein source is derived from plants. The main plant protein powders are made from peas, hemp, soybean and rice. The raw materials are processed to remove starches from the protein. These major plant-based proteins might be blended with other plant sources such as quinoa, flax seeds, alfalfa and chia seeds in order to make the amino acid profile more complete.

In general plant proteins tend to digest slower than animal protein due to their fiber count.

Plant Protein Benefits

Hypoallergenic: Great choice for people who are allergic to milk or gluten as some protein powders contain gluten. (*Some people might have allergies to soy but rice and pea protein should be good for most people.)

Helps build muscle: Supplementing your diet with plant-based protein will help give your muscles the fuel they need to grow.

Source of Fiber: Plant based protein has both soluble and insoluble finer that can help you feel full for longer time and helps keep your bowel movements regular.

Boosts Metabolism: Due to the high fiber in plant protein your body needs to work harder to digest it which sends your metabolism into overdrive.

No extra antibiotics or growth hormones: If you buy certified organic plant protein you can avoid consuming any unatural substances that might be present in other protein powder.

Perfect for Vegans: People who don’t consume animal products may have a difficult time getting enough protein through plant sources so plant-based protein makes it much easier to sustain a vegan lifestyle.

Is Plant Protein Safe?

Yes, plant protein is generally safe for most people to consume. However, seeing how plant protein comes from the ground you should try to only consume certified organic products. Soils may contain heavy metals which can be found in some plant-based proteins. You also need to pay attention to the carb count on some plat proteins such a brown rice protein in case you are on a low carb diet.

Can you build muscle with plant protein?

Yes, you can build muscle when combining strength training and plant-based protein consumption. Pea protein and soy protein have the highest protein concentration for plant-based proteins so you might want to give these a shot. You can also look to mixed plant protein powders that have a more well-rounded amino acid profile.

plant based protein vs whey protein

What is Pea Protein?

Pea protein is usually made from split yellow peas by grinding the dried peas into a powder. The starch and fiber are removed from this powder and leaves a concentrated protein material called pea protein isolate. Pea protein contains all 9 essential amino acids that your body doesn’t produce. It also contains much needed branched chain amino acids necessary for building muscle such as leucine, isoleucine and valine. Pea protein also is a good source of heart healthy arginine. Pea protein is hypoallergenic and is an alternative protein choice for vegans.

Pea Protein Powder vs Whey Protein

Pea protein and whey protein both encompass all nine amino acids. Whey is considered a complete protein whereas pea protein has all nine amino acids but has low levels of methionine. Methionine is an important amino acid helping with metabolism and angiogenesis (growth of new blood vessels).

Barring the fact pea protein is low in methionine, it has higher levels of arginine, histidine and phenylalanine compared with whey protein. Pea protein has more iron and fiber than whey protein. Whey protein has more calcium, cholesterol and potassium.

Most pea protein and whey protein powders generally have more than 20 grams of protein per serving. However, whey protein usually has more protein per serving vs pea protein.

Pea protein is good protein choice but in terms of building muscle whey protein is a better choice because it is more easily digested and has a superior amino acid profile.

plant protein versus whey protein

What is Soy Protein?

Soy protein is made by grinding up soybeans into meal. This substance is then broken down by getting soaked in alcohol or acid in a process called acid-washing. This process removes the sugar and dietary fiber. After this, it is dehydrated which results in a powdery soy protein isolate. Soy protein has all nine essential amino acids and is incredibly low in carbohydrates and fat. Soy protein is a good choice for people that have lactose intolerance or are vegans.

Soy Protein Powder vs Whey Protein

Soy protein and whey protein both have all nine essential amino acids. They are both considered complete proteins but whey has much higher levels of leucine, isoleucine, methionine and lysine. Soy protein contains higher levels of phenylalanine, arginine and tryptophan.

Soy protein is rich in nutrients such as iron, copper, phosphorus and manganese however it also contains phytates which lower the mineral absorption.  Soy protein powder has shown some promise in reducing cholesterol levels.

Once again soy is a great source of protein as it contains the most amount of protein per gram out of all plant-based protein sources. However, whey is still the preferred choice for those looking to put on muscle as it has more lysine while also having more methionine which is associated with faster fat loss.

plant protein vs whey protein

What is Hemp Protein?

Hemp protein comes from the cannabis plant but doesn’t have any THC, the psychoactive component that will get you high. Hemp protein is made by extracting the oil from the seeds then grinding up what’s left into a powder. Hemp protein contains all nine essential amino acids. Look for cold pressed hemp protein as it is easier to digest.

Hemp Protein Powder vs Whey Protein

Hemp protein and whey protein both have all nine essential amino acids that people need to get from food. Whey has a higher protein per gram ratio compared to hemp protein. Hemp protein is a good source of vitamin B & E and other minerals like calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium. Hemp protein has a similar amino acid profile compared to egg whites and soy protein but with a lower ratio of protein. Hemp protein also has the proteins edestin and albumin that help with digestibility compared to other plant-based proteins.

Once again whey protein is a superior protein if taken for muscle building purposes.

plant protein or whey protein

What is Brown Rice Protein?

Brown rice protein is made by grinding up the grain then treating it with enzymes such as α‐amylase, hemicellulase, and cellulase to separate the starch from the protein. Brown rice protein isn’t considered a complete protein because it lacks one of the essential amino acids, lysine.

Brown Rice Protein vs Whey Protein

Brown rice protein will help build muscle but studies have show it isn’t as effective as whey protein in building muscle size and strength. Rice protein is great for post workout consumption because it is absorbed quickly. Rice protein is a great alternative for people with a lactose intolerance or those with soy allergies. Overall, rice has less protein percentage compared with whey protein. Yet again, whey is a superior choice for muscle building

Is plant protein good for building muscle?

Plant-protein is good for muscle growth as it can provide the amino acids your muscles need for regeneration and growth. However, whey protein is the clear winner in terms of it’s muscle building capabilities due to the significant amount of branched-chain amino acids coupled with the higher protein percentages.

Is Plant protein or Whey Protein better for the Environment?

Plant based protein that is certified organic can be a win-win for the environment as it can help add minerals and nutrients into poor quality soil while being a sustainable food source. Whey protein is made from the byproducts of cheese and yogurt making which is good because it turns this “waste” into something that we can ingest for many health benefits. Considering the amount of milk it takes to produce whey protein and the impact of cows on other natural resources, plant-based protein has the competitive edge when it comes to environmental protection.

plant protein vs whey protein bodybuilding

Final Thought

Whey protein powder and plant protein powders can be a healthy addition to any diet and workout regimen. You should consider your goals, and any health issues you have before choosing the right protein for you. Other factors you might consider are taste and ethical concerns. At the end of the day make sure you check the labels and nutrition content, try looking for products endorsed by NSF international (National Sanitation Foundation).

Overall, if you are a vegan or looking for a lactose free protein source then you should choose plant-based protein. On the other hand, if you want a quick absorbing complete protein that will support better muscle growth and muscle repair rapidly then whey protein should be your go-to choice.

Related: Bulking vs Cutting

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