Protein powder is not one-size-fits-all.
Whey protein and plant-based protein are two popular types of protein supplements that can help you stay healthy and reach your fitness goals. However, there are pros and cons to using each.
If you're wondering what the difference is between whey protein and plant protein, and whether plant-based protein is actually a good alternative to whey, continue reading.
In this post, we'll answer a variety of protein-related questions.
Why Use Protein?
If you’re curious to learn the basics about protein and why it is essential to include protein in your diet, read our ultimate starter guide on protein. In it, we discuss how protein works to supply the body with the essential amino acids our bodies need to function.
If you exercise or weight train, protein powders are especially helpful to supplement your training.
What Is Whey Protein?
Whey protein is a dairy-sourced (milk) protein that offers all the essential amino acids that our bodies need. In other words, it is a complete protein.
In the whey protein market, two protein options dominate:
- whey concentrate
- whey isolate
Both forms of whey protein contain similar amino acids as they come from the same dairy source. However, they differ in processing methods and protein content. Depending on your fitness goals and diet plan, you may find one more suitable than the other.
Whey concentrate protein powder contains up to 80% protein by weight, which is less than the protein content ratio for whey isolate protein. It also retains some of the lactose (the sugar in milk) found in whey, which can cause upset stomach in those who are lactose intolerant.
This form of whey protein is a great option for those looking to bulk up or gain weight as it may contain higher amounts of carbohydrates and fat, which can be used as fuel for the body. Be sure to check the nutrition label, since these numbers can significantly differ from product to product.
In terms of price, whey concentrate is generally cheaper than whey isolate protein.
Whey isolate protein powder is the leaner form of whey protein. It is whey concentrate that has been processed further to increase total protein content.
Whey isolate contains up to 90% protein by weight, and subsequently, fewer carbohydrates and fat. As whey comes from dairy, whey isolate still contains lactose—though less than 4%.
For those who are cutting or on a low-carb diet, whey isolate is the more suitable form of whey protein.
Looking for more information on the differences between whey protein concentrate vs. isolate? Read our blog on the difference between protein isolate and concentrate.
Benefits of Whey Protein
Whey protein is a high-quality source of protein for those looking to supplement their diets.
Taking whey protein may help with:
- muscle building
- muscle recovery
- hunger reduction
- weight loss or weight gain, depending on your use of the product
- inflammation reduction
These are only some of the benefits of taking whey protein powder daily. The effects that whey protein will have on you will depend on how you use whey protein powder in your routine.
For example, if you use it to supplement your normal diet and muscle-training exercises, whey protein can encourage faster muscle repair and recovery from training. This also helps to combat the loss of muscle mass that occurs in the later stages of life.
If you use whey protein to satiate your hunger and to eat less during your normal meals, whey protein can help you to achieve weight loss.
Cons of Whey Protein
Despite the many whey protein benefits, whey protein may not be a good fit for everyone.
Due to its dairy source, people who are lactose intolerant or who have dairy allergies will have an adverse reaction to ingesting whey protein. It can cause:
For those who have an allergy or sensitivity to dairy, a plant-based protein powder may be a better protein supplement alternative.
Final Thoughts on Whey Protein
While you should aim to source the majority your protein from whole foods, it can be hard to meet daily protein needs from food alone. Whey protein is a popular protein supplement on the market because it provides high-quality protein with an affordable price tag.
If you're looking to boost your daily protein intake and you do not have dairy allergies or sensitivities, whey protein may be a good choice for you.
What Is Plant Protein?
Don't worry—if whey protein powder is not the right fit for you, you still have options. Plant-based protein powder is a great alternative for those who have allergies or sensitivities to dairy and those who do not consume animal products.
Plant-based protein powder comes from protein-rich plants and crops including:
You can also find plant-based protein powders with a mix of different plant protein sources. However, if you are allergic to soy or grains, a plant-based protein containing a single plant protein source such as peas will serve you best.
An advantage of the plant-based protein powder market is that it has diversified to meet the dietary needs of different consumers.
Benefits of Plant Protein
There are a few benefits to using protein powders made only from plant sources.
For one, plant-based protein powders, such as soy-based powders, are nutrient-dense. They are jam-packed with nutrients including:
- B vitamins
Using plant-based protein in your daily routine can increase your daily intake of fiber, which aids in digestion, regulates bowel movements, and helps to manage blood sugar levels.
Even if you do not have dairy sensitivities or allergies, plant-based protein tends to be easier on the digestive system than dairy-based protein.
Cons of Plant Protein
Despite these plant protein benefits, there are some negatives to using plant protein.
Plant-based protein powders may not contain all the essential amino acids that your body needs.
If your plant-based protein product contains only one source of plant protein, you may want to supplement it with additional nutrients from whole foods. Or, opt for a blend of plant-protein powder.
If you are cutting or on a low-carb diet, plant-based protein powders may be counterproductive to achieving your fitness goals. Plant-based proteins contain higher amounts of calories and carbohydrates. Once again, be sure to check nutrient labels as these numbers may differ from product to product.
For some, the final deterring factor for plant protein powder is its price. Plant protein powder tends to be more expensive per serving of protein than whey protein powder. However, this also depends on the brand of protein powder you purchase.
How Does Plant Protein Compare to Whey Protein?
This is the golden question. We’ll measure and compare whey protein vs. plant protein based on three different factors.
Amino Acid Content
Whey protein is a complete protein as it comes from milk and contains all the essential amino acids our bodies need to recover from intense physical activity.
Plant protein, on the other hand, is generally an incomplete protein as its protein contents come from a single protein source like peas or brown rice. However, when plant protein powders contain a combination of multiple plant protein sources, the protein powder can be a complete protein source.
Protein Content per Serving
In terms of protein content per serving, both whey protein and plant-based protein products do not stray far from each other.
A good protein content per serving is equivalent to 20 or 30 grams. You can check the nutritional label on the back of your protein powder product to see how much protein is in each scoop (or per serving).
Keep in mind that whether you choose whey or plant protein, protein powders will contain additive ingredients that can help stabilize the product, extend its shelf life, and add nutritional value and flavor.
Texture and Flavor
The protein source(s) for plant-based protein powders tend to give the powder a more textured feel, which is noticeable in protein shakes. For this reason, some people prefer to use whey, which is less granular.
As far as flavor goes, plant-based protein powders are more limited in the range of flavors you can try. This is not the case with whey protein, which comes from milk. Whatever your favorite milkshake flavor is, you can likely find it with whey protein.
Whey Protein vs. Plant Protein: The Verdict
So, which is better: whey protein vs. plant protein?
It depends on your diet, your lifestyle, and your fitness goals.
Both offer a good source of protein to help you meet your minimum daily protein needs. However, if you have dairy allergies or sensitivities, plant-based protein may be the better option.
If you prefer a smoother texture and taste, whey protein may be better suited for you. Are you cutting? Go for whey isolate. If you're bulking, choose a higher calorie whey concentrate.