Regardless of what your health or fitness goal(s) may be, protein will play a huge role in the results you see.
When it comes to building muscle, protein is a must! This is because protein (the right kind and the right amount) helps with new muscle growth. Your muscles are actually made up of proteins called actin and myosin!
When it comes to losing body fat, protein is important as well. Not only does it help your body preserve lean muscle so you can burn more calories at rest ... but, eating protein can help with feelings of satiety and increased calorie burning (1).
You also burn more calories by digesting protein than you do carbs and fats (8). So really, if you are trying to lose weight, increasing your protein intake can actually help you out!
Need I say more? I don't think so.
However, a lot of people tend to think that all protein is created equal. That is false!
Maybe in a perfect world it would be the case, but there is a big difference between the protein in some foods & supplements vs others.
For instance, the protein you find in chicken vs the protein you find in rice is a lot different. Yes, both of these foods have protein, but it's a little more complicated than that. This brings us to the question of the day...
What are the differences between whey protein and plant-based proteins?
Well, there are a ton of differences! Let's discuss each of these differences in depth. That way, you know exactly which protein is best for you: Whey protein or plant-based protein.
What Makes Proteins Different From One Another?
Like I just mentioned, there are some big differences between different protein sources.
The biggest difference comes down to the amino acids that make up the proteins. Now, I'm not trying to confuse you here, so let's back it up a few steps.
These amino acids I speak of are actually the building blocks of proteins. Believe it or not, there are 20 total different amino acids! Proteins are actually long chains of these amino acids.
Further, different proteins are made up of different amino acids and sequences of amino acids. Because of this, all proteins have different functions and roles in our bodies. Pretty cool, right?
It is cool ... and at the same time, this explains exactly why certain proteins are different from one another. It's because these amino acid chains are not all the same. This will be important for you to understand as we dive into the differences between whey protein and plant-based protein.
Let's start with how each of them are made and where they come from...
Whey Protein Vs. Plant-Based Protein: How Are They Made & Where Do They Come From?
Whey protein powders and plant-based protein powders are both made and sourced much differently.
Whey protein is actually derived from a cow's milk. You actually isolate whey from milk through the process of making cheese. This liquid whey is processed further to create whey protein powder.
So to keep things simple, this is where whey comes from.
Plant-based protein, as you can imagine, is much different in this regard. The name itself is likely a dead giveaway. You guessed it ... plant-based protein comes from, well, plant-based sources of protein.
The most popular of these sources are soy, brown rice, peas, and even hemp. That said, every plant-based protein powder uses different combinations of these sources (and others) to achieve their final product.
But, how does each type of protein match up when it comes to protein content? Let's talk about it...
Whey Protein Vs. Plant-Based Protein: How Much Protein is in Each?
If we're talking about the number of grams you'll find in whey protein vs plant-based protein ... normally, it's pretty similar.
Most protein powders will have anywhere between 15-30 grams of protein per serving. Yes, there are some outliers, but this is the most typical range you'll find.
However, remember when I said that not all proteins are created equal? That's the important part to consider here.
Of all 20 amino acids, 9 of these amino acids are what we call "essential." That means your body can't synthesize these amino acids on its own and you have to get them through your diet.
Any protein source that contains all 9 essential amino acids is considered a complete protein source. These complete protein sources are required for your body to synthesize new proteins. This can be tissues such as your skin, hair, nails, muscle tissue, and much more.
Meat, poultry, fish, dairy (such as whey), eggs, and even plant sources like quinoa and soy are all examples of complete protein sources.
However, one of the biggest things that separates whey protein powders from plant-based protein powders comes down to the concentration of 3 very important amino acids called the branched chain amino acids (2). Branched chain amino acids are also known as BCAAs. These amino acids are leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
Leucine, in particular, is important for maintaining and building new lean muscle (3). This actually makes it a higher-quality protein too.
Protein quality all comes down to the amino acid profile, and how easily the body can use those amino acids. The higher the concentration of essential amino acids and BCAAs, the higher quality the protein.
The easier it is for the body to digest and utilize the protein, the higher quality that protein becomes as well (9).
So, while there may not be much of a difference in the total amount of protein per serving, whey protein will have a higher concentration of essential amino acids.
Whey Protein Vs. Plant-Based Protein: Digestion & Allergens
Whey protein and plant-based protein are also different when it comes to digestion and allergens.
Since whey protein is derived from milk, it will also come with lactose in it. This also depends on whether the whey protein has been isolated enough.
High-yielding whey protein isolate may actually contain zero lactose as well. It really depends on what type of whey protein you purchase.
Whey protein isolate will have either zero lactose, or very little lactose with more of it being protein. Whey protein concentrate will have a little more lactose and a little less protein than whey protein isolate by weight.
For those with lactose allergies, getting a whey protein that has lactose in it is obviously not ideal. This can also make it hard for their body to digest and absorb properly. In this case, a plant-based protein may be more beneficial.
At the same time, whey protein can also be problematic for people with dairy intolerances. For this reason, some people can experience bloating, indigestion, and stomach aches.
On the other hand, some plant-based protein powders can contain allergens such as soy, peanuts, grains with gluten, and more. This is a dealbreaker for a lot of people too.
So really, what’s best for you will vary from person to person depending on how your body handles different foods.
Whey Protein Vs. Plant-Based Protein: Which is Better For Muscle Growth?
When it comes to muscle growth, there are a lot of factors that come into play. The same can be said about weight loss, performance goals, and any other fitness goal too.
However, if you were to pick whey protein or plant-based protein strictly based on which would be more helpful for building muscle … it may depend more on the overall amino acid profile of the given protein source (5). Now, that may sound confusing, so allow me to explain.
Remember how different protein sources have a variety of different amino acids? This is called the amino acid profile of a protein source.
Let's compare the amino acid profile of brown rice (a plant source) vs whey (an animal protein source) as an example. Animal proteins have a better amino acid profile for building muscle. This is because animal sources have more leucine, and other important amino acids for muscle growth. When it comes to building muscle, animal protein is preferred (6).
However, when we’re talking about protein powders, it's a different story. I say this because protein powders are all formulated differently. One study suggests that if the amino acid profiles are the same, or very similar, the source doesn’t have an impact on overall body composition (5).
Other studies suggest that more research needs to be done to come to a conclusion on this (7). I would argue that the answer comes down to the quality and amino acid profile of the protein powder you are using.
But, what about fat loss?
Whey Protein Vs. Plant-Based Protein: Which is Better For Fat Loss?
This is another loaded question. While a lot of people, and marketing, say that one is better than the other … that’s not what the science suggests. In fact, this question is very similar to the last question.
The truth is, the answer here could come down to the quality of the protein powder, and its amino acid profile.
Saying which one is "better" than the other for building muscle or losing fat would be misleading. Again, there are so many factors that play into achieving any fitness goal.
Calories, protein intake, sleep, exercise, and so many more variables come into play.
If all of the above variables are the same except the use of plant protein powder vs animal protein powder, it still would be difficult to give an exact answer.
I would be inclined to lean more towards a whey protein due to how much more abundant it is in essential amino acids, and more specifically, leucine. Still though, that exact scenario hasn’t been studied, so my best guess is still just speculation.
Which One Should I Choose?
Picking between a whey protein powder and a plant-based protein powder can be difficult. At the end of the day, I would say it comes down to your personal preference.
As someone who’s been taking supplements for most of my adult life, I prefer whey protein. I still believe that because animal protein sources have a better essential amino acid profile than plants ... that whey protein is generally better.
I also generally prefer the taste of whey protein powders over plant-based powders.
But, I will say, there are some great plant-based protein powders out there as well! So, for those of you who prefer a plant-based lifestyle … don’t get discouraged!
You can still see amazing results with a high-quality plant-based protein powder. Just make sure every other factor is accounted for when it comes to reaching your fitness goals!
At 1st Phorm, we offer high-quality options for whey protein powders and plant-based powders alike!
For whey protein powders, we offer a whey protein isolate called Phormula-1. This specific type of whey protein digests rapidly and is designed for recovery. Some of the flavors are completely lactose-free as well!
We even offer Phormula-1 as part of a post-workout recovery stack. The stack includes our rapid-digesting carbohydrate, Ignition, for the perfect recovery combo.
On top of Phormula-1, we also have a whey protein blend called Level-1. This is a sustained assimilation protein, meaning it digests slower. This can help keep you fuller for longer and give your body a steady stream of protein over a few hours.
Level-1 makes for a fantastic meal or snack replacement. A lot of people love pairing Level-1 with fruit, oats, or other carbs for a well-rounded meal.
For plant-based protein powders, we offer Vegan Power Pro. I personally think it’s the best-tasting and best-mixing plant-based protein powder on the market. It’s a blend of pea protein, rice protein, and even has a superfood vitamin blend, digestive enzymes, and more!
We’re Here to Help!
Whether you’re comparing protein powders to find your favorite, or trying to find what’s best for your goals … we’re here to help!
At the end of the day, the protein powder you pick out isn’t what’s going to have the biggest impact on your results. You could take every supplement in the world ... if your nutrition and exercise aren’t in check, you won’t see results.
Let us help! We have a ton of resources to help you earn the results you are looking for. Check out the 1st Phorm App or reach out to one of our NASM Certified Personal Trainers and Certified Nutrition Coaches.
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