Protein shakes have become the most popular method of supplementing protein intake and getting the most out of your time at the gym.
Whether for health, diet, or simply their individual benefits, you will need to choose between plant-based proteins and dairy-based whey alternatives, depending on your lifestyle.
We've researched every option available to provide you with the information you need to make an informed choice. Read on to find out more...
How Do They Compare
Plant-based protein is a broad category, but let's keep it fairly simple, with the most popular sources being soy, pea, brown rice, and hemp. They all have slightly different strengths and weaknesses, but we'll highlight them as we go.
On the other hand, the whey category is much simpler, as it's made up of just whey concentrate and whey isolate.
Let's look at how they compare in the following categories:
- Amino acid profile
Quite honestly, we live in a time where there are so many different options and flavors on the market; it would be almost impossible to tell them apart.
When it comes to unflavored powders, it has to be said that they're all quite horrible.
But the earthy, gritty, organic flavor of hemp or pea protein probably ranks amongst the worst, yet even those can be deliciously disguised with the right smoothie or protein shake recipe.
Both soy protein and whey mix well with any flavor that mimics a milkshake or leans into their milky/creamy nature.
Picking a winner though is impossible, so we'll call this one a draw.
If you've ever been around anyone using protein powder for any length of time, you'll know the havoc it can wreak on a digestive system.
It's a fact that whey protein powder can cause some serious GI distress if taken excessively. Although it is dairy-based, it can't strictly just be those that are lactose intolerant that are affected. In fact, whey actually only contains trace amounts of lactose sugar.
Plant proteins are packed full of fiber and enzymes that actively aid digestion. Not only are they easier to digest, but they can also actively improve your gut health.
Interestingly, the food industry is now putting a lot of focus on sustainability.
Considering the entire process from production to consumption, plant-based proteins are considered to be a lot more sustainable than their animal-derived broth alternatives.
The land and energy requirements that go into animal production is significantly higher compared to plant-based food. This means that the former also potentially contributes to pollution.
Plant proteins, or any other plant-derived products for that matter, are generally friendlier to the environment.
Amino Acid Profile
Whey protein contains all essential amino acids, especially so if you're buying whey isolate. Isolates are about 90% pure and considered the "purest source available" by the Journal Of Sports Science And Medicine. The body cannot produce these BCAA's on its own, so whey having all 9 makes it a complete protein.
Plant-based protein can be incomplete like brown rice or pea protein, but often you'll find them blended together to become whole. There are also plant proteins that contain all 9 BCAA's such as soy and hemp if you don't want to worry about combining them.
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Which One Is Healthier?
Whey has been the go-to choice for a long time now.
Research shows that the body absorbs it quicker and more efficiently. However, that doesn't mean it's better for overall digestive health. As mentioned above, it can cause a fair bit of gastric grumpiness.
Plant proteins are much more nutrient-dense than whey. Whey is, after all, purely protein. Due to this and the many varied forms you can find plant protein in, you can actually use plant proteins as more than just a protein supplement.
They can essentially be your one-stop-shop for the body's additional nutritional needs, whether you’re following a vegan lifestyle or not.
Which One Is Better For Muscle Building?
Whey protein has, for a long time, been held up as the obvious choice if you're serious about your workout gains and building muscle.
However, as plant proteins become more and more popular, research shows that they can be as effective in muscle building as whey.
The main argument for choosing whey over plant proteins usually hinges on whey being a complete protein and plant proteins being otherwise.
This claim is now debunked, as soy and hemp are considered complete proteins themselves. In this case, with the many recent studies supporting their effects on muscle building, it's a draw.
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.
- Tree Linh, MPH, RD
Which One Is Better For Weight Loss?
Protein-rich diets have been proven to aid weight loss, and that's without an active lifestyle, exercise, or calorie watching.
A protein smoothie or shake in the morning can help you feel fuller for longer and put your body in the mood to shed some fat, but which is better?
The research and advice are mixed.
There are researches that lean towards suggesting whey is better for losing weight; however, there are studies that also seem to imply that, once again, there is no difference.
Just making sure you're taking protein is all that matters, regardless of type.
Which One Is Cheaper?
There is no significant difference in price comparing whey with plant-based alternatives. There are inexpensive and expensive offerings for both.
Due to its typically organic nature, the plant-based proteins can prove to be very expensive on a per scoop basis, but that's true of the higher end of the whey options, too.
Basically, you need to shop around and work out the value of the protein powder itself. Is it worth it?
Always read the label, check the ingredients, and research the brand.
Whey Vs. Plant Protein: Which Should You Choose?
When it comes to plant protein vs. whey, it's essentially a draw.
Studies go into the growing trend of plant proteins, proving that they are every bit as powerful as the long crowned champion whey.
In terms of nutrient density, and also in regards to digestibility, plant proteins are a clear winner. They are also more sustainable from a green or ecological point of view.