Whey vs. Plant Protein: Which is Best?
You are looking for a protein powder and you want to make the best choice for your health. So, you head to the health food store and are completely confused by all the options. Or a Google search gives you so many different choices you end up just closing your browser.
I won’t lie, there are a lot of protein powders on the market. For a regular person without a nutrition degree, it can be super confusing to know what’s best. So, let’s talk about a few general categories you might find while looking for a product and the benefits of each.
Protein powders are usually made from one main protein source and may have added vitamins, fiber, probiotics, fats, and other nutrients. The protein is usually from either a plant or animal source.
Common animal-protein sources include:
● Milk-based: whey or casein
● Collagen (can be sourced from cows, fish, or eggs)
Common plant-protein sources include:
● Brown Rice
Although there are a lot of options, most of the products out there will be either whey or some type of plant-based product.
Benefits of Whey Protein
Whey is probably the most popular type of protein used in powders. It is one of the two proteins found in milk, the other is casein. Whey is a complete protein, providing all nine essential amino acids. It is particularly high in branched chain amino acids, which have been shown to help build muscle strength and promote recovery after exercise. It has one of the highest digestibility and bioavailability scores, meaning your body is able to easily use the protein it provides.1
As you can imagine, whey is very popular among the bodybuilding community for its ability to promote muscle growth. But, there are other benefits as well. Whey contains an amino acid called cysteine that can boost levels of the important amino acid glutathione in the body.2 Glutathione may reduce the risk of cancer and other diseases.
Whey may also help with weight loss. It has been found to help promote satiety and slightly boost metabolism.3 Taking a whey supplement in addition to weight training can promote increased fat burn, while maintaining lean muscle.
Whey protein does have a few cons. Some products do contain lactose, therefore might not work for those that are lactose intolerant. It is also not appropriate for those following a vegan or vegetarian diet or who have a milk allergy.
Benefits of Plant Protein
Plant-based proteins are becoming more popular as people look for vegetarian or vegan options. The great thing is that plant proteins can be just as beneficial as those that are animal based. Although individually, pea or brown rice protein do not contain all nine essential amino acids, when combined in a product like IVL’s Plant Power Protein, they compliment each other forming a complete protein.
Plant proteins are also a better option for those with food allergies, pea or brown rice are hypoallergenic. They are also high in fiber, which can help lower cholesterol, regulate digestion, and promote weight loss. Some people do have sensitivities to the additional fiber in plant protein, it may cause gas or bloating.
Also, whey isn’t the only protein that can help with muscle building. Both pea and brown rice protein have been found to be just as effective as whey in promoting muscle strength and repair after a workout.4,5 Pea and brown rice protein can also promote satiety which may result in weight loss.6,7
Which Protein is Best?
Maybe you are more confused now because basically I told you there are benefits to both types of protein. Really, the ideal choice depends on your dietary needs. If you prefer a vegetarian diet, are lactose intolerant, or need more fiber, choose a plant protein. If you don’t have those needs you may want to choose a whey protein. Personally, since I don’t have any particular dietary restrictions, I go with what tastes best. When something tastes good, we are more likely to stick with it, right?
Yours in Health-
Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD
IVL’s Community Registered Dietitian
- Hulmi JJ, Lockwood CM, Stout JR. Effect of protein/essential amino acids and resistance training on skeletal muscle hypertrophy: A case for whey protein.Nutr Metab (Lond). 2010;7(51).
- Bounous G.Whey protein concentrate (WPC) and glutathione modulation in cancer treatment. Anticancer Res. 2000;20(6C):4785-92.
- Bulut S & Akın N. Health Benefits of Whey Protein: A Review. Journal of Food Science and Engineering. 2012; 2:129-137.
- Joy JM, Lowery RP, Wilson JM et al. The effects of 8 weeks of whey or rice protein supplementation on body composition and exercise performance. Nutr J. 2013;12:86.
- Babault N, Paizis C, Deley G et al. Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, placebo- controlled clinical trial vs. Whey protein. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015; 21;12(1):3.
- Purpura M, Lowery RP, Joy JM, De Souza EO, Kalman DS, et al. A Comparison of Blood Amino Acid Concentrations Following Ingestion of Rice and Whey Protein Isolate: A Double-Blind Crossover Study. J Nutr Health Sci. 2014;1(3): 306.
- Overduin J, Guerin-Deremaux L, Wils D, Lambers TT. NUTRALYS(®) pea protein: characterization of in vitro gastric digestion and in vivo gastrointestinal peptide responses relevant to satiety. Food Nutr Res. 2015;59:25622.