Whey Protein vs Plant Protein Powder: A Comprehensive Guide - Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC

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Whey Protein vs Plant Protein Powder: A Comprehensive Guide

Learn How You Can Benefit From Both Whey and Plant-Based Protein Powders

Key Takeaways:

  • When you’re deciding between whey protein and plant protein, the answer usually comes down to a few individual factors.
  • Whey protein powders have an excellent amino acid profile and are easily digested.
  • Whey protein powders contain some lactose but are often tolerated by those with lactose intolerance.
  • Plant protein powders contain less protein and fewer amino acids than whey protein, and may be more difficult to digest and absorb.
  • Consuming more of, or combining plant protein powders, can increase the amino acid content.
  • Whey protein powder may be more effective for muscle building and repair, but plant proteins may have similar effects.
  • Both whey protein and plant proteins are similarly effective for improving weight and metabolic health.

I was surprised to learn from protein expert, Dr. Gabrielle Lyon, that she recommends 40 grams of protein as part of the first meal of the day. It makes sense as higher protein intakes have been found to have a number of health benefits like weight loss [1], increased muscle mass [2], healthier aging [3], and improved metabolic and gut health [1, 4]. But eating enough protein for breakfast can seem like a challenge when you’re busy. This is where a high-quality protein powder can come in handy as a meal replacement. But which is the best protein when it comes to whey protein vs plant protein?

It really depends on your personal goals and tolerance. While whey protein may have the advantage when it comes to building and repairing muscle [5], both animal and plant-based protein sources seem similarly effective for improving weight and metabolic health [6]. In general, you need to consume more of a plant-based protein in order to get the same amount of essential amino acids found in a whey protein. But if you don’t tolerate whey protein or you just don’t want to use animal products, plant-based powders like soy and pea are still effective options [7].

In this article, I’ll compare whey protein vs plant protein powders and give you some tips on how to decide which is right for you. Before we get into the specifics, let’s take a look at a side-by-side comparison.

Whey Protein vs Plant Protein Powder

Let’s jump right in with a chart detailing several features of whey protein vs plant protein powder.

FeatureWhey ProteinPlant Protein
Essential Amino Acids (EAAs)Sufficient amounts of all [7]Can lack 1 or more [7]
DigestibilityEasily digested and absorbedMay be more difficult to digest and absorb [8]
Lactose-FreeNoYes
Promotes Muscle GrowthYes [5, 9]Yes [10, 11]
Promotes Weight Loss YesYes 
Improves Metabolic HealthYes Yes 

As you can see whey protein powder has an excellent essential amino acid (EAA) profile and may be better for building muscle and repairing muscle damage [5, 7, 9]. But it’s possible to achieve a similar EAA profile by mixing and consuming more plant protein powders, and plant sources of protein may be just as effective when it comes to muscle health [12, 13]. Now that you know that both types of protein powders can help you reach your protein goals, let’s take a look at how both whey and plant-based protein powders are made.

Whey Protein vs Plant Protein: How Are They Made?

Both whey protein and plant-based proteins go through special processing to become the convenient powder you add to your morning smoothie or post-workout shake. 

Whey Protein Powder

Whey protein is a by-product of the cheese-making process [14]. Enzymes are applied to cow’s milk to separate it into whey (20%) and casein (80%). The casein is used to make cheese (but can also be further processed into a supplement powder), and then more enzymes are added to the whey to extract proteins that are high in all three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs – essential amino acids that stimulate muscle protein synthesis and prevent protein breakdown) [14, 15, 16]. The extracted protein is dried to create whey protein powder.

Depending on the degree of processing, whey protein typically comes as a concentrate, isolate, or hydrolysate [17]. Here’s a chart detailing the specifics about each type of whey protein [17, 18, 19, 20]:

PropertiesWhey protein hydrolysateWhey protein isolateWhey protein concentrate
Protein contentVariable 90% or more 29–89% 
Lactose contentLeastMiddle Most 
PriceHighest MiddleLowest 
ProcessingMost Middle Least
DigestibilityHighest Middle Lowest 
Taste Bitter, needs additives (like added sugar or other sweeteners) to mask flavor Mild, similar to concentrate but weaker and less of an aroma Mild, similar to isolate but slightly stronger and more of an aroma 

Whey protein does contain lactose (the sugar that’s found in milk). This doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t tolerate a whey protein supplement if you’re lactose intolerant though. The more processed forms like hydrolysate and isolate have less lactose and may actually work well for you [17, 18]. 

Plant Protein Powder

Plant protein powders (also called vegan protein powders) can be made by processing many types of plants, such as:

  • Rice
  • Soy
  • Peas
  • Hemp
  • Chia

Pea protein, as an example, is made by drying and grinding peas into a fine flour. Water is then added to the flour to extract the fiber and starch, leaving only the protein, vitamins, and minerals as a paste. The paste is then dried and ground into a fine powder [21]. 

If you’re trying to decide between a whey protein vs plant protein powder, it really comes down to your goals and tolerance. Let’s take a closer look at what you might want to consider when making your decision.

Whey Protein vs Plant Protein: Essential Amino Acid Content

One consideration in the whey protein vs plant protein debate involves amino acid content. You can think of amino acids as the building blocks of proteins. When you digest protein, it’s broken down into individual amino acids and then reformed into other proteins that help your body function properly [22, 23]. 

There are hundreds of amino acids in nature, but the human body only uses 20 of them. Nine of those can’t be made by the body, so we must get them from food (or supplements) – these are the essential amino acids (EAAs) [23]. Generally, higher levels of EAAs translate into a better protein source overall because EAAs seem to be most responsible for stimulating muscle protein synthesis (the process of producing new muscle protein) after a meal [7].

Here’s a chart detailing the amount of protein and the EAA content of various plant and animal-based food sources [7]:

SourceProtein ContentEssential Amino Acid Content(percent of total protein)
Hemp51%23%
Oat64%21%
Soy70%27%
Brown Rice79%28%
Pea80%30%
Egg51%32%
Casein70%35%
Milk78%40%
Whey80%45%

As you can see, whey protein has the greatest EAA content of all plant and animal proteins. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s superior or that you should only consume animal-based proteins. In fact, a combination of proteins from both plants and animals is likely to provide the most benefit [24].

Now let’s look at the EAA content of animal-based and plant-based protein powder isolates specifically [7]:

Amino acid Whey Egg Casein Soy Pea Hemp Brown rice
Essential amino acids (EAA) per 100 grams
Threonine 5.4 2.0 2.6 2.3 2.5 1.3 2.3
Methionine 1.8 1.4 1.6 0.3 0.3 1.0 2.0
Phenylalanine 2.5 2.3 3.1 3.2 3.7 1.8 3.7
Histidine 1.4 0.9 1.7 1.5 1.6 1.1 1.5
Lysine 7.1 2.7 4.6 3.4 4.7 1.4 1.9
*Valine 3.5 2.0 3.0 2.2 2.7 1.3 2.8
*Isoleucine 3.8 1.6 2.3 1.9 2.3 1.0 2.0
*Leucine 8.6 3.6 5.8 5.0 5.7 2.6 5.8
Total EAA 34.1 16.5 24.8 19.9 23.6 11.6 22.1

*Branched Chain Amino Acid (BCAA)

Plant proteins overall have fewer total EAAs than whey and casein isolates [7]. Of the plant proteins, pea protein has the highest EAA levels, and it also has about as many non-essential amino acids as whey [7]. In addition to overall EAA content, the amount of branched-chain amino acids in the protein powder may be important depending on your goals. 

Whey Protein vs Plant Protein: Branched Chain Amino Acids

Of the 9 EAAs, 3 are considered branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). This subcategory has a different structure. Like the other EAAs, BCAAs function to form proteins, but they may also stimulate muscle protein synthesis and prevent protein breakdown making them pretty handy for people who want to build and maintain muscle mass [15]. 

When it comes to whey protein vs plant protein powders, 100 grams of whey protein has sufficient amounts of all EAAs, including BCAAs. In contrast, the same amount of pea protein lacks 3 of the EAAs, two of which are BCAAs [7]. However, this doesn’t mean plant-based proteins can’t promote muscle protein synthesis, it just means you have to consume higher amounts of plant-based protein to get the same amount of EAAs and BCAAs that you would get in a whey protein. 

Here’s an example [7]:

To get 2.7 grams of the BCAA leucine, you’d need to consume:

  • 48 grams of pea protein powder (38 total grams of protein)
  • 32 grams of whey protein powder (25 total grams of protein)

To get 10.9 grams of EAAs, you’d need:

  • 46 grams of pea protein powder (37 total grams of protein)
  • 32 grams of whey protein powder (25 total grams of protein)

Overall, both animal and plant-based protein powders are good options for meeting your protein needs, you just need to consume more total protein from plants than from animals. In addition, plant proteins may be harder to digest than animal proteins since they contain anti-nutrients (plant compounds that can hinder nutrient absorption) [8]. With these factors in mind, it’s probably best to use a combination of plant-based protein powders to get a higher quality, more complete protein blend [7]. Or you could even use a combination of whey and plant protein powders.

You may be using a protein powder to enhance your fitness or as a way to curb your appetite. Let’s take a look at some of the research on whey protein vs plant protein powders specifically as they relate to fitness and metabolic health.

Whey Protein vs Plant Protein: Muscle Building, Strength, and Recovery

Animal-based protein, especially whey, may be the best for improving muscle gains when combined with strength training [5, 9]. One meta-analysis found animal proteins tended to improve lean muscle mass more than plant proteins, especially in younger people [9]. And another found supplementing with whey protein led to significantly more muscle growth when compared to soy protein [5]. 

However, other studies indicate that plant-based proteins may be just as effective for muscle building and strength. One meta-analysis comparing the effects of whey protein vs soy protein found both led to significant and similar improvements in strength when combined with strength training [13]. A couple of smaller studies found:

  • Similar improvements in body composition, muscle thickness, strength and exercise performance with both whey and pea protein [11].
  • Similar increases in muscle growth and strength in young, active males with both pea and whey protein. Interestingly, this study also found the weakest participants in the pea protein group experienced significantly more muscle growth when compared to those in the whey protein group [10].

Whey protein may have the advantage when it comes to muscle recovery though. One randomized controlled trial found whey protein significantly reduced muscle damage after intensive resistance training, whereas the same amount of pea protein did not [25]. Let’s move on to the effects of plant- and animal-based proteins on metabolic health and appetite.

Whey Protein vs Plant Protein: Metabolic Health and Appetite

Both plant- and animal-based proteins, whether from food or powders, seem similarly effective at improving weight and metabolic health.  A systematic review found pea and other plant-based proteins to improve [6]:

  • Satiety (sense of fullness)
  • Blood sugar levels
  • Cholesterol levels
  • Muscle health
  • Body weight
  • Blood pressure

And, randomized controlled trials have found:

  • Pea protein and pea hull fiber to be effective for blood sugar control [26].
  • Yellow pea protein to suppress short-term appetite and the glycemic (blood sugar) response [27].
  • Both whey and pea protein isolates curb appetite, increase calorie burn, and decrease calorie intake [28].

Both Whey and Plant Protein Powders Can Meet Your Protein Needs

A higher protein diet can help with everything from weight and metabolic health to muscle gain and healthy aging. A high-quality protein powder, in addition to a whole-foods diet, can be a great way to meet your protein needs. The research seems to suggest both whey and plant-based protein options are effective.

Whey protein powder has an excellent amino acid profile and also contains sufficient amounts of BCAAs, so this is a great option. But if you’re lactose intolerant or prefer to avoid animal products, plant-based protein powders, like pea and soy, can be great alternatives. Keep in mind, you may need to consume more of the plant-based protein to obtain the same amount of essential and branched-chain amino acids. You may also want to consider combining a variety of plant protein powders, which will give you an even higher quality protein.

If you need personalized guidance on your health and fitness journey, contact us at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Health.

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

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