Supplementing your diet with quality protein powder from either whey or plant sources can increase muscle performance, boost post-workout recovery, promote healthy metabolism, support weight loss, and help to tone and define the body too. But which protein is most worth investing your money in — protein or plant? Read on for the inside scoop on the battle of the protein powders.
What are the different kinds of plant protein?
There are several different kinds of plant protein, and some brands combine different amounts of each to produce a plant-based powder that delivers a healthy mix of fats and amino acids. The most common plant-based proteins are pea, soy, hemp, and rice. Here’s a summary of the nutritional benefits of each:
Pea protein is made from yellow split peas (rather than the sweet green peas you’re probably more familiar with) and has a high protein content compared to alternative vegan protein powders. Pea protein may be low in the essential amino acid, methionine, but it’s packed full of three other important essential acids necessary for muscle growth: isoleucine, valine, and leucine.
Unlike most other plant-based proteins, soy protein is a complete protein that contains all nine essential amino acids. It also has a high protein content and contains some beneficial plant compounds that may help lower cholesterol.
Hemp protein comes from the cannabis plant, but since it contains only trace amounts of THC, it won’t provide the same euphoric effects as marijuana. Hemp protein is, however, high in heart-healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fats, and it’s an excellent source of zinc, magnesium, iron, and fibre too.
Brown rice protein
Brown rice powder tends to be relatively inexpensive and readily available, with a high ratio of protein in its nutritional makeup too. In addition, rice protein is typically easy to digest. It contains all of the essential amino acids, although it’s too low in lysine to be considered a complete protein.
Is plant protein as good as whey protein?
Both whey and plant-based proteins can help you lose fat, increase muscle mass, manage your weight, and improve strength. However, the different nutritional profiles and formulas of each protein may make one a better fit for you and your goals.
Here’s a brief rundown of the pros and cons of each to help you decide whether plant protein or whey protein is the best option for you.
Animal-based proteins such as whey isolate have a higher biological value than plant-based proteins, which means they contain enough amino acids to form all the proteins your body needs. The protein found in whey is of exceptionally high quality because it’s chock-full of amino acids. In fact, whey proteins are called complete proteins as they contain all nine essential amino acids — the protein-building blocks that the body can’t produce itself. The body needs all of these essential organic compounds to build muscle and promote recovery, particularly after a tough workout. Also, whey protein is especially high in leucine — the most important amino acid in the muscle-building process — as well as cysteine, which helps to support muscle growth and metabolism.
Just like whey protein, plant-based proteins also help to boost energy production at a cellular level and provide vital support for protein synthesis. They contain key amino acids that help to deliver energy to your cells, giving you that burst of energy you need to keep working out for longer and helping to repair your muscle tissue afterwards too. In fact, research has shown that brown rice protein, in particular, may perform just as well as whey protein in supporting post-workout muscle growth.
However, most plant proteins (soy and quinoa proteins are the exceptions) aren’t considered complete proteins, which means that on their own, they don’t contain optimal levels of all the essential amino acids needed to support protein synthesis. In particular, some key plant proteins are often low in isoleucine and lysine. This shouldn’t be an issue if you choose a plant protein powder that uses a combination of plant sources to deliver all bases, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re considering a single-source protein powder.
Gastric irritation and digestive problems can be a common side effect of whey protein, and this type of protein is particularly problematic for those with dairy or lactose intolerances. Plant-based proteins, on the other hand, are dairy-free and less inflammatory to the digestive system. Some plant-based shakes are also boosted with digestive enzymes that help the body assimilate the protein without any uncomfortable bloating or embarrassing side effects.
Our bodies are typically slower at metabolising plant proteins than whey protein. So, while whey protein does have impressive and well-reported benefits for weight loss and increased satiety, plant-based protein powders may actually help keep you fuller for longer. Additionally, because whey is derived from milk, most forms of whey protein contain saturated fat and macronutrients. This means that whey protein typically has a higher fat and calorie content than plant alternatives such as pea and soy.
Whey protein doesn’t taste great naturally, which is why many whey shakes and powders contain artificial flavours and sweeteners to help disguise it. If you’re looking for a clean, totally natural protein powder, then plant-based proteins are probably a better bet.
Plant proteins are generally regarded as a more sustainable source of protein. That’s because the land requirements for animal protein production are a good deal greater than those used in the production of plant-based proteins. If the environment is a key concern, choose plant proteins over whey.
Can you build muscle with plant protein?
If you’re following a vegan or vegetarian diet, building muscle mass can seem like a challenge. It is, however, entirely possible to quickly and effectively build muscle with plant protein, as long as you choose the right type of protein, consume enough of it, and support your diet with proper exercise.
First, fill up on a variety of protein-rich, plant-based foods such as lentils, quinoas, chia seeds, tempeh, tofu, peas, chickpeas, nut butter, and oats. Next, supplement your diet with a quality, plant-based protein powder. Opt for a brand that mixes different types of plant proteins to ensure you’re consuming all the essential amino acids your body needs, as well as benefitting from a wide range of nutrients. Drink your protein shake either right before or within one hour of finishing your workout to obtain the full benefits and give your body the best chance to build, repair, and strengthen muscle tissue.
Which protein is better than plant protein?
The best protein source for you will depend on your lifestyle, any dietary intolerances, as well as your individual needs and goals. If you want to build muscle, choose a protein powder that can be easily and quickly absorbed, and consume it either before or shortly after your workout. With its high leucine content and quick digestion, whey protein is generally believed to be better than plant protein in this regard. Whey protein will also naturally have all the essential amino acids needed to promote muscle recovery and synthesis after a session at the gym.
If you want to lose weight, plant proteins typically take the body more time to digest and so may help keep you satiated for longer. However, casein protein — another complete protein that comes from milk — is an effective alternative. Casein protein is digested and absorbed at a slower rate than whey protein and may be more beneficial than plant protein for promoting muscle growth in between meals or before sleep too.
Is whey better than meat protein?
If getting enough protein is your main concern, then you should have no problem meeting your protein intake from either meat or whey alone. Protein shakes, however, have the advantage of being relatively inexpensive compared to certain cuts of meat, as well as more convenient for those on the move or short of time. Plus, whey protein shakes are generally easier for the body to digest and quicker for the body to absorb than protein that comes from whole meats. This makes protein shakes ideal for quick post-workout muscle repair and recovery and a good option for those who have a poor appetite or difficulty chewing or swallowing. And when it comes to weight management, some studies have also shown that whey protein may have a more significant effect on satiety compared to meat and fish protein sources such as turkey and tuna.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that whey and meat are of equal nutritional value. Whole meats aren’t just complete sources of protein — they provide the body with several essential vitamins and minerals too, and so pack a more powerful nutritional punch overall. Many whey protein shakes also include artificial flavours, colourings, sweeteners, and preservatives that can make for unhealthy, and often calorific, additions to your diet. On the other hand, there are also increased health risks associated with eating certain types of meat. Consumption of processed red meat in particular has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Both whey and plant protein powders can make for a nutritious and effective addition to any diet and exercise plan, but you’ll most likely find that one will suit your needs better than the other. In general, if you want a sustainable protein that will help you to manage your weight or you’re following a vegan or lactose-free diet, then choose plant proteins over whey. If you want a fast-absorbing complete protein to help you build and repair muscle quickly, then whey protein may be more beneficial.