Is Whey Protein Really Better Than Plant-Based Protein?

Table of Contents

How it all started

Just recently we have been sitting together after a workout and somehow the discussion circulated around which type of protein would be best for our after-workout meals.

A few of us were absolute “meat-heads” and they were looking forward to chewing through their holy steak or a similar piece of meat.

Others were like: “Nah… my system starts to revolt if I throw too much meat in. Especially after a heavy workout session…” – they preferred a whey protein shake.

One guy represented the “strong through plants” vegan fraction. He was all into plant-based protein and started to rant about animal-based protein and went on to lecture about how superior vegan products were.

I have always been a whey protein consumer – but the discussion made me think.

So I dug into this topic to learn more about the whole whey versus plant-based protein story. And what I found out is quite interesting…

Why do we take protein powders at all?

We want to stimulate muscle growth by kicking off muscle protein synthesis (MPS). This is either done through resistance training and/or protein intake.

A very important role in the kickstarting of MPS plays the amino acid Leucine. The amount of Leucine in your protein powder determines how much of your protein product you have to consume in order to start MPS.

With good whey protein products, you only need about 20 grams of whey protein to start MPS.

Plant protein has lower levels of Leucine, thus you will need higher doses of plant-based proteins to get the same result as you would get if you consumed whey protein powders.

three whey protein powder containers
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More plant proteins are needed for the same results

One could argue that this deficit of Leucine in plant protein could be made up by simply consuming higher doses of plant-based protein powder.

And in fact, a study has shown that consuming higher amounts of plant-based proteins in order to increase the uptake of Leucine really makes up for the lower concentration of Leucine in plant-based proteins.

But the amount of protein powder consumed for muscle growth needs to be far above standard levels of about 1.5-2 grams of whey protein per kg of body weight and per day.

In a study, the difference between the two protein sources was researched over a period of nine weeks. One group of athletes consumed 33 grams of whey protein and the other group consumed 33 grams of plant proteins after doing resistance training.

The result was such that the group that consumed whey protein gained considerably more lean muscle mass than the other group – the one that used plant-based protein powder mainly derived from soy.

healthy plant protein sources

Picture: several plant protein sources

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The importance of essential amino acids

Nonessential vs essential amino acids

When proteins are broken down in our body, amino acids are the product of this process.

We need amino acids virtually for any process that takes place in our bodies – all the way down to cellular levels.

This of course also applies to muscle growth.

We differentiate between nonessential and essential amino acids.

Nonessential amino acids are those that our body can produce on its own.

Essential amino acids need to come from our food. Currently, there are nine essential amino acids:

      • Histidine
      • Isoleucine
      • Leucine
      • Lysine
      • Methionine
      • Phenylalanine
      • Threonine
      • Tryptophan
      • Valine
20 amino acids

Picture: 20 of the 22 main amino acids

Animal vs plant-based protein sources

Animal protein has all necessary nine essential amino acids included, whereas plant-based protein powder usually has to be produced from a blend of different ingredients in order to include all the essential amino acids.

Plant protein has lower levels of Methionine, Lycine, and Leucine.

If you compare whey protein vs plant protein, you would need 38 grams of pea protein or 40 grams of soy protein compared to 25 grams of whey protein to get the same amount of essential amino acids.

Another interesting fact: If you absorb different amounts of amino acids, your body will orientate itself on the lowest amount of amino acid that is available.

That means you will not fully utilize the other amino acids that are available in higher quantities if there is just one amino acid falling behind by being available in lower quantities.

animal protein sources

Picture: great animal protein sources

The Vegan Problem

As whey protein has a very balanced composition of amino acids, plant proteins show a wide spread of the amounts of different amino acids that are contained.

Let us break this down into a nutrition example:

You start out with a peanut butter sandwich which is a low-quality protein source and contains a low amount of the essential amino acid lycine.

In order to make up for the low amount of lycine, you could add lentils because lentils have a higher amount of lycine.

Now you end up having more lycine, but less methionine in your overall composition of amino acids.

That is why we throw in some boiled soybeans to bring up methionine levels, which works but still your methionine level is the lowest compared to all other amino acids.

Overall, the amino acid composition is still quite unbalanced:

vegan amino acid imbalance

Picture: imbalance of amino acids in plant based protein

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What comes on top of that: our vegan meal now contains about 54 grams of low-quality protein and about 820 calories!

Compare this to a high-quality protein meal consisting of three eggs and a 130-gram steak: you will also get 54 grams of protein but only 570 calories. Plus your amino acid composition for this meal looks far more balanced:

amino acid balance for animal protein

Picture: amino acid balance in animal proteins

So on a vegan nutrition plan, you have to consume a meal that contains much more calories and you get a much more unbalanced amino acid pattern with fewer amino acids in it.

One more thing worth mentioning here is the fact that the most important amino acid for muscle growth – leucine – is also represented in much lower amounts in the vegan meal as compared to the non-vegan meal.

You would have to consume about 1150 calories of the vegan meal to make up for the lack of leucine!

The DIAAS score

The Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score shows the ratio of the digestible amino acid content in the food (mg/g of protein) to the same amino acid in a reference pattern taken from age-specific amino acid requirements.

We don´t absorb the ingredients from a protein source as well as we do from another protein source. That is why a “measuring system” for the quality of a protein source has been set up – the DIAAS.

On this score, animal-based protein sources consistently score much higher than plant-based protein sources.

Plant protein is harder to digest

When you try to derive proteins from plant-based materials you will have a harder time doing so.

It is much easier to extract protein from an animal-based source.

When trying to process plants in order to extract the protein within, you will also get byproducts like plant fibers, cellulose, and anti-nutrients.

These byproducts make it harder to digest plant-based protein powders and take up the protein into our system.

Once again: protein quality is important!

      • 85-95% of protein from eggs is absorbed

compared to

      • 50-75% of protein from plant-based products is absorbed – however, to be fair we also have to mention that if the plant-based protein is extracted and a plant protein isolate is created, the absorbability is increased to animal-based protein levels.
example of the DIAAS score

Picture: the DIAAS score rates the quality of protein sources

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FDA recommendation for protein uptake

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends 50 grams of proteins for an adult per day.

The problem is that 50 grams of protein do not equal 50 grams of protein.

The quality of protein has also to be taken into account! And that is exactly where the DIAAS comes into play.

To cut the long story short: 50 grams of animal-based protein usually does not equal 50 grams of plant-based protein as plant-based protein is listed lower on the quality ranking of proteins.

An additional fact to this 50 gram-recommendation: this amount of daily protein uptake is way too low!

The latest insights rather tend to about 75-100 grams of protein as a minimum amount for a 62kg person.

For muscle-building purposes, this number is still not enough though. The same 62kg person needs to consume at least 112 grams of high-quality whey protein per day for muscle building (62kg x 1,8 grams).

If that same person uses lower-quality protein, this amount gets even higher as these sources have a DIAAS score of less than 100.

Less effective – less balanced

So from what we have learned so far, two main factors make me look at plant-based protein powders in a little suspicious way:

    1. The amino acid profile is less balanced and plant protein powders need to be put together in a really sophisticated way to include all the nine amino acids in a balanced pattern.
    2. You need more plant-based protein powder for the same results! The amounts are the problem, but with the increased amounts that you have to consume to get the same results as for whey protein, also come the calories. Do we really want this?

How to identify high-quality Whey Protein Products

There is a myriad of whey protein products out there and you can easily lose oversight on what is a good product and what is not.

But there are a few things that you can use for your decision-making.

Whey Protein Isolate vs Whey Protein Concentrate

You will come across these two terms sooner or later when digging into the whey protein topic, so let´s sort these out:

    • Whey Protein Isolate shows a protein content of more than 90% which is achieved by additional refining processes. The same refining processes also help to reduce carbohydrates, lactose, and fats.
    • Whey Protein Concentrate has not been refined so much as isolate and therefore has a lower protein content of about 85-90% and shows more carbohydrates, lactose, and fats.

There is a third version – the Whey Protein Hydrolysate. We can keep it short here: this version has shown to have no additional benefits over Whey Protein Isolate. It just costs much more!

the word whey written with powder

Avoid “Protein Spiking” products

The sports nutrition industry every once in a while has a new idea about how to promote and sell existing products in a new or sell slightly changed recipe for a world-changing, groundbreaking revolution.

One rather nasty trick in that context is “protein spiking” sometimes also called “amino spiking”.

And this is how it works: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn´t require the sports nutrition industry to fully disclose the detailed components of their whey protein products.

The FDA also accepts added nonprotein sources of nitrogen into the product like creatine or glutamine.

The testing process of the FDA only looks at total nitrogen levels in a whey protein product and does not distinguish between real high-quality protein and added nonprotein sources.

So when buying just any low-quality whey protein product, you will not get just protein, but you will also get unnecessary additional ingredients that you don´t need at all.

By giving the industry this freedom, there are of course a few that maximize their profits by adding low-cost filling material to their protein powders.

But apart from the fact that you will spend money for less, that filling material doesn´t help you at all.

How to recognize protein-spiked products

A good way to identify protein-spiked products is by checking the nutrition label.

Stay away from whey protein products that are labeled “Protein Blend (concentrate and isolate, peptides), Amino Matrix (branched-chain amino acids, creatine), artificial flavors, etc…”

What a label should say is: “Whey protein isolate, natural and/or artificial flavors” plus maybe “stevia extract, sucralose”

One additional sign of quality protein powders where the producer shows transparency is the listing of a complete amino acid profile which could look like this:

amino acid profile

Picture: this is what the amino acid list on a label of a good-quality whey protein product should look like

By transparently disclosing the exact composure of their product, the manufacturer gives you a good insight into how good that product is. And usually, only those who have a good high-quality product don´t have to hide anything…

Be careful with “Proprietary Blends”

We have been talking about whey isolate and concentrate already. When a blend is produced, you have no control over how much whey isolate has been mixed with a whey concentrate.

Whey concentrate is a lower-quality sort of protein powder and is cheaper in the production process.

So the manufacturer counts on the fact that the consumer falls for the word “isolate” on the product container.

However, you could be buying a blend that consists of 20% whey isolate and 80% low-quality whey concentrate.

Conclusion

Look for a pure whey protein isolate product that also has the full amino acid profile listed on the label and you will be fine. If you additionally check for a high proportion of Leucine, you will be more than fine!

How to identify high-quality Plant Protein Products

The most common plant protein sources are:

      • soy protein
      • pea protein
      • rice protein
      • hemp protein

Blends of these different sources are produced to increase and balance the levels of amino acids that are contained in the final – blended – product.

So, for example, peas are lower in Methionine and higher in Lycine

and rice is higher in Methionine and lower in Lycine.

So a blend could be made out of rice and pea protein in order to bring together the higher amino acid levels from both products.

A high-quality plant protein powder has to be put together very diligently and a producer must put a lot of effort into the research for the perfect recipe.

Alternatively, if you are a consumer of plant protein, you could invest your time to identify the best recipe for a certain product.

But who really does that?

bowl of hemp protein powder

Picture: a bowl of hemp protein powder

So, before you buy make sure to observe these two things:

    1. As a consumer, you are looking for a product that has a very balanced composition of all nine essential amino acids.
    2. Prepare to make up for the lower-quality proteins by consuming larger amounts of plant-based powders.

The benefits of plant protein

If we put aside the shortcomings of plant protein vs whey protein and have a look at the benefits that plant-based protein has over whey protein we can find a few points that are not to be dismissed:

#1 Antioxidant function

The same study that compared whey protein vs plant protein also showed that soy protein might have an increased level of antioxidant functionality in our bodies.

Longer periods of heavy exercising deplete antioxidative capacities and/or increase oxidant stress and inflammation.

Antioxidant actions are considered to be responsible for counteracting the onset of a number of quite serious diseases.

Soy protein seems to have shown that those persons who consumed soy protein during that study accumulated much fewer oxidative substances.

#2 A good source for vegans

Vegans do not want to participate in the consumption of animal-based products. It´s just their conviction and they live by that principle which is fine and should be honored.

So for vegans, whey protein powders are obviously not the way to go.

The combination of multiple plant proteins in good plant-based protein powders is essential for the effectiveness of the product.

All that said, for vegans, plant-based protein powders are a great way to live by their principles and still get the opportunity to consume more protein in order to support muscle growth.

You only have to be prepared to consume more, which in the end will also cost more!

#3 A lower impact on the environment

When comparing whey protein vs plant protein we also have to take into account the overall impact on the environment these days.

And the supporters of the whey protein fraction must admit that the production process for pea protein powder, soy protein powder, hemp protein powder, rice protein powder, and the likes, definitely has a lower impact on our environment.

Plant-based protein powders use less land, less water, and less energy for the production process.

Our conclusion

Plant protein powder

It was interesting to learn that organic plant-based protein is definitely a viable alternative to whey proteins.

It seems that building muscle mass is definitely also possible with plant protein.

As a consumer, you just have to bear in mind that although plant protein can absolutely be considered a complete protein source, you will have to consume more plant protein powder to get enough protein and the same effectiveness that whey protein powder provides for building muscle.

You also have to make sure that the contained amino acid structure is balanced which might require more effort on your side to do the necessary research.

Digestibility might also be a factor to consider, as whey protein is usually easier and quicker digested and absorbed than plant proteins. If you are on a strict time schedule when it comes to your diet, then this is a factor that needs attention.

Whey Protein Powder

So – for us (!) – when we compare whey protein vs plant protein, our conclusion is that we will stick to whey protein for now.

The simple reason for that is its superior protein digestibility and also its convenient use – buy a good whey isolate product with a transparent and sensible amino acid composition and you are good to go.

If your goal is muscle growth, stick to a minimum of 1.5 grams of proteins per kg of body weight per day.

If you found this article interesting please like and share and feel free to comment 🙂

You might also be interested in our articles about pre-workout supplements here or thermogenic pre-workout supplements here.

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