Whey Protein vs Plant Protein: Similarities, Differences & Benefits

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    Determining whether whey or plant protein is right for you comes down to a few key differences. We will break these all down so you can make the best choice.

    When it comes to choosing a protein supplement, the options can seem endless! Some of the most popular include whey protein and plant-based protein powders. While whey protein has been considered the gold standard for years, plant protein has gained traction as a viable alternative for those following a vegan or vegetarian diet. In this article, we will take a closer look at the key differences between whey and plant protein powders to help you decide which one is right for you.

    What is Whey Protein?

    Whey protein is by far the most widely consumed protein powder out there. It is a type of protein that is derived from cow’s milk. It is widely used by people who want to build muscle mass and strength. One of its characteristics is that it is easily and quickly absorbed by the body, making it a great way to provide the muscles with key nutrients that are needed for recovery and growth after high-intensity exercise.

    Types of whey protein

    There are three main types of whey protein: whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, and hydrolyzed whey protein. Whey protein concentrate is the most common form and contains varying amounts of protein, lactose, and fat. It typically contains around 70-80% protein and is the most cost-effective option.

    Whey protein isolate undergoes further processing to remove more of the lactose and fat, resulting in a product that is higher in protein content (up to 90%) and lower in carbohydrates and fat. This makes the isolate form of whey the preferable option for those who are lactose intolerant or watching their calorie and fat intake. Since it is also lower in carbs, it is a good choice for those following a low-carb or ketogenic diet. Care/of’s grass-fed protein powder uses whey protein isolate and packs in 18 grams of protein per serving.

    Lastly, hydrolyzed whey protein is pre-digested, meaning it has been partially broken down into smaller peptides, which can make it easier to digest and absorb. While this form of protein tends to be more expensive, it can be beneficial for those who experience digestive issues or discomfort with other forms of protein powder.

    Benefits of whey protein

    Whey protein has numerous health benefits for overall health and fitness. Whey protein is considered a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids that the body needs to function properly. This makes it a great choice for those who may not be consuming enough protein through their regular diet. Additionally, whey protein can support weight management by promoting feelings of fullness and reducing cravings.

    For athletes and exercise-goers, whey protein is a great resource for muscle growth and recovery, as it contains high levels of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Studies have shown that whey protein can boost muscle protein synthesis, leading to increased muscle production and improved recovery after exercise.

    Cons of whey protein

    While whey protein has many benefits, there are also some potential downsides to consider. One of these is that whey protein contains some lactose. This can be an issue for individuals who are lactose intolerant, as it can cause digestive discomfort or other symptoms. Whey protein isolate has a lower lactose content and may be a better option for those who are lactose intolerant. However, it's still important to check with a healthcare professional if you have any concerns about your ability to tolerate whey protein.

    Another downside to consider is that whey protein is an animal-based protein source and may not be suitable for those following a vegetarian or vegan diet.

    Collagen is another animal-based protein source, but it differs from whey as it is usually lactose-free. Yet, it is not a complete protein and may not provide all the essential amino acids that the body needs.

    What is Plant Protein?

    Plant protein is a type of protein that comes from plant sources, such as legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds. Unlike animal-based protein powders, like whey or casein that are derived from dairy products, plant-based protein powders are suitable for vegans and individuals with lactose intolerance. They are a great way to introduce high-quality proteins into the diet without the saturated fats found in many animal-based options.

    Types of plant protein

    There is a wide variety of plant proteins available, and each has its own unique nutritional profile and benefits. One popular type of plant protein is pea protein, which is derived from split peas and is rich in BCAAs. Pumpkin seed protein is another plant-based protein option that is high in protein and also contains healthy fats, fiber, and minerals such as magnesium and zinc. Hemp seed protein is derived from the seeds of the hemp plant and contains high levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are important for heart health and brain function. Additionally, hemp seed protein is a good source of fiber and minerals such as iron and potassium. Care/of’s plant-based protein powder contains a blend of all three of these types (pea, pumpkin, and hemp), with MCT oil added for additional benefits. It also contains the same amount of protein per serving (18 grams) as its whey counterpart.

    Benefits of plant protein

    First and foremost, plant proteins are an excellent source of protein for individuals who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet or are looking to reduce their intake of animal-based products. They are also a wonderful alternative for individuals who can’t tolerate the lactose in whey protein.

    Additionally, many plant-based protein sources naturally contain additional nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They also tend to be lower in cholesterol and saturated fat than animal proteins, which can be beneficial for cardiovascular health.

    Cons of plant protein

    One of the potential drawbacks of plant-based proteins is that oftentimes they are not complete proteins on their own, meaning they lack one or more essential amino acids. However, this can be addressed by blending different plant proteins together to create a complete amino acid profile. This is why most plant-based protein powders will include various types of plant proteins in their product, such as in Care/of’s plant protein formula.

    Similarities of Whey and Plant Protein

    Whey and plant-based proteins do share some similarities. For one, both types of protein can be used to support muscle growth, repair, and recovery after exercise. Both types of protein can also be beneficial for weight management, as they can help support feelings of fullness and satiety.

    Another similarity between whey and plant proteins is their protein digestibility scores (PDCAAS). PDCAAS is a measure of how well the body can digest and utilize a protein source. Both whey and plant proteins have high PDCAAS scores, with whey protein being just slightly higher.

    Also, both whey and plant proteins are versatile and can be easily incorporated into a variety of recipes, such as smoothies, baked goods, and savory dishes.

    Difference between Whey and Plant Protein

    The main difference between these two proteins is their source. Whey protein is derived from milk, while plant-based proteins are derived from a variety of plant sources. This fundamental difference in origin means that whey protein will naturally be a complete protein source, while plant-based proteins may require combining different sources to achieve the same level of completeness.

    Apart from this, plant proteins are generally favored by those with dietary restrictions or preferences, such as vegans, vegetarians, or those with lactose intolerance or allergies to milk products.

    Is One Better for Muscle Gain?

    When it comes to muscle gain, both whey and plant proteins can be effective. Some studies have suggested that animal proteins tend to have a more favorable effect on lean mass compared to plant proteins, but it did not impact muscle strength. However, while some studies have found that whey protein may be slightly more beneficial for muscle gain compared to plant-based proteins, the differences were not significant! In fact, a pilot study found that pea protein, in particular, was just as effective as whey protein at promoting muscle size and strength. This tells us that plant-based proteins, depending on the type and quality, can be just as effective as whey protein.

    Is One Better for Weight Loss?

    Both whey and plant proteins can help with weight loss due to their ability to promote feelings of fullness and satiety. When protein is incorporated into meals and snacks, it leads to increased satisfaction and sustained energy levels.

    One study found that those who were supplemented with whey or plant-based protein resulted in similar effects on overall body composition.

    Which one is Right for You?

    Ultimately, whether you choose whey or plant-based protein will depend on your individual needs and preferences, and both can be effective tools for supporting muscle growth, recovery, and weight loss or maintenance.

    Whey protein, which is derived from milk, is a complete protein and a good way to help build muscle mass. On the other hand, plant proteins are a good option for those who follow a plant-based diet or are intolerant to lactose.

    Regardless of which one you choose, when it comes to selecting a protein powder, it’s critical to consider the quality of ingredients and the amount of protein per serving. Additionally, choosing a flavor that fits your taste preferences and uses natural sweeteners is an important part of the decision-making process.

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    Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS
    Medical Content Manager
    Dr. Montrond-Correia is a licensed naturopathic physician and a certified nutrition specialist (CNS). She holds degrees from University of Bridgeport, Georgetown University, and University of Saint Joseph, and supplemented her education with internships in the health and wellness space. She's focused on research, herbal medicine, nutrigenomics, and integrative and functional medicine. She makes time for exercise, artistic activities, and enjoying delicious food.
    Jordana Tobelem, RD
    Freelance Contributor
    Jordana Tobelem is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys helping others become the best versions of themselves through proper nutrition education. Jordana is passionate about promoting lifestyle changes through nutrition, physical activity, and behavior to create a superior quality of life. She uses her experience in the clinical field of dietetics to provide consulting services to an array of healthcare brands and companies. Jordana loves finding the most current research in nutrition to create meaningful content to share with her clients. Jordana has been a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics since 2018 and also holds certifications in both Personal Training and Health Coaching.