Whey Protein Vs Plant Protein: Which Is More Effective For Muscle Growth?

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Protein powders are popular because they offer a convenient way to get more protein into your diet. Protein is necessary to build muscle and can help increase satiety and thus support weight loss.

But, which is better for your diet, whey vs plant protein powder?

In this guide, we will discuss the pros and cons of whey protein vs plant protein powder so that you can decide which is better for you.

We will cover: 

  • What Is Whey Protein Made Of?
  • What Is Plant-Based Protein Powder?
  • Is Plant-Based Protein Better Than Whey Protein?
  • Differences Between Whey Protein vs Plant Protein

Let’s dive in! 

The word protein etched in protein powder spread on the floor.

What Is Whey Protein Made Of?

Discussing what whey protein is made of will immediately answer the common question, “is whey protein vegan?”

Whey protein powder is made from cow’s milk, so it is an animal-based protein powder that is not compatible with a vegan diet.

After the milk is pasteurized to eliminate any possible bacteria, enzymes are added to separate the milk solids (casein, which is used to make cheese) from the whey, which is the liquid portion.

Then, the carbohydrates, fat, and liquid are removed from the whey to process the product into whey protein concentrate.

Whey protein concentrate is further processed by removing the fat and carbohydrates and all of the liquid portion that separates out from the milk when making cheese. The resultant product is whey protein isolate.

the word "whey" written in chocolate protein powder.

Note that protein powders made from whey protein isolate or whey protein hydro-isolate are more processed than those made from whey concentrate, so if you prefer to eat foods in their more natural state and try to avoid highly processed foods, you will be better suited with whey protein powder that is made with whey concentrate.

Whey concentrate is still a processed supplement because it is made by processing cow’s milk rather than drinking the cow’s milk directly, but it is less processed than whey protein isolate.

As soy protein isolate, whey protein isolate is about 90 to 95% protein by weight and is also a source of complete protein with all nine essential amino acids.

However, the amino acid profile in whey protein vs soy protein is different.

Due to these differences, whey protein powder is often thought to be superior to soy protein powder for athletic performance, muscle growth, and weight loss because there are more branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) in whey vs soy protein powders.

A variety of different protein powders.

What Is Plant-Based Protein Powder?

Plant-based protein powder is an umbrella term that can refer to any protein powder or protein bar that is formulated with protein derived from plant-based sources such as soy protein, brown rice protein, pea protein, hemp protein, sunflower seed protein, or even watermelon seed protein.

Many plant-based protein powders use a blend of different plant-based proteins to provide a better balance of all of the essential amino acids

Although soy protein is a complete protein, meaning that it contains all nine essential amino acids, many plant-based proteins are incomplete proteins such that they lack one or more essential amino acids or do not contain an appreciable amount of an essential amino acid. 

Thus, combining different complementary plant-based proteins together high in different amino acids can provide a complete protein.

Plant-based protein powder.

Is Plant-Based Protein Better Than Whey Protein?

Before we delve deeper into comparing whey protein vs plant protein powders, it’s important to establish that there isn’t necessarily a clear “winner” in terms of whether whey protein is better than plant-based protein or whether plant-based protein is better than whey protein.

Both types of protein powder offer a convenient way to obtain reparative proteins along with other nutrients. The specific health benefits and nutrition in the plant protein vs whey protein powder will depend on the particular product you choose. 

Keep in mind that there’s no black-and-white answer or “right” or “wrong” when it comes to choosing whey protein vs plant protein powders. 

However, be sure to read the nutrition facts and ingredients label to choose the healthiest protein powders. Avoid artificial ingredients, excessive sugars, and other chemicals and fillers.

Flavored protein powders typically include some type of artificial sweetener such as sucralose (Splenda), sugar alcohols like erythritol, or natural non-caloric sweeteners such as Stevia or Monk fruit extract.

Vanilla and chocolate protein powder.

Differences Between Whey Protein vs Plant Protein

There is a lot of overlap in the nutrition offered by either a whey vs plant protein powder, so in some ways, choosing one over another can be a matter of personal preference, your dietary needs, and your taste preferences. 

However, there are several key differences between whey vs plant-based protein, which may make one a better option for you.

The primary benefit of plant-based protein vs whey protein is the fact that whey protein is derived from cows’ milk, so it contains lactose, a milk sugar that many people are sensitive to.

Additionally, if you are vegan or follow a plant-based diet that excludes the consumption of dairy products, you will want to choose plant protein vs whey protein powder.

There is a potential to experience digestive issues with either whey or plant-based protein.

Somone scooping protein powder out of a tub.

If you have a sensitivity to lactose, you definitely want to look for a whey protein powder that is made from either whey protein isolate or whey proteins hydro-isolate. 

If these still give you gastrointestinal distress, you should consider switching to soy protein powder or another plant-based protein powder blend.

Many plant-based protein powders use pea protein, which can cause bloating, particularly for those who are sensitive to FODMAPS, and plant-based protein powders typically contain more fiber than whey protein powder.

Hemp and pea protein are high in fiber, which is one of the benefits of choosing a plant-based protein powder vs whey, but excessive fiber intake can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea, especially if you bump up your fiber intake suddenly.

For this reason, if you are going to start incorporating plant-based protein powder into your diet and the protein powder contains a lot of fiber per serving, try to incorporate the protein powder gradually, slowly increasing your daily intake to help your digestive system adjust to handling more fiber.

Vanilla protein powder.

Whey Protein vs Plant Protein Powder: Taste and Texture

Taste and texture preferences for any food are certainly subjective, but most people find that the texture is better in whey protein vs plant-based protein powder.

Whey protein tends to be smoother because the powder is finer, so it dissolves more readily into water or whatever liquid you are using. Some plant protein powders can be somewhat gritty. 

Of course, there are exceptions in both cases, so you might need to try a couple of different products to find one that you like best.

Whey Protein vs Plant Protein: Muscle Growth and Weight Loss

Although soy (and most plant-based protein powder blends) and whey protein contain all of the essential amino acids, there is a higher percentage of essential amino acids in whey vs plant-based protein.

Chocolate protein powder.

Some of the amino acids are called “essential“ amino acids, which means that they must be consumed in the diet because the body is unable to manufacture them endogenously.

A “complete protein“ is a protein that provides at least some of all of the nine essential amino acids. It may or may not have any or all of the remaining nonessential amino acids.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, the essential amino acids include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

Additionally, one of the benefits of choosing whey protein vs plant-based protein powder is that whey protein has the highest biological value (BV) of any of the common protein sources used in protein powders.

This means that the amino acids contained within whey protein powder are more readily absorbed so that you are getting more of the protein that is actually in the protein powder.

A variety of scoops of different protein powders.

Although many people believe that it is better to choose whey vs plant-based protein powder for muscle growth, studies have found that as long as the protein powders provide a similar number of grams of total protein and BCAAs per serving, whey and plant-based protein powders are equally effective at building muscle or promoting muscle hypertrophy.

Evidence also suggests that strength gains can be similar when consuming plant-based protein or whey protein powders as long as the protein powders provide a similar amino acid profile.

Whether you decide to choose whey protein powder or plant-based protein powder, the recommendation is to choose a protein powder that provides 20 to 30 grams of protein and 5 to 12 grams of BCAAs per serving.

Furthermore, of the grams of BCAAs, there should ideally be at least 3 grams of leucine.

Leucine is one of the three branched-chain amino acids (along with isoleucine and valine). 

This BCAA has been shown to be especially effective at supporting muscle growth.

Keep in mind that although protein powders are convenient, whenever possible, consider real food alternatives that are high in protein, such as hard-boiled eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, chicken breast, fish, soy, seitan, and lean meats.

For a list of high-protein foods, click here.

A variety of high-protein foods such as chicken, beef, dairy products and nuts.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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