With a greater emphasis on plant-based eating. Choosing between plant-based protein vs whey protein is something that has become ever-present.
Let me first off say, if you are vegan. There is no debate. plant-based is the only option for you. If you’re lactose intolerant, basic whey is not for you. Some people who are lactose intolerant can use whey isolate. But that’s a story for another day.
But for the rest of you. This is the article for you.
We know protein is essential for health, fitness and mobility. It’s essential for the growth and repair of our muscles and millions of cells. Most of us could do with a little more protein and could do with distributing it better throughout the day.
Most people eat next to none for breakfast. A little at lunch and a lot at dinner. To get the most out of protein we should be eating an equal amount 3-6 times per day, spread evenly.
Unfair criticism of Whey Protein
I made this post because I get a lot of questions. I have looked at other articles comparing plant based protein vs whey protein and whey seems to get a lot of stick.
There are various reasons, so lets explore.
The first reason being. Whey has that old school steroid bodybuilding culture towards it. So the sort of people I work with, those who want to look and feel better. Not those who take god knows how many susbstances and look to compete on stage in their underwear.
So people seem to think that whey isn’t for them. Especially women, hence why companies market these women only brands of protein powder.
The other reason is people think the things they add to the powders are bad. I can only talk for the UK, but if you buy from one of the big reputable brands you have nothing to worry about.
Now I’ve dispelled some unfair myths about whey protein. Let’s look into why it’s a great purchase and reasons why it might not be.
Benefits of whey
- Complete protein source – All the amino acids are within the shake.
- High bioavailability – Most of the protein you eat/drink from whey, is absorbed and used. It’s the most bioavailable protein.
- Tastes decent – Need I say more
Downsides of whey
- Lactose intolerance – If you are lactose intolerant, you might get away with a ‘whey isolate’. Speak with your Doctor or Dietitian before doing so though.
- Can’t use if vegan – Pretty self-explanatory.
Like Whey, plant proteins come with their benefits and drawbacks.
Benefits of plant protein
- Nutritious – Having a diet in plant-based foods is definitely the best thing you can do for your health. If you want to get adequate vitamins, minerals and fibre, eating a wide variety of plants is the way to go.
- Accessible – Whether you’re vegan or lactose intolerant. Everyone can eat plants.
- Environmentally friendly – Eating fewer animal products will always benefit the environment. I’m not going to go into a debate about it. But it is what it is.
Downsides of plant protein
- Lower quality of protein – The protein from plants is rarely ever complete proteins. I have mentioned this in previous articles. Animal proteins have all the amino acids required, especially leucine. Plant proteins don’t. This means you need a combination to get them all. It’s like a car with missing pieces.
- Lower bioavailability of protein – I recommend 1.6-2.2g of protein per kg of bodyweight. If on an animal-free diet, you might want to aim for more. When eating plant proteins, not all will be absorbed by the intestine and put to use. Some of it gets lost along the way. So by having a little more, you ensure enough protein gets absorbed.
- More calories, less protein – Plant foods tend to have less protein and more calories compared to animal products. Nuts, beans and pulses tend to have more fat or carbs than protein. On their own, they are not great protein sources. In fact, nuts are an awful source of protein on their own. With a lower bioavailability. This means getting protein with plants alone can be tough.
Despite the downsides to plant proteins, not all hope is lost. Yes getting adequate protein with plants is a little more tough, but it’s very possible.
Vegan protein powders make the job a lot more easy. Any reputable brand, will make sure there’s a solid combination of plant proteins. This mimics the effect of a complete, highly bioavailable whey protein. Pea and rice mixes tend to do the best job. If you’re vegan or lactose intolerant it is something id recommend.
They have a reputation for having a bad taste. But I don’t think thats necessarily fair, they have gotten a lot better.
Who wins between plant based protein vs whey protein
Like most things there is no clear cut winner.
For convenience, whey is a great choice of protein. But you can do as well on plant proteins.
You need to do a little more conscious work. You’ll have to eat a little more protein, to get the same bioavailability. You’ll need to make more of an effort to eat a variety of plant sources to get your protein. Finally, you’ll have a little less bioavailablity as plant proteins have more calories.
But using a good quality plant protein powder, makes things much easier.
Both are great and use which ever suits you. Life is short, in the long run the differences will be minuscule.
Josh is a Registered Associate Nutritionist, with the Association for Nutrition (AFN). He completed his degree in Nutrition at the University of Roehampton in 2021. He passed with a First Class with Honours.
Josh is also a tutor for up-and-coming Personal Trainers, where he teaches a Level 4 Advanced Nutrition course. This is for Personal Trainers looking to upskill their nutrition knowledge. This is done at Norfolk Health & Fitness.