The subject of vegan vs whey protein has been a long debated topic for some time in the health and wellness space.
Protein powders have quickly taken over the fitness and health scene, becoming increasingly popular among athletes but also developing into a pantry staple in many households and one of the most popular sought after nutritional supplements.
As the average human life somehow continues to become busier and busier, individuals are continually looking for more convenient ways to obtain enough nutrition that is also quick and easy.
Insert, protein powders.
Now though, there is another potential dilemma. With the rise in demand for protein powders, there is now an abundance of selection and types of powders to choose from which can make it confusing to the consumer.
One of the first decisions to make is narrowing down your options to either a plant based or animal based protein.
Of course every person's needs will be different thus it's important to choose a product that aligns with your goals, preferences, lifestyle and dietary needs.
Many individuals do not tolerate dairy products, which makes it an easier decision, but for the rest of us who could go either way, what's the best choice?
There are several key factors that differentiate vegan protein from whey protein, let's explore them together below.
Vegan Protein vs Whey Protein, what's the difference?
Whey protein is one of the two main proteins found in milk, the other one being casein, and is a by-product of the cheesemaking process. In order to obtain the finalized whey protein powder, the carbohydrates and fats are removed from the watery liquid byproduct and then spray dried into a powder.
There are several types of whey protein including: whey protein concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate. Whey protein isolate contains the least amount of lactose of the three.
Vegan protein powders can be made from a variety of different plant sources such as rice, soy, pumpkin seed, pea, and hemp.
Certain brands may choose to combine different vegan sources or instead use only one type of plant protein.
Most protein powders contain 20-30 grams of protein per serving.
Though both plant and whey protein powders typically provide around the same amount of protein per serving, this will differ depending on the sourcing of plant protein.
Whey is considered a complete protein source, meaning it naturally contains all nine essential amino acids in the right ratios for the human body. These essential amino acids are the building blocks of protein and must be obtained through the diet as the human body cannot produce them endogenously.
Whey protein is also a particularly rich source of the Branched-Chain Amino Acids; leucine, isoleucine, and valine which are important for muscle growth.
Plant proteins typically contain fewer BCAAs than animal protein sources.
Soy protein is often referred to as one of the best sources of plant protein because it contain a higher amino acid profile compared to many other vegan sources.
However, plant proteins in general may have insufficient levels of one or more of the essential amino acids (1).
For this reason, combining different plant proteins together is often a strategy implemented in vegan protein supplements (2).
Many plant based protein powders will combine a variety of plants in order to provide sufficient levels of all of the essential amino acids with a higher protein content and that more similarly reflects the characteristics of animal-based protein sources.
Whey protein does contain lactose which is a common food intolerance among the general population. This can cause digestive symptoms such as gas, bloating, abdominal pain or diarrhea in individuals who are reactive to dairy and can't digest the lactose.
As mentioned, whey protein isolate contains lower levels of lactose therefore many individuals can tolerate it however if you are severely lactose intolerant you will likely do better skipping whey altogether and choosing a plant based option instead. As always, listen to your body!
Plant based protein powders may be better tolerated for those who don't do well with dairy, however it's important to be aware that they too can possess potential allergens (3).
Legumes such as soy and pea protein are common plant based protein allergens that may cause issues for some people.
The best way to find out if you do react to a certain protein or ingredient is to monitor and track your symptoms and avoid the potential allergen. If you feel better avoiding it then it's probably not suitable for you.
If you are supplementing with a protein powder, chances are you are looking to achieve some sort of fitness or weight loss goal.
Protein is the most satiating macronutrient and protein-rich diets are most often recommended to promote beneficial effects on body composition, metabolism, and lean muscle mass.
Whey protein is a popular choice for body builders because it is effective at increasing muscle mass and strength.
The amount of leucine found in whey is said to be 50–75 % higher than other protein sources and this amino acid plays a key role in the regulation of skeletal muscle protein synthesis (4).
Whey protein has been shown to be effective at increasing gains in lean body mass and strength notably due to its high leucine content which can be reached with lower doses than in plant proteins (5).
Whey protein stimulates insulin production which exerts an anabolic effect in the body and promotes the growth of muscle tissue (6).
Whey is considered one of the best proteins for muscle building as it is not only a complete source of protein and contains high amounts of BCAAs, but it also provides insulin stimulating effects and is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream.
In addition to promoting muscle growth and preserving muscle mass, whey protein has also been shown to support weight loss (7).
Plant protein sources also have a lot of evidence backing them up for muscle growth and weight loss benefits with similar results to animal based products.
A study that compared whey and pea protein supplementation found that both proteins resulted in similar body composition, muscle thickness, workout performance, and strength (8).
Research confirms that both whey and plant based protein powders are equally effective in terms of increasing lean body mass as long as the amount of protein and BCAAs per serving are similar (9)(10)(11).
Though plant proteins contain lower levels of amino acids, such as leucine, compared to animal proteins, supplementing with slightly larger doses can provide similar effects that are achieved with whey protein (12).
What's the verdict?
There are several determining factors that will influence the best protein powder choice for you.
When choosing a protein powder, regardless if it is dairy or plant based, it's important to choose a quality supplement without added ingredients, fillers, and sugars that bog you down and create inflammation in the body.
In addition, if you are looking to improve body composition and muscle gains it is recommended to choose a supplement with at least 20 grams of protein per serving that provides all nine of the essential amino acids (13).
Protein powders provide a convenient option to boost protein intake in addition to your diet, they shouldn't be your primary source of protein. Diet always comes first and should include a variety of whole food protein options such as fish, chicken, meat, eggs, legumes, beans, and tofu.
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