Whey Protein vs Plant Protein What's the Difference

Whey Protein vs Plant Protein: What’s the Difference? 

“Whey Protein vs Plant Protein: What’s the Difference?” was written by Devon Suggs and reviewed/edited by Katie Dodd, MS, RDN, CSG, LD, FAND. Devon is a dietetic intern at Oregon Health Sciences University.

Whether you are looking to increase your protein consumption, want more variety in your diet, or want to add more protein into your current meals it can be difficult to decide what protein powder you should invest in. 

We are going to break down the differences to help simplify this decision for you!

Protein Powder: What’s its Purpose? 

protein powder older adultsProtein is an essential nutrient for the body that promotes muscle growth, repairs tissue, makes enzymes and hormones, and supports weight management.

It is very important for us to consume enough protein daily to keep our bodies functioning well.

Protein powder is often considered a food supplement that only athletes use to “bulk up”. However, it is a great source for anybody who is looking to increase their protein intake and is a delicious addition to add into smoothies, baked goods, and more! 

Protein can be extracted from either animal (whey) or plant sources and then formed into a powder. This process normally creates a powder that is high in protein and low in carbohydrates and fat.

 Let’s talk about the differences and similarities with whey protein vs. plant protein. 

What is Whey Protein?

Whey protein is animal sourced protein that is derived from milk. It is high in branch chain amino acids, also known as BCAAs, which help muscle maintenance and growth and is immune boosting as well.

There are two different qualities of whey protein that you can find; 

  1. Whey Protein Concentrate : 30-90% pure protein. This will have greater amounts of  lactose.
  2. Whey Protein Isolate: 90-95% pure protein with a very low percent of lactose. 

What is Plant Protein? 

Whey Protein vs Plant ProteinPlant protein is derived from soy, brown rice, pea, pumpkin, hemp, chia, and many other types of plants! Many times you will also find that these powders contain a blend of different plant proteins such as a pea and rice protein mix. 

If you are vegan or dairy free, plant protein powder is your friend! It promotes muscle growth, is nutrient dense and high in fiber as well! 

There have also been studies done showing a significant improvement of postmenopaul symptoms in women who have a high soy protein consumption. As well have improved arterial health, decreased cholesterol levels, and an increase in prostate health for men. 

Which is Easier to Digest? 

This question can be debated and the answer will change from person to person depending on how your body reacts to dairy!  

Whey Protein

Our small intestine secretes less lactase the older we get. This can make it more difficult to digest lactose (the sugar found in milk!). If you are lactose-intolerant or your body has a hard time digesting dairy products you may experience side effects to whey protein such as; 

  • Discomfort / stomach ache
  • Bloating
  • Gas 
  • Fatigue 

Most whey protein powders contain very little lactose, but you should read the food label first to make sure. 

Plant Protein

Most plant proteins are hypoallergenic and can easily be digested. If you have a soy allergy it will be important to look at the ingredients of plant protein powders. 

Plant proteins are often high in fiber and enzymes that aid with the digestive process. If you are lactose-intolerant, plant protein will be much easier on your digestive tract!

Which is better for weight gain and muscle growth? 

whey and plant protein muscleBoth Whey and Plant protein are equally good for weight gain, muscle growth, and overall weight maintenance! 

Adding protein powder into your meals and drinks is an excellent way to make your meals more calorie dense and help stop unintended weight loss.

At the end of the day it depends on your personal preference when choosing between the two!

Whey Protein

Whey Protein contains all three BCAAs, which are branched chain amino acids that promote muscle repair and growth.

Plant Protein

Focus on looking for plant protein powders that contain rice, peas, and soy. These are the best plant-based protein powders for building muscle because they have the three BCAAs as well. 

Is there a difference in nutrient content? 

When it comes to nutrient content there is a significant difference in the two proteins. Whey protein tends to have a lower nutrient density and less calories than plant protein. Both tend to have added sugars to enhance flavors. 

Whey Protein Nutrition Facts

Here are some of the nutritional benefits of whey protein:

  • High in protein
  • Low in fat and carbohydrates
  • High in calcium
  • Contains B-vitamins-  Studies have shown that whey protein can improve the status of vitamin B12 and folate in elderly individuals. These vitamins can help keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and prevent other age-related diseases (Office of Dietary Supplements – Vitamin B12, 2020).
  • Contains other vitamins & minerals in low quantities (unless added) 

Plant Protein Nutrition Facts

plant proteinDepending on what source of plant protein you use the nutrient facts will differ. However, most of them are very nutrient dense. 

  • High in protein
  • High in fiber 
  • Tend to be higher in carbohydrates than whey protein
  • High amounts of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants
  • Contain essential fatty acids

Which is a Complete Protein? 

Protein that is considered “complete” means it contains all of the nine essential amino acids that our body needs. There are 20 different amino acids, and our bodies only make 11 of them. We rely on our food to get the other 9, which are called “essential” amino acids.

Whey Protein 

Like all animal products, whey protein naturally has all 9 essential amino acids therefore making it a complete protein.

Plant Protein

Soy protein is a complete protein but most plant proteins that are not complete. Normally they lack one or more essential amino acids. However this is why you may see plant protein blends so that they can provide all essential amino acids to create a complete protein.

Not using soy based protein powder? Make sure you are eating a variety of plant based proteins or using a blend of plant proteins!

Do they taste different? 

Once again this is all personal preference! What I like to do is try out different brands until I find a protein powder that suits my taste buds!

Whey Protein 

I have noticed there are more flavor choices for whey protein. I have seen fun flavors such as cookies and cream or birthday cake, that I normally don’t see in plant protein powders.  

Plant Protein

Generally plant proteins will have a more bland flavor due to the fact they don’t normally use as many artificial sweeteners, fillers and flavor additives. However if you want a more natural tasting vanilla/chocolate, plant proteins will be a good choice for you!

Whey Protein vs Plant Protein Comparison

To summarize the differences between the tow, the table below includes a breakdown of several different categories.

Whey Protein vs Plant Protein:

 Whey ProteinPlant Protein
DigestionMay be hard to digest, especially if dairy sensitiveCan be easily digested
Weight GainAdds extra calories to meals and promotes muscle growthAdds extra calories to meals and promotes muscle growth
Nutrient ContentLower nutrient density. High in calcium and B vitaminsHigh in nutrient density. Higher in fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals
Complete ProteinIs a complete proteinSoy protein is complete. Other plant proteins may have to be mixed together.
FlavorHas “fun” flavors. Often higher in additives, fillers, and artificial flavors.Blander flavors. Often less additives and a natural taste.

Summary Comparison

protein for older adultsYes, you will always have the debate of whey protein vs. plant protein. However, it is ultimately your personal preference in deciding which one to consume. 

Here are some helpful tips to choose the best protein for you

  • If you are not dairy sensitive, try out a whey protein and a plant protein powder! See which one your body digests better. 
  • Look at the ingredients 
  • Choose which one will benefit your personal health more
  • When you find a kind you enjoy, experiment with the flavors! 

Having tried out both powders, I tend to consume plant protein the majority of the time! I enjoy knowing I am consuming a high amount of protein and getting lots of extra nutrients too! My plant protein powder never bloats me and tastes delicious in my smoothies and oatmeal.

When all is said and done, whey and plant protein will both give you the additional protein you need to achieve your optimal health goals!

Are You New to Protein Powder? 

Here are some ideas for use: 

  • Mix a scoop into your oatmeal 
  • Make protein balls
  • Enhance your fruit smoothies 
  • Add a scoop into pancake mix
  • Make a fruit parfait by mixing protein into yogurt then topping it with berries, nuts, granola, etc! 
  • Add powder into baked goods; muffins, cookies, breads! 

Best of luck!!

Resources

  1. Dodd, Katie. “Vegan Protein Sources Chart.” The Geriatric Dietitian, 04 Nov. 2020, www.thegeriatricdietitian.com/vegan-protein-sources-chart/.
  2. Dodd, Katie. “Whey Protein for Weight Gain.” The Geriatric Dietitian, 29 Sept. 2020, www.thegeriatricdietitian.com/whey-protein-for-weight-gain/. 
  3. Gelsomin, Emily. “The Scoop on Protein Powder.” Harvard Health Blog, 24 Feb. 2020, www.health.harvard.edu/blog/the-scoop-on-protein-powder-2020030918986. 
  4. Kendall, Krissy. “Your Expert Guide To Whey Protein.” Bodybuilding.com, 7 June 2019, www.bodybuilding.com/content/your-expert-guide-to-whey-protein.html. 
  5. KK, Carroll. “Review of Clinical Studies on Cholesterol-Lowering Response to Soy Protein.” Europe PMC, europepmc.org/article/MED/2071797. 
  6. Messina, Mark. “Soy and Health Update: Evaluation of the Clinical and Epidemiologic Literature.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 24 Nov. 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/. 

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