Plant-Based Protein Versus Whey for Athletes

While not widely known by the fitness community, plant-based protein has several advantages.

The protein wars seem to be in full swing. Whey protein supplements have had a stranglehold on the market for decades, but other sources are cropping up for a host of reasons. From beef, chicken, and fish to rice, hemp, and peas, protein manufacturers are now offering many types of protein supplements to choose from, and the public is starting to take notice. Whether you have food sensitivities, demand higher quality products, or make your choices based on taste, the field has grown and some new kids have moved in on the block.

Plant-based protein is one source that has turned many heads. Plant protein boasts several advantages over animal-based sources, and has many benefits not widely known by the muscle-building community. Whether your goal is physique or performance-oriented, plant-based protein can aid in the important recovery and growth processes during and after a hard training session.

The big, obvious question is: How does plant protein stack up against whey protein when it comes to building muscle mass? Let’s put these two head-to-head and see who comes out on top. Cue the referee and ring the bell.

Many plant-based protein sources, such as pea protein, are considered complete.

1. Digestibility/Absorption

Digestibility is an important aspect of protein supplementation, and is often overlooked. Most individuals look straight to the amount of protein per serving and cost, but digestion can make or break your progress in the gym. Slow and difficult digestion can cause malabsorption and intestinal discomfort. It pays in more ways than one to pay attention to your gut.

Whey protein

Pros: If you have a clean bill of health regarding any food allergies, then whey protein can be a wise choice. It’s also quickly digested, so it can shuttle to muscle cells and start to go to work on recovery right away.

Cons: If you’re intolerant or sensitive to lactose, you will experience some digestive issues along with some undesirable flatulence. This will cause poor absorption and you will literally be flushing it down the toilet.

Plant-based protein

Pros: Since most plant sources are void of allergens, most, if not all individuals can easily digest this gut-friendly protein. It is also highly absorbable, creating an anabolic environment to encourage optimal recovery and repair from training and athletic events.1

Cons: When it comes to digestion and absorption there really isn’t any drawback with plant-based protein. It’s simply free of all common types of allergens normally found in dairy and eggs.

2. Quality

Quality matters, and even more so than when it comes to choosing a protein supplement. When it comes to quality, protein is often judged by the amounts of individual amino acids present. If all nine essential amino acids are included, it is considered a complete protein. Although some may argue over the validity and specifics of rating quality, there’s no denying the fact that complete proteins synthesize to build muscle mass.

Whey protein

Pros: One of the bragging rights of whey protein is the fact that it contains all nine essential amino acids, making it one powerful force for recovery and muscle growth. It’s no wonder whey has so much staying power in the supplement market. It’s also abundant in the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine, and valine, which are vital for promoting muscle protein synthesis and increasing muscle growth.

Cons: Many manufacturers include a number of additives and preservatives to their formulas in order improve taste and increase shelf life. With these substances added, consumers run the risk of ingesting things they can’t quite identify. Buyer beware.

Plant-based protein

Pros: Although plant-based proteins have received a lot of flak regarding amino acid profiles, they are still viable sources of quality protein. Hemp and pea proteins in particular contain ample amounts of all nine essential amino acids for all your muscle building needs.2 Plant proteins also are normally void of most additives which can cause malabsorption.

Cons: The argument regarding essential amino acids may deter some from ever trying plant-based protein. This deserves further explanation. By eating a variety of foods and supplementing with plant proteins your body will combine the correct amino acids when needed. It’s that simple.

3. Muscle-Building Potential

Now for the big question: How do both of these protein sources stack up when it comes to real muscle-building potential? Is a protein still just a protein or does the source matter all that much? At the end of the day, your concern is the fact that you want a quality product that delivers – to recover, build and grow muscle mass. Period.

Whey protein

Pros: No one can really argue whey’s muscle-building potential. Whey boasts an impressive amino acid profile, possessing all nine essential types along with a rich amount of BCAAs.

Cons: As stated earlier, whey may not agree with everyone. If you have lactose sensitivity or are intolerant, you’re not going to digest it properly. You may also not like the fact that many brands are loaded with undesirable fillers.

Plant-based protein

Pros: No one said you need to get all essential amino acids in one sitting. By eating a variety of foods (like we were taught at a young age) you can easily get all essential amino acids throughout the day. What’s more, many plant-based protein sources, such as pea protein, are considered complete.

Cons: Some plant-based proteins are deficient in specific amino acids while others are missing them altogether. However, there still are sources that are considered complete.

4. Residual Nutrients

Here I am referring to other macronutrients found in protein supplements such as fat and carbohydrate. To some this may be a non-issue, but to those on a fat-loss program where every calorie and gram counts, it’s a big deal. Whether it’s for athletic performance or packing on pounds of muscle, your macronutrient levels count for a lot.

Whey Protein

Pros: Traditional forms of whey protein will normally contain several grams of carbs and fat. Some formulas will have a higher level of saturated fat, while others may contain extra sugar. This is usually a negligible issue in the world of simply growing muscle.

Cons: This may be problematic for some individuals aiming for fat loss. Added sugar and/or fat will add up over time, especially those on low carb diets. Some whey products even advertise as protein but contain ingredients comparable to that of a weight gainer.

Plant-based protein

Pros: If a plant-based protein contains any other macronutrients at all, it would be in the form of a few grams of complex carbohydrates. Plants don’t naturally contain refined sugar or saturated fat.

Cons: For specific types of plant proteins, such as natural food sources, certain ones can be higher in carbs than others. Rice and quinoa, for example, have fair amounts of carbs. However, supplement forms will have lowered the carb count so you are left with almost pure protein.

5. Nutrient Density

Nutrient density refers to the amount of nutrients available in a food per calorie. If a certain food is full of protein, vitamins and/or minerals and is relatively low in calories it is considered nutrient dense. This is an ideal environment for building muscle. So how do these two types of proteins fare?

Whey protein

Pros: Whey protein is considered nutrient dense since it provides a high amount lean protein at low caloric cost. With not much else in it other than a few grams of carbs and fat, it is pretty much just protein and not much else.

Cons: Conversely, it’s true that whey protein doesn’t include much else. Unless you use a specialized formula supplement fortified with vitamins and minerals, most whey products are just that—whey protein.

Plant-based protein

Pros: Plant-based proteins naturally contain many extra nutrients found in plants such as B vitamins, calcium, iodine, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, and zinc. Plants naturally uptake minerals from the soil, and those nutrients are included in their supplement form as well.

Cons: None, really. Plant protein provides more extra nutrients than whey so you can get in key vitamins and minerals when you need them most.

The Winner: Plant-Based Protein

With its ease of digestibility, high quality of amino acids, low residual additives, and a high level of nutritional density, plant-based protein is a shoe-in for all of your muscle-building needs. Whey protein is a fine product and has been used for years, but plant protein is on the rise. The next generation of gym-goers, athletes and average Joes demand higher quality, better absorption and a healthier supplement to support their hard workouts. Give plant-based protein a try and build a physique to be proud of.

Want to build more muscle?:

Protein Is Only One Piece of the Nutritional Puzzle


1. Mariotti, François, Sylvain Mahé, Robert Benamouzig, Catherine Luengo, Sophie Daré, Claire Gaudichon, and Daniel Tomé. “Nutritional value of [15N]-soy protein isolate assessed from ileal digestibility and postprandial protein utilization in humans.” The Journal of Nutrition 129, no. 11 (1999): 1992-1997.

2. Gausserès, Nicolas, Sylvain Mahe, Robert Benamouzig, Catherine Luengo, Francoise Ferriere, Jacques Rautureau, and Daniel Tome. “[15N]-labeled pea flour protein nitrogen exhibits good ileal digestibility and postprandial retention in humans.” The Journal of nutrition 127, no. 6 (1997): 1160-1165.

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