For the athlete looking to incorporate more plant-based nutrition into their diet; the question of vegan vs. whey protein is certain to have come up more than once.
Don’t miss this essential guide to understanding where each protein comes from, how it works in the body, and what research says about the effectiveness of vegan vs. whey protein.
Did you know that over 20% of your body is protein? It’s one of the most prevalent substances in your body (second only to water). A huge portion of your tissue, organs, muscles, all the way down to cells themselves are made of the essential protein building blocks; amino acids.
Amino acids are complex organic compounds which stack themselves together in a chain of molecules to form a protein. They go about repairing tissue in bones, muscle, hair, and skin. As well as influencing key biochemical functions in your organs, tendons, glands, arteries, and more. Not only that, but proteins help remove all the waste products produced during metabolic processing.
Not all amino acids are equal, however. The three types of amino acids include:
● Essential amino acids: Bodies require these for survival but do not produce in physiologically significant amounts so you must get them through diet
● Non-essential amino acids: Your body produces these all on its own
● Conditional amino acids: These “non-essential” amino acids only become indispensable during times of significant stress or illness, like after surgery
Of the total 20 amino acids, we consider 9 “essential.” A “complete” protein has all 9 of the essential amino acids. An “incomplete” protein will only have some of them. Animal proteins are complete; while plant-based proteins are typically incomplete and must be consumed in tandem (for example, eating beans with brown rice) to get the full slew of essential amino acids.
Most people consume enough protein in their diet to get all the essential amino acids they need to stay healthy. Others look to supplement their protein intake because of their diet (like vegans) or activity levels (like athletes). The daily recommended intake of protein ranges from 10 to 35% of your total calories depending on your age, activity levels, and exercise goals.
What is Whey Protein?
There are two types of protein we find in milk: casein and whey. When dairy products like cheese and yogurt are made, the liquid byproduct that remains after the milk has curdled and been strained, is whey.
Simply put: when they isolate protein from the whey itself, they use this to make whey protein powder.
Rich with nutrients, whey protein has long been touted as the essential supplement for promoting weight loss and muscle recovery as well as helping with nutritional deficiencies and wound healing.
Where Does Vegan Protein Powder Come From?
Unlike whey, vegan protein supplements are wholly plant-based which means they are made up of proteins isolated only from fruits, vegetables, seeds, and grains. Plant Strong Protein, for example, has 20 grams of complete protein (containing all the essential amino acids) from a blend of organic foods like brown rice, pumpkin, and peas.
Gluten-free vegan protein powders, like Plant Strong, provide a great supplement option not just to vegans and vegetarians, but also to people who are lactose and gluten-intolerant or who are simply looking to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diet. Vegan protein additionally offers the added benefits of fiber and antioxidants while also being antibiotic and cruelty-free.
Is Vegan Protein as Effective as Whey?
When it comes to supplementing your diet with protein powders to aid muscle recovery and weight loss, it’s important to note how amino acids influence muscle growth. On a microscopic level, proteins are continuously being broken down, lost, synthesized, and replaced in your muscle tissue every day all day. New muscle protein synthesis, therefore, requires all essential and non-essential amino acids to be present in adequate amounts at any given time.
People deem plant-based protein supplements inferior to whey supplements, but that’s based on outdated research. This was because plant-based proteins aren’t “complete” and therefore don’t offer you all the essential amino acids that can help increase the rate of muscle protein synthesis. Vegan protein powders turn this idea on its head, however, as new varieties combine different and complementary plant-based protein sources together to form a serving of complete proteins.
More research has emerged over the last 10 years as to the efficacy of vegan protein supplements in building muscle and aiding recovery. For example, this 2013 study published in Nutrition Journal found that high doses of rice protein were equally as effective as comparable doses of whey protein when it came to exercise performance and body composition.
A 2017 position stand article published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition also looked at the effect of protein supplementation on performance in both endurance and resistance exercise as well as body composition. To optimize exercise training, the ISSN recommends consuming approximately 1.4 to 2.0 g of protein per kg of body weight per day. While you should make a true attempt to consume protein through a whole foods diet, experts also state that supplementing your intake with high-quality sources of intact and complete proteins, like plant-based protein powder, can be safe, convenient, and effective.
While whey proteins have been the standard for supplementing weight loss and muscle recovery, vegan protein supplements are paving their own way in the market as a viable alternative. Protein quality doesn’t just come down to the number of essential amino acids present though; vegan athletes should also keep fat, calorie, and micronutrient content in mind when choosing protein supplements. While paying attention to the timing of consumption.
Though plant-based and therefore animal and dairy-free, vegan protein powders can still contain substances that are detrimental to your health. Testing has shown that even some of the most popular plant-based protein powders contain heavy metals like lead as well as BPA, pesticides, arsenic, and other toxins that are leached from the environment. Reading labels carefully can play as crucial a role in your health as the vegan protein supplements themselves.
Shop TDF Sports full line of vegan supplements, designed for optimal recovery.
Wolfe RR. Branched-chain amino acids and muscle protein synthesis in humans: myth or reality? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2017;14:30. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0184-9.
Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 201714:20 https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
Wolfe RR, Cifelli AM, Kostas G, Kim I-Y. Optimizing Protein Intake in Adults: Interpretation and Application of the Recommended Dietary Allowance Compared with the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range. Advances in Nutrition. 2017;8(2):266-275. doi:10.3945/an.116.013821.
Joy JM, Lowery RP, Wilson JM, et al. The effects of 8 weeks of whey or rice protein supplementation on body composition and exercise performance. Nutrition Journal. 2013;12:86. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-12-86.