The benefits of protein have been understood for ages but until recently meat and dairy were seen as the only sources. Now mounting evidence supports plant protein sources, and with significant health benefits for athletes. As plant protein's credibility mounts in elite sport, we explore the differences between whey protein and plant protein - which is best for your health and performance?
Whey protein v plant protein: origins
Whey's a by-product of cheese production. That liquid floating at the top of your yoghurt? That’s whey.
In the old days whey was binned or fed to pigs until waste disposal laws were changed, at which point dairy farmers realised they could make a few quid (actually, a lot of quid).
After a lot of processing, they discovered you could reduce this liquid to a powder and sell it to bodybuilders and eventually the wider fitness community.
Meanwhile, plant-based protein sources comes straight from plants. Simple!
Whey protein is often highly processed
Best plant protein options:
Many athletes interested in switching to plant protein sources can find the switch tricky thinking options are limited. Truth is there are loads to choose from, here are some of our favourites.
- Hemp & pumpkin (as found in our Elite Pre & Post Workout Shakes)
- All nuts, so go crazy on that almond and/or peanut butter
- Pea, rice & sunflower (as found in our Premium Protein)
- Quinoa, tempeh, tofu & houmous
- All seeds including the mighty chia seed (hence why our Chia Energy Gels are packed with them)
- Oats (yes, the humble oat is 17% protein - steak is only marginally more at 25%
- Algae - spirulina for example is an incredible 57% protein, making steak (25%) look weedy. Just another reason it's one of the 33Fuel athletic superfoods in our Elite Pre & Post Workout Shakes
- Oats (yes, the humble oat is 17% protein (steak is only marginally more at 25%)
- Legumes - chick peas, black beans, lentils, all great plant protein sources
Tofu - not just for pasty hippies after all. It's a plant-based protein rock star
Whey protein v plant protein: digestion
Whey contains lactose, making it harder to digest and absorb. Around 65% of the population suffer from a degree of lactose intolerance, meaning a large proportion of us simply can't fully absorb whey protein.
By contrast plant proteins are easily absorbed. Beyond nut allergies it's rare to find someone intolerant of a plant.
Whey protein v plant protein: nutrient density
Ordinary whey powders often contain questionable ingredients – check the labels and you'll usually find a lot of additives, sweeteners and sugars. Also, during pasteurisation, whey is heated to high temperatures, killing bacteria (useful) but also ruining vitamin and nutrient profiles (not very helpful at all).
Plant proteins by contrast enjoy a significantly higher nutrient profile.
When your mum told you to eat your greens, she did so because she knew plants contain a lot of vitamins and minerals to keep you healthy - we consume the lot when we enjoy plant protein.
Mmm, peanut butter
Whey protein v plant protein: taste
I’ve got a sweet tooth, and if you do too then you’ll like whey protein.
That's because as well as the lactose (sugar contained in milk) manufacturers also add a lot of sweeteners to make it palatable - raw whey is not a pleasant thing.
Plant proteins though have naturally milder flavours making them a better fit for tasty smoothies, shakes and more.
Whey protein v plant protein: building muscle
Animal products are known as ‘complete’ proteins, so called because they contain all nine amino acids we are unable to produce in our body, and thus need to consume in our diet.
As whey is a 'complete' protein, it’s efficient at muscle building.
But a recent study showed pea protein to be just as effective at promoting muscle growth, and there are plenty of ‘complete’ plant protein sources too.
Plants grow muscles too!
Whey protein v plant protein: health benefits
Nutritionally, whey protein powder is a bit lacking.
The additives and processing involved in whey production, plus the fact it usually comes from a nutritionally poor source - industrial dairy farming - has led scientists to discover in numerous studies that whey:
- Increases cancer risk
- Increases diabetes risk
- Plays a key role in obesity
- Encourages cardiovascular disease
This is the real kicker for us at 33Fuel right here because while whey has these big health pitfalls, plant proteins instead are a major health plus. So not only do they deliver the same sporting and performance benefits as whey, while they're doing that they also:
- Lower risk of heart disease
- Lower cholesterol
- Reduce blood sugar spikes
- Help weight loss
- Aid food digestion
- Reduce inflammation in the body
- Optimise recovery and immune function
No surprise then Harvard Medical School reports that the “latest and best scientific evidence shows that a plant-based diet rich in vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and healthy proteins lowers the risk of weight gain and chronic disease”.
Plant protein is better for your health than whey. Just ask your doctor
Whey protein v plant protein: the environment
A quick online search will highlight the effect of the dairy industry on the environment. We've nothing against farmers, but whey production is wasteful, and until that changes it’s hard to justify the environmental cost.
Just as an example, plant-based milks - soy, almond, etc - create at least 70% less greenhouse gas emissions than ordinary dairy milk, as recorded by a recent Oxford University study.
Growing plants to feed cattle for us to eat/milk makes little sense when you consider the amount of land and resources needed to raise a cow. Taking the crop straight from the field to our plates is way less wasteful.
Eat more plants and make the planet happy
Whey protein v plant protein: cost
A common plant protein misconception is that it's expensive.
First off you can cut your grocery bill substantially by opting for plant-based proteins in your daily meals and snacks, as opposed to meat, fish and dairy - this post on plant-based diets for athletes explains more on making this shift if you're interested.
On the protein powder side, a premium quality, nutrient dense plant protein powder like our Premium Protein, with organic ingredients and no added fillers or sweeteners, is still just £1.70p per serving.
You can buy whey cheaper for sure, but you can also easily spend £2 a serving or more for it. And even going high end there can't avoid whey's heath and performance weak points.
Looking for the best in plant-based protein? We've got you covered, Premium Protein in store now
Whey protein v plant protein - conclusion
If all you’re looking for is a cheap hit of protein and the health and performance concerns aren't an issue, whey ticks that box. But if you want a protein boost that raises your game and comes with a plethora of health benefits on the side, then plant-based protein is the way to go.