Plant-Based vs Whey Protein

If you aren’t familiar with the world of supplements and protein powders, don’t worry; you aren’t alone. There are tons of different options available to consumers, and it can get confusing to know which one is going to meet your unique needs the best. 

A great place to start is by identifying if you want a plant-based protein powder (such as pea protein) or a dairy-based one (also known as whey protein). There are some key differences to consider, which we will help break down below.

Whey Protein Powder: What is it and How is it Made?

A Brief History of Whey Protein Powders

First introduced into the market in the 1950s by nutritionist and trainer Irvin Johnson, protein powders got their start using forms of milk and milk byproducts. One of those byproducts is whey. If that sounds familiar, it should! Whey is the main ingredient for most animal-based protein powders found in stores today. 

The process of getting whey protein and turning it into a supplement used around the world is pretty straightforward. Milk from dairy cows is shipped to a factory where enzymes are added to separate the curds from the whey. The curd is used to create cheese, and the liquid whey is pasteurized and sent to the next stage of the process. 

Once here, it can undergo one of two techniques: membrane filtration or ion exchange chromatography. Either step results in a more concentrated and purified whey protein. Finally, the product is spray dried, creating a powder that is between 80%-95% protein. 

Whey Protein Isolate

Another option for dairy-based protein powders is a product called whey protein isolate. This is a whey protein that has less fat and less lactose than traditional whey (often called whey protein concentrate). For this reason, those who have a hard time digesting dairy may opt for a protein powder with whey protein isolate instead of whey concentrate or casein (another protein found in milk). Some consumers also like this product because it has a clean taste and can be more soluble when mixed into protein shakes or smoothies. 

Naturally, the process for refinding and isolating whey protein has changed since the 1950s, but the benefits remain the same. Whey protein powders have been a good dietary supplement for many gym enthusiasts, athletes, and others as a shelf-stable, on-the-go drink. Unlike in the 50s, however, these days, consumers have more to choose from when considering a protein powder than just whey.  

A Break Down of Plant-Based Protein

While plant protein may be labeled an up-and-coming star in the field of supplements, it has actually been a growing force in the market for years. Previously sought after almost exclusively by vegans and those with lactose intolerance, plant protein is now available to a wider group of people than ever before. You don’t have to swear off meat to enjoy the benefits of plant-based protein!

Tracking The Rise of Plant-Based Eating

Alternative sources of protein have been popular forever, with tofu (created from soybeans) being documented as early as 200 BC. It’s fair to say that people have sought out plants as staples in their diets as long as humans have been alive. 

While communities did hunt animals for protein, early humans relied on plants as their main source of nutrition. In fact, from studying the isotopic composition of human bones, scientists have found that 80% of our ancestors’ diets were plant-based, compared with only 20% meat. 

Jumping to modern-day America, the CDC found that 90% of adults aren’t eating enough vegetables while overeating meat (over 40% of the recommended amount), saturated fats, and sugar. Quite the change in nutritional makeup! 

Of course, no one is suggesting that in 2024, we should eat the same as early human societies. What we can do, however, is adjust our behaviors to accommodate a more balanced diet and lifestyle. 

One easy way doctors suggest improving longevity is by eating more plants and fewer animal products. Today, this goal is more attainable than ever before. As demand rises globally, more and more plant-based products are brought to market, making the ability to swap animal proteins for plant proteins that much more convenient and affordable. Protein powder, milk, butter, and cheese are just the tip of the plant-based iceberg. 

Nutritional Makeup of Common Plant Proteins

For many consumers, the biggest barrier to eating plant-based food is their inability to reach nutritional requirements. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma that plants alone don’t have enough of the nutrients we need, especially when it comes to protein. 

Here are the facts: plants have TONS of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and yes, even protein that support a healthy body and prevent chronic diseases.

The most common variety of plants used in plant-based protein powders is soy, pea protein, brown rice, oat, lentil, and hemp. Along with soy (which has almost 70 grams of protein per cup), pea protein, in particular, is an important ingredient in the plant protein family. 

Normally created from field peas, pea protein contains high levels of essential nutrients, including dietary fiber (60-65%), carbohydrates (24-49%), and of course, protein (20-25%). Pea protein also has a prominent mineral profile, with phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, and B vitamins. 

While you can find protein powders that are made up of only one of these ingredients, most plant-based protein powders rely on a combination of different plant proteins, giving you an even more diverse nutritional matrix and amino acid profile. Below, we discuss the role of amino acids more. 

How Our Bodies Process Different Types of Protein

Our bodies use protein for just about everything. From repairing and building muscle tissue to creating hormones and enzymes, the roles of protein in the human body cannot be understated. That’s why it is important that we not only consume enough of it but also select the best sources of protein to properly fuel us during our workouts, daily activities, or recovery. 

When broken down, proteins are made up of organic compounds called amino acids. There are 20 amino acids, 9 of which the human body cannot make on its own and therefore needs to get from outside sources. These amino acids are called essential aminos. 

Proteins that have all 9 essential amino acids are considered a complete protein source. For years, animal-based proteins have been considered better because they tend to contain more amino acids than plants. However, this isn’t necessarily as important of a factor when it comes to modern diets, which contain a mixture of different types of plant-based proteins, giving you a balanced mix of amino acids that would be comparable to meat or dairy. On their own, pea protein, soy, and other grains like quinoa and amaranth are already complete proteins. 

Plant proteins from cereals, the group of grains that contain things like wheat, rice, beans, etc., are also a rich source of bioactive peptides. Bioactive peptides are molecules that are buried inside proteins and become active once separated inside the body. These peptides in cereals have been associated with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-diabetic properties, as well as lowering cholesterol and increasing satiety.

Another benefit of plant proteins is that they lower the risk of metabolic diseases. That’s right! Consuming proteins derived from plants has been shown to lower the risk of several diseases, including diabetes (type 1 and type 2), cancer, and heart-related disorders. There is a reason doctors keep reminding us to eat our vegetables.

Will Plant Protein Help Me Build Muscle Like Whey Protein?

For people engaged in strength, endurance, or high-intensity training, consuming enough grams of protein is vital to their success. One of the main concerns about plant protein is that it won’t produce the same results in strength and muscle building as whey protein. Even with all its other benefits, will switching to plant protein still support your athletic performance and muscle growth? 

Luckily for the vegans of the world, the answer is yes! Plant protein provides our bodies with the same ability to grow, maintain, and strengthen our muscles that animal-based protein does. In one study of 226 participants, there was found to be no difference in strength or muscle mass improvements between the groups that used whey protein and the groups that used soy protein. 

The same is true for other plant proteins, like pea protein or brown rice protein, which have been examined in multiple studies. Results in workout performance, body composition, muscle thickness, and strength were comparable for participants who were given 48 grams/day of either whey or pea protein. 

Protein vs. The Planet

We’ve already started to learn that not all proteins are equal when it comes to our dietary needs. Despite what we may wish, the calories we put on our plates have a direct link to the health of our bodies as well as our planet. 

It takes precious resources to grow and process the ingredients that end up in our stores, in the products we buy, and ultimately in our kitchens. Even if we scan every label carefully, there are some things that a package won’t tell you. One of those things is how the product was made and the cost to produce it. 

Across the board, plant-based foods are less resource-intensive to grow than animal-based foods. As it stands today, half of the land on Earth is taken up by agriculture, and not the kind you might think. Most of that space is used to raise or feed animals for dairy and meat consumption. While that might not sound like a reason to be alarmed, there are a few reasons why humans can’t afford to waste soil. 

To produce one gram of animal-based protein, we use 100x more land than we do to grow the equivalent of plant-based protein crops. This increased demand for land has led to deforestation and loss of biodiversity, which is necessary for the health of the planet and the humans that inhabit it. 

Land use is not the only issue when it comes to the environmental costs of what we eat. Greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption play a role, too. Dairy has a much bigger impact on gas emissions and freshwater use than plant-based alternatives. 

Per liter, the production of cow’s milk uses 628.2L of freshwater compared to only 27.8L for soy. It also emits 3.15kg of greenhouse gas for soy’s .98kg. That’s about 22x as much water and 3x as much greenhouse gas emissions. 

By avoiding foods that drive deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and are resource-intensive, we are looking out for the well-being of our bodies and the well-being of the planet too. Making the switch from animal-based products to plant-based products might not seem like it could make a big difference, but the benefits add up.

Plants: The Protein of the Future

In today’s modern world, where almost everything can be found with a quick web search, buyers are more informed than ever. This applies as much to our worldviews as it does to our views on health and wellness. 

As a whole, we are prioritizing long-term wellness, sustainable practices, and brands that align with our values over products that may only offer a low price. With only one body to support us for a lifetime, it becomes increasingly important that we select the best products to sustain us. 

Whether that choice is plant-based or animal-based, protein plays a large part in the nutrients that our bodies need. Ensure you’re setting yourself up for success and protecting your future by picking the best source for you. We promise your body will thank you! 

10X Health is here to help our clients not just reach their wellness goals but surpass them by a mile. If you are ready to take control of your health, visit our website today and let us take the guesswork out of your future.

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