Plant vs Whey Protein: Which is Best for Bodybuilding?

UK Fitness Pro
UK Fitness Pro
· 13 min read
Plant and whey proteins

Plant-based sources of protein are as effective as whey protein for bodybuilding. Here's why:

Essential Amino Acids

Proponents of dairy-based proteins like to say that plant protein supplements provide incomplete proteins. It's not true: 

Brown Rice Protein Powder vs. Whey Protein Powder

Grams of Essential Amino Acids per 100 Grams of Brown Rice Isolate and Whey Isolate

A graph showing the essential amino acids in brown rice protein isolate and whey protein isolate

As shown in the graph, brown rice protein has a complete amino acid profile (i.e., it has all of the essential amino acids; Kalman, 2014). Among the essential amino acids, leucine appears to have an especially substantial influence on muscle protein synthesis (Garlick, 2005), and as little as 3.5 grams per day has been linked to increased strength (Crowe et al., 2006). Therefore, even though whey has more leucine, getting enough from rice protein to improve strength wouldn't be difficult. 

If you're interested in how powders for those on a plant-based diet compare, take a look at these articles comparing soy and pea protein powdershemp and pea protein powders, and brown rice and pea protein powders

Pea Protein Powder vs. Whey Protein Powder

Grams of Essential Amino Acids per 100 Grams of Pea Protein Isolate and Whey Protein Isolate

A graph showing the essential amino acids in pea protein powder and whey protein powder

Like brown rice protein, pea protein can be considered a complete protein source as it has all of the essential amino acids (Gorissen et al., 2018). While it has less leucine than whey, it has more phenylalanine, which has been linked to fat loss (Ueda et al., 2017). 

To explore how these supplements compare in greater depth, check out this article on pea and whey proteins or this one on pea, soy, and whey protein

Soy Protein Powder vs. Whey Protein Powder

Grams of Non-Essential, Essential*, and Branched-Chain** Amino Acids per 100 Grams of Whey and Soy Protein

A graph showing amino acid levels in whey and soy protein

Like the vegan protein powders above, soy powder also provides high-quality protein, with all of the essential amino acids represented (Gorissen et al., 2018). Except for leucine, it is comparable to whey protein in terms of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), with similar amounts of isoleucine and valine. 

To learn more about BCAAs, check out this article on the benefits of BCAAs for athletes. You might also be interested in my articles on whey and soy proteins and on soy protein concentrate and soy protein isolate

Protein Content

Those who favour proteins from dairy products like to say that you can't meet your daily protein requirements while on a vegan diet. This raises the question, "How much is enough protein?"

According to the Mayo Clinic, people who lift often need 1.2–1.7 grams of protein per kilo of body weight per day. However, research on competitive vegan bodybuilders has found that they normally consume about 1.8 grams when cutting and 2.2 grams when bulking. For example, a 100-kilo bodybuilder would consume 180 grams when cutting and 220 when bulking. 

Calories and Macronutrients per 100 Grams of Brown Rice, Pea, Soy, and Whey Proteins from Myprotein (MP) and Bodybuilding Warehouse (BW) 

SupplementCaloriesProteinCarbsFats
BW brown rice protein powder 366803.53.5
MP brown rice protein powder423783.82.1
BW pea protein isolate3958036
MP pea protein isolate388802.65.5
BW soy protein isolate3689061
MP soy protein isolate360901.81.5
MP whey concentrate405778.37.1
MP whey isolate359814.61.1
BW whey concentrate375804.75.7
BW whey isolate3749011

As you can see, plant-based protein sources, similar to whey protein, tend to have about 80–90 grams of protein per 100 grams (about four scoops). Therefore, hitting your protein intake goals with plant-based powders is just as easy as it is with types of whey protein. You can also see that the powders are quite similar in their calorie content, with Myprotein's brown rice powder having the most (423 per 100 grams) and their whey isolate having the least (359 per 100 grams). 

Muscle Growth

There's extensive research that plant-based proteins are comparable to whey supplements when it comes to building muscle:

Brown Rice Protein Powder vs. Whey Protein Powder

Research published in Nutrition Journal found that rice and whey protein isolates effectively enhanced muscle growth and exercise performance when consumed post-exercise in resistance-trained males, with no significant differences between the two (Joy et al., 2013).

You might also like my article comparing rice and whey protein powders

Pea Protein Powder vs. Whey Protein Powder

A study published by researchers in France found that pea protein supplementation promoted a significant increase in bicep muscle thickness compared to placebo after 12 weeks of resistance training, especially in weaker individuals, with no significant difference between pea and whey protein (Babault et al., 2015).

Soy Protein Powder vs. Whey Protein Powder

One randomised controlled trial found that both whey and soy protein supplements significantly increased lean tissue mass compared to placebo during resistance training (Candow et al., 2006).

A bag and scoop of whey protein

I recently finished this bag of chocolate brownie-flavoured whey protein and already miss it. It's great with oats and peanut butter. 

Muscle Strength

There's also a lot of research that plant-based protein powders are comparable to whey powders in terms of developing strength:

Brown Rice Protein Powder vs. Whey Protein Powder

The aforementioned study published in Nutrition Journal found that rice protein powder was not only comparable to whey protein with regard to muscle building, but also cultivating strength (Joy et al., 2013). 

Pea Protein Powder vs. Whey Protein Powder

One study found that both whey and pea protein supplementation led to similar increases in strength after an 8-week high-intensity functional training programme, with no significant differences between the two proteins (Banaszek et al., 2019).

Soy Protein Powder vs. Whey Protein Powder

The study by Candow et al. (2006) mentioned previously found that, in addition to being similar in terms of promoting muscle tissue growth, soy and whey protein powders led to similar gains in strength following a 6-week training programme. 

Whey and pea protein powders

A 2.5-kg bag of whey protein and a 30-gram pouch of pea protein. You can get a pea protein sample like this on Myprotein for about a pound. 

Muscle Recovery

There's extensive research indicating that whey protein can facilitate recovery (Davies et al., 2018), but plant protein powders appear to be able to assist with this just as well: 

Brown Rice Protein Powder vs. Whey Protein Powder

The study mentioned previously by Joy et al. (2013) found that brown rice protein not only led to increases in muscle gain and strength comparable to whey protein but also that the two proteins had similar effects on recovery. 

Pea Protein Powder vs. Whey Protein Powder

Research published in Frontiers in Nutrition revealed that pea protein slightly outperformed whey protein in reducing certain biochemical markers of muscle damage and metabolic stress, such as creatine kinase and lactate, immediately after soccer games and during early recovery stages (Loureiro et al., 2023). 

Soy Protein Powder vs. Whey Protein Powder

A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that whey and soy protein supplements similarly mitigated performance deterioration during soccer speed-endurance training, with both showing comparable effectiveness in recovery processes like muscle damage and redox responses (Kritikos et al., 2021). 

Soy protein isolate and pea protein isolate

Cheap samples of soy protein isolate and pea protein isolate

Weight Loss

As well as muscle growth, strength, and recovery, plant-based powders can contribute to lean muscle mass as effectively as whey protein. 

Brown Rice Protein Powder vs. Whey Protein Powder

The Joy et al. (2013) study mentioned above found that, as well as promoting muscle growth, strength, and recovery to the same extent as whey protein, brown rice protein was comparable in terms of cultivating lean body mass. 

Pea Protein Powder vs. Whey Protein Powder

The aforementioned study by Banaszek et al. (2019) found that whey and pea protein supplementation during an 8-week high-intensity functional training programme not only resulted in similar improvements in muscle thickness and force production but also body composition. 

Soy Protein Powder vs. Whey Protein Powder

While most of the studies mentioned so far highlight the comparability of plant sources of protein and whey protein, the latter may have an edge when it comes to weight loss. In a study comparing the effects of whey protein and soy protein on weight loss and body composition in overweight and obese individuals, whey was found to be more effective at reducing body weight and fat mass (Piri Damaghi et al., 2022).

A vegan protein bar

Protein bars are a good option for when you're on the go. This is a Vegan Carb Crusher. Each bar has 16 grams of protein, 19 grams of carbs, 10 grams of fat, and 237 calories. 

Health Benefits

Blood Pressure

There's evidence that both soy and pea protein powders can reduce blood pressure (Dong et al., 2012; Li et al., 2011). 

Blood Sugar Levels

Rice, pea, and soy proteins may help maintain healthy blood sugar levels (Chang et al., 2008; Panlasigui & Thompson, 2006; Tan et al., 2018). 

If you're interested in this topic, you might like our article on the best protein supplements for those with diabetes

Cholesterol

Studies suggest that rice, pea, and soy proteins could all help to reduce cholesterol (Jenkins et al., 2010; Sirtori et al., 2012; Yang et al., 2011). 

Gut Health

Bioactive peptides from pea proteins can enhance the growth rate and metabolic function of good intestinal bacteria, such as Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria, potentially improving the overall health of the gut environment (Ge et al., 2020). There's also evidence that rice and soy proteins could benefit gut health (Huang et al., 2016; Yang et al., 2022). 

Commons Questions About Plant Protein Powders

Do They Contain Artificial Sweeteners?

Yes, most flavoured protein powders contain artificial sweeteners. If you'd like to avoid these, you could opt for an unflavoured variety. While protein shakes made from unflavoured versions aren't going to be enjoyable, the powder can be mixed with other ingredients to make it more palatable (e.g., use it to make smoothies). 

What's the Best Protein Powder?

The best option for you obviously depends on your preferences, goals, dietary needs, and other individual characteristics. That's why we have articles on the best protein supplements for weight loss, weight gain, and seniors. As shown above, plant-based and whey protein powders are quite similar in terms of the amount of protein and their amino acid profiles, so just pick a powder that you enjoy. 

Grab yourself one of these small (and very inexpensive) samples to help you decide:

How is Pea Protein Powder Made?

Pea protein powder is made by first grinding yellow peas or yellow split peas into flour. From this flour, pea protein concentrate is extracted, which can then be further refined to produce pea protein isolate. This isolate is ultimately dried and ground into pea protein powder.

Do Plant-Based Protein Powders Contain Essential Nutrients?

Besides a lot of protein and small amounts of carbohydrates and fats, protein powders tend not to contain other essential nutrients. This is why eating a balanced diet comprised of whole foods that provide micronutrients is important. The BBC Good Food website lists several vegan food sources rich in protein, such as quinoa (4 grams per 100), lentils (9 grams per 100), beans (7-10 grams per 100, depending on the type), oats (10 grams per 100), and broccoli (4 grams per 100).

To get some ideas about incorporating these into your diet, check out our article on high-protein plant-based snacks

Conclusion

For bodybuilders who need or prefer to avoid animal-based proteins (e.g., those with dietary restrictions like lactose intolerance), one of the various types of protein made from plants could be an excellent choice. These tend to contain as much protein as powders derived from cow's milk (e.g., whey and casein protein) and have similar amino acid profiles. Additionally, studies indicate that plant-based powders perform as well as whey protein supplements when it comes to increasing muscle, developing strength, and losing weight. 

You might also like our articles on the best supplements for bodybuilding seniors, the best supplements for over 40s, whey and collagen proteins, protein bars and protein powders, creatine and whey protein, mass gainer and whey protein, egg and whey protein, hemp and whey protein, and BCAAs and whey protein

About the Author

Dave Robinson, a co-founder of ukfitness.pro, has a background in psychology (BSc) and neuroscience (MSc, PhD). As well as strength training, he enjoys endurance challenges and has run ultramarathons, cycled across several countries, and completed the Three Peaks Challenge. When writing, he draws on scientific evidence to understand the pros and cons of different diets, supplements, and training regimes. 

References

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