When it comes to choosing the the right protein supplement to enhance your diet, there’s no shortage of options on the market. We will take a look at the two most popular choices, whey protein and plant protein, determining the pros and cons of each in order to help you make the best choice possible for your diet.
Whey – The Most Popular Protein Source
There are a few reasons why whey is the most popular go-to source for those looking to supplement their diet with more protein. Namely: its cheap, its sold pretty much everywhere, and it works. It is a complete protein, which means that it is more easily absorbed by the body when the body needs it most.
Whey protein is a derivative of cow milk, a byproduct created when cheese is made. This makes it subject to the same issues in that industry, such as cows that have been given hormones or fed corn and soy diets. In addition, the manufacturing process can leave the protein severely degraded as well in terms of nutritional quality.
The most common issue however is from the whey protein itself, and can’t be overlooked no matter the quality: the body naturally creates an inflammatory response to digesting it, leading to a host of other potential problems. Inflammation as a result of whey protein could lead to skin issues, bloating, stomach cramps and gas, and sinus inflammation. Since those that supplement their diet with protein usually do so daily, it’s worth noting the effects of long term inflammation are dire, such as cancer or heart disease.
The most common issue with inflammation caused by whey protein though is that it can creates gastrointestinal stress.Essentially, digestion becomes slows or halted when your body is in this state, which means fewer digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid (HCL). HCL helps to break down vitamins and proteins, and without it, it is difficult for your body to absorb the healthy food you are eating. So for example, if you make a nutritional shake with whey protein, berries, and leafy greens, your body may not be gaining the full nutritional value of the berries and leafy greens because of the whey protein.
So while you may save a little bit in the short term by going with whey protein, there are other protein options that are nearly as cost-effective but don’t come with the host of negative side effects.
Enter Plant Protein – The Healthier, Easier to Digest Alternative
There’s four popular types of plant protein available right now:
- Pea Protein. Pea protein is derived from yellow split peas and is very easy and quick to digest – making it perfect for post-workout recovery. Like whey, pea protein is considered a complete protein since it contains all nine essential amino acids, although some amino acids are found in much lower amounts than others.
- Hemp Protein. Hemp protein is made from hemp seeds, which are often touted as a superfood: they have a high profile of essential amino acids as well as other vitamins. The downside is that the protein per serving is on the low side, so it’s best accompanied with another plant protein source, such as pea protein.
- Brown Rice Protein. Brown rice protein has the highest protein content of plant-sourced proteins, being nearly equivalent to whey protein with between 20-24g per serving.
- Soy Protein. Soy protein is a byproduct of the soya bean, which has come under scrutiny for its own range of issues, being highly manufactured, genetically modified, and an allergen that can negatively impact hormones. With so many options available, this is the only one that one can safely say to avoid.
One of the major benefits of plant protein sourced from pea, hemp, or brown rice is that it lends to lower levels of inflammation. And lower levels of inflammation has its own range of benefits, which we covered in a recent article.
Whey Protein vs. Plant Protein – What’s the Verdict?
One of the main reasons that whey protein is great at what it does is its high level of leucine – a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) which is heavily involved with muscle protein synthesis. Simply put, leucine is one of the core components to building muscle, so its important that it is reflected in the protein source that one uses.
Despite whey getting all of the attention for its high levels of leucine, pea protein isn’t too far behind: while whey protein consists of around 11% leucine, pea protein can have as much as 9% leucine. Most research concludes you only need around 1.75g to 3.5g of leucine to maximize protein synthesis, which most plant protein sources will meet, including pea and brown rice.
This means that plant protein is just as effective at delivering fuel for recovery and muscle building as whey protein, despite the popular notion otherwise. If plant protein and whey protein both do this job fairly equally, what other factors should be considered?
Since plant protein comes from plants, it’s often nutrient dense comparatively to whey protein, which is derived from milk. Plant protein is capable of delivering the same benefits as whey protein without the side effects: inflammation, stomach cramps, or gas which can range from mild to downright debilitating. Long term inflammation also has its own host of negative side effects which are best to avoid.
At its core, plant protein is less inflammatory, more nutrient dense, and has less additives while being just as effective as whey protein. The old adage, “you get what you pay for” is especially true here. The numerous benefits of plant protein, coupled with the few key disadvantages of whey protein, make it worth spending a few extra dollars on it next time you shop for a protein source.