Whey vs. Plant-Based Protein for Fitness Goals - Comparison of Whey vs. Plant-Based Protein in Weight Loss and Muscle Building - Journal of the American Center for Nutrition (2023)

Healthy adult bodies require protein to function, and many people boost their dietary protein intake with protein powders and supplements to help them reach their fitness goals. The protein supplement industry targets bodybuilders, athletes, and anyone seeking to shed fat and build muscle mass, but the debate on whey vs. plant-based protein in weight loss and muscle building makes it difficult to choose a supplement.

The human body needs complete proteins to support a healthy metabolic rate and maintain and grow muscle mass [1]. Combined with regular strength training and exercise, protein encourages muscle growth and increases lean body mass [2,3].

Many people understand the importance of protein in repairing and building muscle fibers damaged during exercise, but they struggle to understand the difference between animal and plant-based proteins. How do you decide which type to add to your diet for optimal muscle growth and weight maintenance?

Amino Acid Profile of Whey vs. Plant Protein

The building blocks of protein are called amino acids, and nine essential branched chain amino acids exist that humans must get through their diets [1]. These include:

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  1. Histidine
  2. Leucine
  3. Isoleucine
  4. Lysine
  5. Phenylalanine
  6. Methionine
  7. Tryptophan
  8. Threonine
  9. Valine

Complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids, while incomplete proteins lack one or more. Complete vs. incomplete proteins represent the major difference between whey and plant-based protein. Whey proteins contain all nine essential amino acids, whereas plant-based proteins generally do not.

Does this mean that whey protein is better than plant-based protein? Not necessarily, as you can easily get all nine essential amino acids by combining two or more complementary types of plant proteins. Many plant-based protein supplements offer complete protein formulas by including more than one plant source.

Absorption and Digestibility of Whey vs. Plant Proteins

The source of protein directly impacts how the body digests and absorbs it. Whey proteins come from milk, so they contain lactose and may prove difficult for people with lactose sensitivities to digest. Plant proteins come from other sources, such as hemp, rice, and peas, providing lactose-sensitive people with a viable alternative.

However, plant protein won’t necessarily provide easier digestion than whey protein for every person. For example, pea proteins may cause unpleasant effects, such as cramping and bloating, for people who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome [5].

When it comes to whey vs. plant-based protein in weight loss and muscle building, many people prefer whey protein because it offers a higher biological value and absorbs more quickly into the bloodstream. Still, others will have an easier time digesting plant proteins.

If you struggle with the digestion of one type of protein powder, consider trying an alternative. Track any side effects you experience to determine which type of protein your body will digest and absorb most easily.

Clean Protein Powders

If your digestive tract reacts poorly to a protein supplement, the protein source may not be the culprit. Many protein powders available on the market include fillers and additives to improve the taste, but these extra ingredients may cause digestive concerns or interfere with positive muscle growth and weight loss [4].

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To get the most out of your protein supplementation, choose a clean powder that boasts the following characteristics:

  • Each serving contains at least 20 grams of protein.
  • The first ingredient listed is protein, not a filler or additive.
  • Each serving contains less than two grams of sugar.
  • The powder contains complete protein.

To find a high-quality protein powder, look for brands with third-party testing, such as NSF’s Certified for Sport® program.

The Pros and Cons of Whey Protein

Whey protein powders come in three varieties: concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate. Whey protein concentrate formulas include milk solids and between 30 and 90% protein [4]. Whey protein isolates contain at least 90% protein. Fewer milk solids mean less lactose and other compounds that can cause digestive problems and interfere with weight loss [4]. The body digests protein partly through hydrolysis, which breaks down proteins in the small intestine.

Some protein products provide whey protein hydrolysate, which the body can absorb more quickly because the protein has already been partially broken down [4,5].

Advantages of whey protein include:

  • Absorbs faster than plant protein
  • Provides the body with complete protein
  • Contains calcium and omega-3 fatty acids
  • Boasts a high biological value

Disadvantages of whey protein include:

  • Contains lactose
  • Poses environmental impact from the dairy industry

The human body can more readily digest and use whey protein [4].

The Pros and Cons of Plant Protein

Plant-based protein derived from nuts, seeds, legumes, and other sources may not contain all nine essential amino acids, but it does offer the body other vital nutrients that whey protein does not.

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Advantages of plant based protein powders include:

  • Contains fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants
  • Does not contain dairy
  • Uses vegan-friendly formulas
  • May be soy and gluten-free

Disadvantages of plant based protein powders include:

  • Has a lower biological value than whey protein
  • May not contain complete proteins [4]

Prioritize protein powders that provide a full amino acid profile to ensure that your plant-based protein contains all essential amino acids.

Whey Protein vs. Plant Protein for Weight Loss

Whey and plant-based protein both aid in weight loss by inducing feelings of fullness and encouraging the body to maintain lean muscle mass.

When choosing between whey vs. plant-based protein in weight loss and muscle building, many people favor one protein over another. Still, studies show no significant difference between whey and plant protein related to weight loss [7]. Instead, your ideal protein source will depend more on digestive limitations due to allergies and sensitivities.

Tips for Optimal Weight Loss Using Protein Powders

When trying to lose weight, you must maintain a calorie deficit, so the calories you consume often impact fat loss more than the type of protein powder you use [6].

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Your protein powder should not contain unnecessary calories through added ingredients; it should only contain protein. Protein powder should also only have no more than 150 calories per serving. Numbers any higher may make it difficult to lose the weight you want.

Mixing protein powder supplements into smoothies can make them more pleasant to eat, but doing this daily can limit fat loss. Smoothie ingredients like milk, peanut butter, and even fruit can add more calories than you burn through exercise. Instead of smoothies, try mixing your protein powder into a bowl of oatmeal or other low-fat food.

Many people trying to lose weight focus on cardio-based exercise, but strength training also helps improve metabolism by increasing the amount of lean muscle mass in the body [2]. Be sure to incorporate lifting and resistance training into your workout routine to get the most out of your efforts.

Finally, avoid using your protein powder supplement as a meal replacement. Although your body needs protein to encourage weight loss, it also needs vitamins and nutrients not found in the typical protein powder. If you supplement meals with protein powders, you may feel hungry more than usual, causing increased snacking and less weight loss.

Whey Protein vs. Plant Protein for Muscle Building

Studies show that increased protein intake paired with strength or resistance training results in increased muscle gains [3,7]. Whey protein isolate (containing limited other ingredients) is often considered the best supplementation option for muscle building because it provides the body with complete proteins that absorb quickly into the bloodstream without interference from additional calories. Most muscle growth supplements include some form of whey protein.

That said, plant-based protein also aids with muscle growth when combined with strength training and resistance exercise. One study found no significant difference between the muscle gains of participants using whey protein supplementation and those using plant protein [7].

Tips for Optimal Muscle Growth Using Protein Powders

The essential amino acid leucine jump-starts the body’s process of building new muscle tissue, making it especially useful for muscle growth [4]. Studies showed a 145% increase in protein synthesis when participants combined exercise with leucine-enriched essential amino acid and carbohydrate intake compared to a 41% increase through exercise alone [8]. When choosing a protein powder for supplementation, look for products containing leucine for the best muscle growth results.

Protein powder should not account for all of your protein while trying to improve muscle size. Your diet should contain other quality protein sources, such as eggs, fish, chicken, and legumes.

Healthy adults who exercise regularly should aim for a daily protein intake of 7 grams per 20 pounds of body weight [1]. For example, if you weigh 180 pounds, you should consume at least 63 grams of protein per day for optimal muscle growth.

The Best Protein for You Depends on Your Goals and Dietary Restrictions

Although the efficacy of whey vs. plant-based protein in weight loss and muscle building remains highly debated in the sports nutrition supplement industry, the ideal protein source for different people depends on their fitness goals and dietary needs. For example, if you suffer from lactose sensitivity, you may opt for a plant-based protein powder, but you may choose whey protein if you struggle with irritable bowel syndrome.

The quality of the supplement and whether or not it contains complete protein will have more of an impact than the protein source. Look for a complete protein powder with few to no added ingredients to find the best option for you.

Finally, you won’t experience weight loss or muscle growth results without combining protein supplements with regular strength training and resistance exercise. Find a high-quality protein powder, and stay active to reach your fitness goals successfully.


Is whey protein better for you than plant-based protein? ›

Whey stands out for those who crave muscle growth for one simple reason: It contains all nine amino acids needed for muscle growth, which no plant does. It also contains branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are vital for muscle protein synthesis.

Is animal protein better than plant protein for building muscle? ›

Animal protein, with its higher protein quality, is usually considered to be superior to plant protein for building muscle mass [15,16,17].

Is whey protein better than plant protein for fat loss? ›

This makes whey protein ideal for fat loss. On the other hand, plant-based proteins are lower in calories per serving as compared to animal proteins, even though they don't offer the same weight loss benefit as that of whey protein.

Are plant-based proteins healthier than animal based proteins? ›

Diets high in plant protein are linked to many benefits

Furthermore, studies suggest that people eating a vegetarian diet also tend to have lower body weight, lower cholesterol levels, and lower risk of stroke, cancer, and death from heart disease than people who eat meat ( 11 ).

Which protein is best for fat loss? ›

Whey protein is linked to weight loss, increased satiety and improved body composition. It may be superior in its effect on satiety compared to other protein sources.

Is plant based protein better than whey for muscle growth? ›

In fact, studies have shown that whey and plant-based protein powders are equally effective at promoting muscle hypertrophy, or muscle growth, as long as they contain similar amounts of protein and BCAAs per serving ( 7 , 8 , 9 , 10 ).

What is the main disadvantage of plant proteins? ›

Plant proteins have a reduced content of essential amino acids in comparison to animal proteins. A significant reduction of limiting amino acids (methionine, lysine, tryptophan) means lower protein synthesis.

Can you build muscle with plant-based protein? ›

A high-protein, exclusively plant-based diet supports muscle strength and mass gains in response to resistance training just as well as a high-protein diet that includes animal foods, according to a study published in Sports Medicine.

Can you still build muscle with plant protein? ›

Plant-based muscle growth is every bit as achievable as animal-based, though it might require a little more planning. Most plant proteins are incomplete, though there are some options which do provide all the amino acids needed for muscle growth.

Does plant based protein shakes help you lose weight? ›

If you want to lose weight, Plant Based Protein Powder is one of the best options. Usually, it is made from natural products like peas, brown rice, hemp, and soy. A blend of these ingredients is rich in fibre and has low saturated fat, making it the best plant protein for weight loss.

Can whey protein reduce belly fat? ›

Whey Protein is good for losing overall fat. It can be an excellent addition to your weight loss diet as it helps to gain muscles and lose body fat including belly fat.

What are the negative effects of whey protein? ›

When taken by mouth: Whey protein is likely safe for most adults when taken appropriately. High doses can cause some side effects such as increased bowel movements, acne, nausea, thirst, bloating, reduced appetite, tiredness, and headache.

Is plant protein better for kidneys than animal protein? ›

This means plant proteins offered more protection for the kidneys than animal protein. The reason for this is because red meat and processed meat contain more sodium and saturated fat, which has a strong connection with the risk of kidney disease.

What are 2 benefits of plant-based protein vs animal based protein? ›

The main benefits of plant proteins over animal proteins are increased gut health, more vitamins and minerals, and the inclusion of fiber, but there is also a lower risk of diseases associated with eating plant-based.

Which protein is better than plant protein? ›

Animal proteins, such as meat, eggs, and milk, are complete proteins, meaning they provide all of the essential amino acids our body needs. Animal products provide the highest-quality protein sources.

What is the best protein to build muscle and lose fat? ›

Whey protein is the most widely used weight loss protein today. It's one of two milk proteins, with casein being another. This protein powder by Optimum Nutrition is one of the best whey protein for weight loss. It has 24 g of protein per serving (30 g) and may help you gain muscles and lose fat.

Which fruit has most protein? ›

Guava. Guava is one of the most protein-rich fruits around. You'll get a whopping 4.2 grams of the stuff in every cup. This tropical fruit is also high in vitamin C and fiber.

Which protein is best for muscle gain? ›

Studies reveal that whey protein can help build and maintain muscle mass, assist athletes with recovery from heavy exercise, and increase muscle strength in response to strength training ( 11 , 12 , 13 ).

Is plant-based protein worth it? ›

Benefits of Plant Protein

The type of protein you eat may be more important than the amount. Plant-based protein provides plenty of nutrients, fiber, and antioxidants that can improve your overall health. The benefits of plant-based diet may include: Protection against heart disease.

Is plant-based protein more effective? ›

Plant-based protein decreases the risk of chronic diseases

While some lean meats can be good sources of protein, the American Heart Association reports that eating less meat decreases the risk of: Heart disease. High blood pressure (hypertension) High cholesterol.

What is the major issue with vegan based proteins? ›

Even among the same source type, consistency can be difficult to achieve. “Because they come from plants, and crops vary annually and even within the field depending on where it's grown and the conditions… consistency is a very big issue, leading to an issue of reproducibility in the finished product,” Shelke said.

What are the problems with plant protein? ›

Plant proteins, however, may have insufficient levels of one or more indispensable amino acids. Legumes are frequently low in the sulfur-containing amino acids methionine and cysteine, while lysine is typically limiting in grains [19].

What is the highest quality plant protein source? ›

While all beans pack a ton of plant protein, lentils top the list with about 18 grams of protein per cup.
Today I'm going to share with you my favorite sources of protein for a plant-based diet.
  • Sprouted Whole Grain Bread. ...
  • Quinoa. ...
  • Hemp Seeds. ...
  • Peanut Butter Powder. ...
  • Oats. ...
  • Nutritional Yeast. ...
  • Broccoli. ...
  • Lentils.

How much plant protein do you need to build muscle? ›

It's generally accepted that for optimal muscle growth to occur, protein intake should be rather high at around 0.7–1.0 grams per pound (1.6–2.2 grams per kg) of body weight per day ( 1 ).

How much plant-based protein do I need to build muscle? ›

Research shows that eating 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day is ideal for building muscle. On a weight-loss diet, up to a massive 2.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day might be beneficial.

Can you build muscle at 55 years old? ›

It's never too late to build muscle and strength. You can build muscle no matter your age. A proven strength training program for building muscle after 50 is to lift two or three days per week, doing 10 sets per muscle and week, with about 8–15 reps per set. Eat a healthy high-protein diet.

Should I switch to plant-based protein? ›

Substituting meat for plant-based proteins can improve gut health, making your body a better absorber of nutrients from food to help support your immune system and decrease inflammation. The high amount of fiber in plant-based proteins also lowers cholesterol levels and stabilizes blood sugar.

Why you should switch to plant-based protein? ›

Why plant-based? It supports your immune system. Plants have essential nutrients that you cannot get from other foods. The vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants in plants help keep your cells healthy and your body in balance so that your immune system can function at its best.

Why switch to plant-based protein? ›

Registered Dietitians suggest including more sources of plant-based protein in your diet. Research has linked eating less meat with a lower risk of chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and even certain types of cancer. Plus, it's a more sustainable choice for the environment.

Should I take protein while trying to lose belly fat? ›

Eating plenty of protein can boost your metabolism and reduce hunger levels, making it a very effective way to lose weight. Some evidence suggests that protein may be linked with reduced abdominal fat.

Does protein flatten your stomach? ›

January 15, 2018 by Alonna Travin. If you want a flatter belly in 2018, then you need to include a protein with every meal. It helps maintain and build muscle, which helps burn fat and keeps you feeling fuller for longer.

What are the signs of too much protein? ›

Symptoms associated with too much protein include:
  • intestinal discomfort and indigestion.
  • dehydration.
  • unexplained exhaustion.
  • nausea.
  • irritability.
  • headache.
  • diarrhea.

Can too much whey protein damage kidneys? ›

Can whey protein damage your kidneys? A high-protein diet may cause your kidneys to work more to filter your blood. Over time, this increased workload could cause kidney damage or make kidney disease worse (16, 17 ).

Is whey protein harmful in long term? ›

However, it is best to avoid consuming too much protein. Some powders contain up to 80 g per serving, which is too much for most people. A 2013 review found that long-term excessive consumption of protein may damage the kidneys and liver and affect the body's bone and calcium balance.

Is plant-based protein healthier? ›

Plant-based protein decreases the risk of chronic diseases

While some lean meats can be good sources of protein, the American Heart Association reports that eating less meat decreases the risk of: Heart disease. High blood pressure (hypertension) High cholesterol.

What is the difference between whey protein and plant protein? ›

The major difference between plant and whey protein comes down to the base ingredients. Whey is a byproduct of milk, which technically makes it an animal product. Plant protein, on the other hand, comes from various plant-based sources, such as pea protein and hemp protein.


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