Whey vs Plant Protein

Whey and plant proteins are two of the most popular protein supplements on the market. 

But is one better for you? 

In this post, we’ll take a look at the pros and cons, sources, and differences of whey vs plant protein and help you decide which is right for you.

Whey vS. plant proteins compared

What is protein

Protein is a macronutrient, which means it’s one of the three primary nutrients your body needs to function properly. You get protein from meats, dairy products, and legumes such as beans and lentils. 

Sources of sources of proteins include animal proteins and plant proteins

When trying to meet a specific daily intake goal (perhaps for weight loss or building muscle), protein supplements can be a convenient, affordable, and portable option.

Amino acids

To understand protein supplements, it’s important to know what proteins are made of. Amino acids are the building blocks of a protein, and there are 20 amino acids found in the food we eat. Nine of the 20 amino acids are considered essential amino acids.

Nonessential amino acids

Your body can produce these amino acids from other (essential) amino acids, so you don’t “need” to get them from the foods you eat. As long as you are getting enough protein.

Essential amino acids

These are amino acids that your body can’t produce, so you must get them from the foods you eat.

Essential amino acids are important for tissue growth, development, and repairing.

The nine essential amino acids are: 

  • Histidine 
  • Isoleucine leucine lysine (Branch Chian Amino Acids) 
  • Methionine
  • phenylalanine 
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine 

Complete proteins

When it comes to whey vs plant protein powder, each difference is in their amino acid profile. A complete protein is a protein that contains all nine essential amino acids.

Animal-based proteins such as meat, poultry, fish, and eggs are complete proteins. But so are plant-based proteins such as beans, lentils, and quinoa.

Incomplete protein

An incomplete protein is a protein that doesn’t contain all nine essential amino acids. Incomplete proteins are often found in plant-based foods such as nuts, seeds, and grains.

Complementary Protein

A complementary protein is two or more incomplete proteins that, when eaten together, provide all the essential amino acids your body needs. 

Complementary proteins include:

– Whole wheat bread + peanut butter

– Oatmeal + Milk

– Brown rice + beans

How much protein do I need?

The recommended daily allowance for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. So if you weigh 72.72 kg (160 pounds), you should get about 59 grams of protein daily. 

The recommended daily allowance does change depending on age and lifestyle factors such as activity level. 

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH) recommended daily allowance (RDA) is the “average daily level of intake sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all (97%-98%) healthy people” 

However, there is also an acceptable macronutrient distribution range for protein. This range can be 10 – 35% of the total amount of calories you need can come from protein. 

What if I am trying to gain some muscle?

If you’re trying to build muscle, you may need more. The American Dietetic Association and The Academy of Sports Medicine recommend at least 1.2-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. 

Position of The American Academy Of Nutrition: 

“During times of high physical activity, energy and macronutrient needs–especially carbohydrate and protein intake–must be met in order to maintain body weight, replenish glycogen stores, and provide adequate protein for building and repair of tissue.”

American Dietetic Association

Creatine Monohydrate has been found to be a potent muscle-building supplement. Read more about Creatine Monohydrate.

What if I am trying to lose weight?

If you’re trying to lose weight, there is some evidence that a higher protein intake of 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight may be beneficial for weight loss

A recently published study in the Journal Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Identified that of all three macronutrients (protein carbohydrates, and fats) protein may be the most filling. 

Although protein intake may help with feeling fuller, the main driver of weight control is going to be your total calories. Meaning if are trying to lose weight regardless of protein intake you have to be in a calorie deficit.   

It is important to point out that there are circumstances where eating more than the daily recommended allowance for protein may be beneficial. 

There are also situations where eating a high protein intake may not be good for you, in fact, may be harmful. For instance, if you have any sort of kidney damage or disease. It is important for you to talk to your doctor and work with a registered dietitian to identify what is best for you.

If you are looking for more information on how to program your macros for weight loss check out Macros For Cutting post

What is protein powder?

Protein powders are concentrated sources of protein from animal or plant-based foods. They’re made by removing the fat and carbohydrate content from foods like milk or beans.

This creates a powder that can be mixed into liquids to make protein-rich drinks.

You can buy protein powders in many forms, including whey, casein, soy, egg white, and hemp.

Do I need to drink protein powder? 

No, you do not NEED to drink protein powder. You can meet your daily protein requirements through a well-planned and balanced diet.

An example day of eating a high protein diet might look like the following.

High-protein meal plan 141 g of protein breakfast sandwich Greek yogurt and berries snack lunch tuna salad with crackers snack apple with peanut butter dinner salmon soup potato and broccoli

Read more about a high-protein meal plan.

Grocery shopping, meal planning, meal prepping, and having time to sit down and eat does take time. Although you may not need to consume protein shakes, they are a convenient way of meeting your protein requirements. 

How many protein shakes can you drink per day?

When eating protein or food in general, it is important to have variety in your diet. Different sources of protein are going to have not only protein but also different types of nutrients. For example 

Consuming around 20-35 grams of protein per meal is a good idea. By consuming whole food sources of protein you not only will meet your daily protein goals you will also ensure that you are getting some vitamins and minerals. 

With that being said if you’re eating three meals per day, and having 20-35 grams of protein at each. If but are still having a hard time meeting your protein goals, you can consume an additional 30 grams of protein through a daily shake.

What is whey protein?

Whey protein is a milk-based protein that is produced during the cheese-making process. It is considered a complete protein, containing all the essential amino acids needed to build muscle.

Whey is also high in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are especially important for athletes and people who exercise regularly.

How is whey vs. plant protein made?

Whey is the liquid that separates from milk when it coagulates during the cheese-making process. When the liquid is dehydrated, What you have left is a powder called whey protein.

This is a very different process than making plant proteins which entails grinding up plant matter. More on this later.

Different types of whey protein powders

  • Whey protein concentrate

Whey protein concentrate is a form of whey protein partially hydrolyzed or broken down into smaller molecules. This makes it easier for your body to digest and absorb.

  • Whey Protein Isolate

Another form of Whey protein is, isolate is a form of whey protein that has been processed more than whey protein and the removal of lactose.

In some cases, this might make it easier for your body to digest and absorb than concentrate.

Benefits of whey protein

Benefits of whey protein

Increased muscle mass & strength in conjunction with resistance training:

Some studies show that whey protein consumption in combination with strength training may increase anaerobic and aerobic power. 

Whey protein may help reduce hunger.

Some studies show that whey protein can increase feelings of fullness and reduce appetite, compared to other types of proteins or carbohydrates.  

Drawbacks of whey protein

Whey can cause digestive issues for some people. Whey contains lactose, a type of sugar commonly found in milk and dairy products that are also known as “milk sugar.

If you’re sensitive to it, whey could irritate your digestive system and lead to gas, bloating, or diarrhea if consumed in high doses

What is plant protein?

When it comes to plant-based proteins, there are many options available. Some of the most popular include pulses (chickpeas, lentils, beans, tofu, soy, tempeh, seitan, nuts, and seeds.) These foods are packed with protein as well as other vitamins and minerals that our bodies need.

One thing to keep in mind is that plant proteins tend to be lower in the amino acid lysine compared to animal-based proteins. However, this can easily be remedied by eating a variety of plant-based foods throughout the day.

How is plant vs whey protein powder made?

Unlike whey protein which is solely made from cheese production, plant protein powders come in many different forms.

Plant proteins are made by extracting the plant’s protein from the plant itself. The plant is then grounded into a powder form. This usually leaves a a grain or chalky taste.

Different types of plant protein powders

  • Soy protein powder
    • Soy protein powder is made from soybeans, which are legumes. They’re a great source of plant-based protein as soybeans are very high in protein. The soybean contains all nine essential amino acids, which is rare for plant-based proteins.
  • Brown rice protein powder
    • Brown rice protein powder is made from brown rice, which has had its husk removed. Brown rice contains fiber, B vitamins, and minerals such as iron. Brown rice also contains a good amount of manganese, phosphorus, and magnesium. It doesn’t have as much protein as other plant-based protein powders
  • Hemp protein
    • Hemp protein powder is a plant-based protein powder that is made from hemp seeds. Hemp protein powder contains all 20 amino acids, including the nine essential amino acids. Hemp protein powder also contains fiber, iron, magnesium, and zinc. Hemp protein is different from other plant-based proteins because it contains all nine essential amino acids.
  • Pea Protein
    • Pea Protein Powder is made from dried peas. Pea protein powder is a high-quality plant-based protein that contains all 20 amino acids, including the nine essential amino acids. Pea protein powder is also a good source of fiber, magnesium, and potassium.

Benefits of plant protein vs. whey

Plant-based proteins are a great source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They’re also low in saturated fat and cholesterol and may help reduce the risk of heart disease.

Additionally, plant-based proteins are more environmentally friendly than animal-based proteins since they require less land and water to produce.

Disadvantages of plant-based protein powder

Plant proteins are typically missing one or more essential amino acids. However, this can be easily fixed by consuming a variety of plant-based protein sources or a bend of plant-based protein powders. (Majority of companies already offer this) 

Taste- due to the processing and nature of plant-based protein powder sometimes they can have a grainy texture.


When adding any supplementation to your diet, it is just that, supplementing your current diet. 

Before adding in a protein powder whether plant-based or whey, first take an inventory of your current diet and lifestyle.  

Are you having three meals per day and eating at least one serving of protein at each? If the answer is no, maybe start there. 

Are you strength training or living an active lifestyle? If the answer is yes then know that you may benefit from having some extra protein. 

Are you restricting calories in order to lose weight? If the answer is yes, then again maybe you could use a little extra protein. 

Overall, a majority of the population typically gets the RDAs for protein per day. So it is important to understand why the reseasons why you may need or want to add in supplemental protein powder. 

Final Thoughts 

Plant-based and whey protein powders are great options if you want to add extra protein to your diet. 

Whey protein powder might be a good option if you are able to tolerate lactose and dairy products. 

While plant-based protein powders are a good option if you prefer to avoid animal-based protein powders. 

Both animal and plant protein powders offer a similar amount of protein; choosing one over the other comes down to preference. 

All in all, most of the population can typically meet the RDA’s for protein requirements however, supplementing with protein powder is an easy, convenient way to get 20 -30 grams of extra protein per day.

Noah Quezada is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist located in Denver, Colorado. Over the course of more than a decade, he has gained extensive experience in helping clients manage their weight through in-person sessions. Noah is also the 2023 President of the Colorado Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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