Protein powders are a convenient way to boost your protein intake, but are plant-based proteins a healthier option than whey or other animal-based protein powders? Here’s a look at the pros and cons of each, and my recommendations.
What to look for in any protein supplement
No matter what type of protein supplement you use, I always recommend choosing one that’s organic, and with as few ingredients as possible. Scan the ingredients label and put it back if you see artificial flavors, sweeteners, colors, or ingredients you don’t recognize. It’s also not worth investing in brands that tout muscle-building additives. Keep in mind that some protein supplements are meant to be a complete meal replacement, so they’ll be higher in calories and include carbs and fat.
Plant protein powders
Pros: If you avoid dairy, eggs or meats, or want to experiment with cutting these out of your diet, plant protein powders are a good option for you. Many people find plant proteins easier to digest, and they feel better overall when they cut out dairy. Plant proteins also provide some extra fiber.
Plant proteins are commonly made from rice, pea, soy, or seeds like hemp, pumpkin, or chia, and often contain fewer unwanted additives than animal-based proteins. With the exception of soy or hemp, individual plant proteins don’t provide all of the essential amino acids. For example, pea protein lacks the amino acid methionine, but it’s high in lysine. Rice protein on the other hand, is high in methionine but not lysine.
Cons: The biggest negatives about plant protein supplements are taste and texture. Most of them are “grassy” tasting, because, well – they’re made from plants. Because of this, many people find that they really need to add lots of stuff (i.e. sweetener, fruit, nut butters etc) to mask the taste.
Finally, with regard to plant-based proteins, plant protein comes from plants, which absorb their nutrients (and toxins) from what’s in the soil and water. It’s a great example of why it’s important to not rely on any one food for all of your nutrition.
Animal-based protein powders
The most common animal-based protein supplements are made from whey or casein (milk-based), egg, or collagen (bone-based, but I’ve been noticing more plant collagen powders popping up). With the exception of collagen, all are complete proteins, so you’ll get all of your essential amino acids. Animal-based protein powders tend to have a more neutral taste and blend easier than plant protein powders. Here are the differences between these proteins:
Whey, derived from milk, is prized for its wide range of amino acids, including the branch chain amino acids that stimulate muscle synthesis. It’s also very quickly absorbed, so it’s a great choice for after a workout.
Casein is also derived from milk, and provides a full range of amino acids. However, it’s a more slowly absorbed form of protein and it tends to stick around in your body for longer. It might not give your muscles as much of a boost right after a workout, but it will help to curb your appetite for longer. It’s good to use as a filling between meal or bedtime snack.
Egg white protein is a good option for those who are sensitive to dairy. It has a neutral taste and good bendability. However, while it will help you meet your protein goals, research suggests that it’s not very effective in stimulating muscle growth.
Collagen is the newer protein supplement on the block. It’s most commonly made bones and cartilage. It’s not a complete protein, but it is high in the amino acids that build and repair skin and connective tissue – hence the reported claims that collagen is beneficial for skin, hair, nails, joints, and even blood vessel elasticity.
If you want or need a supplement, try a few different brands to see which one tastes best. There’s no need to rush out and buy a protein powder that sits in your pantry because it tastes like yuk!