Fitness, Nutrition

What the Hey, Whey? The Case For Plant-Based Protein Supplements

Last updated 7 July 2016.

Plant-based protein infographic

As a gym goer, you probably use whey protein, right? You’ve probably never even considered vegetarian, or plant-based protein supplements. Well consider this your wake-up call. 

For years, whey has been the go-to supplement for athletes, regular gym-goers, and anyone generally interested in topping up on the protein they get from whole foods. Whey protein dominates the shelves at supplement shops to the exclusion of just about everything else. 

Perhaps you are also aware of its unfortunate side effect then. Whey protein gives a lot of people flatulence (and worse). And, it’s really not that good for your health in other ways too. 

Luckily, there’s a great alternative to whey that you might not be aware of. It’s much healthier than most whey products out there, and yes, it will stop you farting. 

Drum roll please for plant-based protein powder. 

Plant-based protein supplements

Plant based protein supplements

Plant-based protein supplements, and specifically brown rice and pea protein, are just as effective at helping you to build muscle (or achieve other exercise goals). 

That’s right – you heard me correctly. Just as effective. 

Plant protein supplements can be just as effective as whey for gym goers Click To Tweet

Three months ago, I was unaware that a viable (and easily accessible) alternative to whey existed, let alone that it derived from the humble rice grain and pea. However, now that I take it I wouldn’t consider going back.  

Let me first explain the chain of smelly events that led to the transition. 

The reason why whey stinks 

Argument

As far as conversions go, mine from whey to plant-based protein doesn’t exactly rival that of Constantine’s 4th century one to Christianity in importance, but it’s worth retelling anyway.

I started taking whey 11 months ago when I finally decided to stop being fat. I was going to the gym regularly, and conventional wisdom dictates that supplementing is an important ingredient in building lean muscle. So supplement I did.

A little research, and all my exercising friends, told me that I should use a whey protein isolate supplement for the best results. 

I began consuming two or three whey shakes a day. The flatulence began immediately. I tried a variety of different brands over this time, and frequency and stench of the flatulence would ebb and flow. I was seeing good results from the gym, so I let it be.

However, this became untenable when I got a girlfriend. Seeing her cower at the very end of the bed, using the blanket as an improvised gas mask, made me feel terrible. I knew my farts smelled, but the look on her face suggested they were more toxic than I had realized.

As she knew a thing or two about nutrition, she suggested that I try some alternatives. After some initial resistance, I began taking a combination of pea and brown rice protein powder. 

I have been using this combo for three months and have achieved some excellent results in the gym without changing my training. 

AND I no longer gas my girlfriend at night.

WTF, whey?

Whey protein

 

Whey protein is derived from cow’s milk and is the liquid leftover when milk is turned to cheese.

Based on the processing method, protein can be concentrate, isolate or hydrolysate. Whey isolate is heralded to be the superior option for a gym goer because it contains the highest amount of protein per serving. 

Whey is popular because it’s cheap, highly accessible and – it works!

Study after study has demonstrated that using a whey protein product assists in muscle recovery and growth. Whey’s a complete protein (more on that below), and the body absorbs it quickly, making it an attractive addition to a post-workout shake. 

However, there are several important downsides to whey that’s worth knowing about.

Digestibility issues

Whey protein contains lactose (the sugar found in milk). Lactose is problematic for an increasing number of us, and can lead to flatulence, diarrhea and feeling bloated. In fact, it is believed that as much as 65 percent of the human population has an impaired ability to digest lactose after infancy. 

A common misconception about whey is that the lactose is eliminated during the extraction process. However, that isn’t the case

And you only need a small amount of lactose to enter your digestive tract to trigger a chain of very smelly health problems. 

Whey is heavily processed 

And that isn’t the only issue. 

Although you can buy raw (unpasterized) whey protein, most of the products out there are heavily processed. This heavy processing severely degrades the nutritional quality of whey – including the quality of the protein itself

Further, in order to make whey palatable, manufacturers fill whey products with horrible artificial sweeteners. Acesulfame potassium and sucralose are common in many whey products. Nutrition Beast has a good explanation of the common artificial sweeteners in whey protein and why they’re so nasty.  

Some of these artificial ingredients have no place in your body

Artificial sweeteners have no place in a healthy body, and would definitely have contributed to my digestive problems when I was taking whey. 

The artificial ingredients in whey protein have no place in a healthy body Click To Tweet

There are some truly monstrous flavors to choose from with whey. The Gold Standard brand, for example, offer whey protein isolate in “Delicious Strawberry”, “Double Rich Chocolate” and “Banana Cream”, among other sickly sounding things. 

Now let’s just break this down for a second. 

You’ve just busted your gut at the gym, only to take in a load of chemicals in the process of refueling your muscles. Not a wise move. 

Unflavored protein powder tastes bad, you say? Toughen up I say. 

To go with the artificial sweeteners, some whey protein supplements also contain heavy metals.

Some whey products contain heavy metals. What the hey, whey? Click To Tweet

Yes, in 2010 unsafe levels of arsenic, cadmium and lead were found in whey protein products made by Muscle Milk and EAS, two popular brands. These heavy metals snuck their way in as byproducts of the manufacturing process and through the artificial additives. Healthy that is not.   

Protein powders are unregulated by the US Food and Drug Administration. As they’re considered dietary supplements, makers aren’t required to test the products before sale to ensure their safety.

Last but not least, as with any dairy product it’s prudent to take into account the health of the cows themselves. When it comes to dairy, the adage ‘you are what you eat’ can be replaced by ‘you are what you eat ate’. 

In the dairy industry, cows that are given a variety of hormones and medications (especially antibiotics) to maximize their milk production, which effectively destroys their immune system. Only a small fraction actually eat grass, and instead are given a diet of soy and corn grown with unnatural fertilizers. 

All of that ends up in your whey product. 

Seeing the brown rice and pea protein light

Brown rice pic

There are several types of plant-based proteins on the market, but not all of them are created equal. 

The most popular are brown rice, pea, hemp, and soy protein. 

Of those, brown rice and pea are the best in the context of muscle growth and recovery. Hemp is amazing for your health too. Soy raises several red flags for anyone supplementing. I’ll go through each of them below. 

In general, plant-based protein share these common friendly features:

  • Allergen-free. Plants are much easier to digest than dairy products. As I mentioned above, my flatulence practically stopped after I switched from whey to plant-based protein. 
  • Healthier. Most brands add little or no artificial sweeteners. 
  • Tastes OK. Plant proteins tend to have a neutral taste, and mix well with water. They might not be as flavorsome as your double rich chocolate whey, but when you consider the sweeteners that were necessary to concoct it, this is a very good thing.

Brown rice protein vs whey

Brown rice protein powder is manufactured to separate out the proteins from the carbs you’d normally associate with rice, and has the added benefit of being gluten-free, and high in fiber and Vitamin B. A typical product may contain anywhere from 20 to 24 grams of protein per one scoop serving, which is only slightly less protein than whey isolate.

As I explain below, brown rice protein has been clinically proven to be the equal of whey as a supplement for strength training.  

Pea protein vs whey

Pea protein powder comes from the yellow split pea and is very easy to digest. It has a possible protein content of 80%, which is moderately lower than brown rice at 90% and whey isolate at 95%. This just means you’re going to want to add an extra bit to each shake to compensate. Definitely not a deal beaker for me.

It also absorbs quickly, making it a good choice to have immediately after a workout.  

Hemp protein vs whey

Hemp seeds pack a pretty nutritious punch. They’re considered a superfood because of their high content of essential fatty acids and other vitamins and minerals. However, they only contain around half the amount of protein as brown rice does per serving. 

Add hemp protein to your diet by all means, but it probably shouldn’t be your primary protein supplement for exercise recovery and muscle building.

Soy protein vs whey

Soy protein is a byproduct of the soya bean, and in times gone by has been a popular source of protein.

However, soy has come under a lot of scrutiny lately. The chief criticisms of soy protein are that it’s highly processed, soy is one of the most genetically modified crops in the world, and it messes with our hormones. It’s also not considered to be a particularly effective exercise supplement. 

For those reasons, I choose to be a soy free zone. 

Yes, you will get enough amino acids

Muscle man

The most common gripe with plant-based proteins is that they tend to be deficient in some amino acids, whereas whey protein has a complete amino acid profile. While this is true, the problem is easily overcome.

First, some protein 101. Protein is an important macronutrient that the body needs to survive and thrive, and can be found in meat, dairy, nuts, and beans, to name a few sources.

Protein is comprised of building blocks called amino acids, which help repair and build new muscles. In effect, it’s the amino acids within protein that athletes crave. 

There are nine essential amino acids that are especially important for humans to function. Whey contain all nine of the amino acids, and is therefore considered a complete protein. Plants, however, are not complete proteins because they tend to either miss one or more or be low in some of the essential amino acids.

The solution then is to combine your plant-based protein sources in order to fill any potential nutritional gap from a single protein source.  

The combination that I have used for three months is brown rice and pea protein. Rice protein is high in amino acids cysteine and methionine, but tends to be low in lysine. Pea protein, on the other hand, tends to be low in cysteine and methionine but high in lysine. This combination is recommended by others too. 

Using a combination of brown rice and pea protein, you get all the amino acids found in whey. And trust me, you won’t fart nearly as much. 

Plant protein just as good at muscle synthesis 

Confused about BCAAs

Whey is also promoted as being a particularly good protein supplement because it’s high in leucine, one of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). 

BCAA’s, but mainly leucine, are prized for their role in muscle growth, and are even sold as a separate supplement for those who wanting to take their strength training to the next level. 

Plant-based proteins contain less leiucine than whey protein. However, Dr Jeff Volek explains why the difference in leiucine levels between plant protein and whey isn’t necessarily a big deal.  

“Research suggests that consuming 1.75-3.5 grams of leucine is a key factor when trying to maximize muscle protein synthesis. However, once this leucine level is reached, a protein’s ability to increase muscle protein synthesis effectively plateaus. Plant-based proteins contain about 6-8% leucine while animal-based proteins contain about 8-11% … one could achieve the same lean mass and strength improvements with either whey or rice protein, provided the dose of rice protein was high enough to provide an effective amount of leucine.”

The upshot? If your dose of plant-based protein is ‘high enough’, the difference in leicuine levels won’t matter. 

48 grams of protein per day is enough 

48 grams per day, according to Volek (pointing to the study I discuss below), is enough to meet most people’s needs. 

If you go to the gym, aim for 48 grams of brown rice protein a day Click To Tweet

That’s the equivalent of two protein shakes per day. If you work out regularly and take protein supplements, you’d want to be having two shakes daily in any event.

The Rock only takes one protein shake a day, but check out what he eats.

Plant protein is scientifically proven 

Science of protein

You probably want a clinical study that proves how effective plant protein can be, right? 

Done.  

Plant-based protein powder hasn’t been studied nearly to the same extent as whey, and mainly only in the context of whey vs soy protein (whey won this battle). 

However, there is one very interesting study from 2013 in which brown rice protein was clinically shown to be the equal of whey protein in terms of building muscle, strength and aiding in exercise recovery. The dose in this study was 48 grams, and as I mentioned above, this isn’t particularly high or inaccessible amount to be supplementing.

You don’t need to be a vegetarian to use plant protein 

Meat eater pic

A quick aside on the perception of plant protein.

Plant protein supplements are often called vegan protein, and are marketed by some health food companies as such. And yes, they are popular with the vegan crowd.

A product targeted towards vegans might not appeal to some carnivores and dairy eaters. But there’s no good reason for that! I eat meat (with due diligence) and dairy every day, but when it comes to supplementing my protein, I’m now vegan all the way.

As they say, you can eat meat and dairy, and supplement your protein like a vegan too.

You can eat meat and dairy, and supplement your protein like a vegan too Click To Tweet

A plant-based protein buying guide

Protein powder buying guide

Plant protein generally costs more than whey, although the saying that you get what you pay for is apt when it comes to protein powder supplements.

They can be found at some organic health shops, but probably the most convenient way to get hold of a quality product is to buy from a trusted online source.

6 key things to keep in mind

When choosing your plant-based protein powder, keep these six considerations in mind:

  • Do you want a single source protein, or a blend of two or more? The answer will depend on your health/exercise goal. If it’s to build lean muscle, then a blend of brown rice and pea protein is recommended
  • Avoid ones with artificial flavors and sweeteners. Aspartame and sucralose won’t be in many (respectable) brands, but it’s always worth examining the nutritional label, especially if the product has a milkshake sounding name.
  • An unflavored protein powder is better for you, but if you prefer a flavor then make sure it contains natural sources, like cinnamon, vanilla, cacao or mesquite.
  • I’ve found the taste of unflavored pea and brown protein to be neutral and entirely inoffensive, although it does require 20 seconds of shaking to mix smoothly with water.
  • Not all plant-based protein powers can be considered gluten-free, but all are vegan.
  • All will be girlfriend (or boyfriend) approved. 

8 favorite plant protein powders 

Generally speaking, the fewer the ingredients the better. The exception being is when it’s a longer list of things, but every single ingredient is recognizable and super awesome for you. These are probably our eight favorites. 

Perfect fit vanilla  Excellent. That is all.

Yuve – Tasty, and has chia!

Warrior Food Extreme Vanilla Plus – Extremely awesome. 

Navitas Naturals Organic Hemp Protein Powder  This is a great brand in general for superfoods. 

Plant Fusion Vanilla Bean – Awesome.

Garden of Life Raw Protein Vanilla – A higher number of ingredients than we would go for usually, but all good stuff.

Vega Sport Performance Protein Vanilla – Awesome.

Amazing meal (original) – Blended with greens and probiotics, this is more a multi-purpose product than strictly protein.

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About Rezzan Hussey


Hi, I'm Rez. This blog is dedicated to the practice and pursuit of self-awareness, which is a pretty massive subject. I hope you'll find something new and useful here. I post twice a week, so come back regularly.