If you’re building muscle or trying to uncover your abs, adding protein powder to your diet has likely crossed your mind. Extra protein can help you build maximum muscle, and it’s easier to drink a shake than plan every meal around specific foods.
Whey protein is the most popular, affordable type of protein powder you’ll find in any store. But it has drawbacks, too, which I’ll cover below.
Plant-based protein powders have improved over the years, and many are now real contenders against whey. So, should you find a plant-based protein or stick to whey?
The short answer: Whey protein works for muscle building, but plant protein can, too, if you choose a good blend. Plant-based protein appears to be better for long-term health and disease prevention. It’s also better for acne prevention and digestion for many people.
Below I’ll dive into all these details, and at the end of the post, I’ll also share my exact recommendations for which plant-based protein I prefer.
Whey protein has been popular since its heyday in the 1980s with bodybuilding culture.
Until the 1980s, it was considered a waste product of cheese making, but then manufacturers realized its potential as a supplement, and it’s been in rotation ever since.
How Is Whey Protein Powder Made?
Whey protein comes from the liquid part of milk that separates during the process of making things like cheese or yogurt. This provides a cheap and easy way to glean off milk proteins.
It’s heated, processed, and then dried to make the powder. Because whey can have a strong taste, manufacturers often add a lot of artificial flavoring or sweetener to the mix to make it easier to consume.
Benefits of Whey Protein
Whey is a source of complete protein in itself. There’s no mixing needed to get a complete amino acid profile, and the body can digest and use it to build muscle. It’s also highly filling, helping to reduce hunger and cut down on snacking.
Whey is high in the amino acid leucine, the most essential building block of muscle development. (There are debates about the long-term effects of consuming too much leucine, however, particularly on aging and cancer. So the leucine content of whey could be a double-edged sword!)
There have been some studies showing the beneficial health effects of whey protein for overweight and obese men, specifically with blood lipid profiles (source).
Whey protein is absorbed in the gut quickly and contains highly bioavailable proteins. Lastly, it’s cheaper than plant-based protein powders, and you can find it anywhere.
Downsides Of Whey Protein
If you’re lactose intolerant, whey protein can be hard to digest. If you have gastrointestinal problems after consuming whey, you’re probably in this category.
Many people also have problems with acne when taking whey protein (and with dairy in general). Whey protein feeds into biochemical pathways that increase sebum production in your skin (via the IGF-1 hormone especially), leading to breakouts for many people. (source, source)
This study went as far as to say that dairy is “nature’s perfect food for the creation of acne”—yikes!
Side Note: If you struggle with acne, you really need to read my big post on how to clear acne as a vegan. It took me years of studying and experimenting on myself to learn what I share in that post. It goes far beyond just dairy and sugar.
Anyway, back to protein powder.
Whey protein is also typically full of additives to make it more palatable, including significant amounts of sugar or artificial sweeteners. These can wreak havoc on your system, too.
In general, plant-based proteins tend to have fewer connections to cancer and other chronic diseases (source). And likewise, plant-based protein powders are often more wholesome, healthy offerings overall.
Plant-Based Protein Powder
Plant-based protein powder has come a long way. There are many different types to choose from, and they’re now available at more and more stores.
How is Plant-Based Protein Powder Made?
Plant-based powders require the protein isolate from whichever plant source you’re using. How companies get this isolate depends on a few different methods:
- Method 1: Hexane extraction – This method is controversial. It uses a solvent to isolate the protein, but not all hexane can be removed. It’s a neurotoxin, but current studies have shown it to be safe.
- Method 2: Ultrafiltration – This method uses a mechanical process to grind down the product and then dissolve it in an alkaline solution. The results are filtered. The protein solidifies and separates through centrifugation.
- Method 3: Enzymatic hydrolysis – Manufacturers use hydrolysis to separate legumes from their proteins. Enzymes speed up the reaction, but it’s still a slower process than the previous two. However, many people see it as the cleanest of the three.
Benefits of Plant-Based Protein Powder
Plant-based protein powders may be easier on the digestive system than whey protein because there is no dairy to cause issues.
Plant-based protein powders may also require less sugar and additives to make them palatable, in comparison to whey. (But there are still some additives in most of them—otherwise, they’d be too earthy-tasting and hard to mix with a beverage.)
Plant-based protein powders have less of a tendency to cause acne compared to whey protein, so they may be a better choice for acne-prone people (source). This is because they don’t stimulate the IGF-1 hormone as much.
If you have any inclination toward animal rights or environmentalism, plant-based proteins are more sustainable in those ways. And of course, if you’re vegan or want to be vegan, plant-based proteins are clearly the only ones for you!
Downsides of Plant-Based Protein Powder
Not all plant proteins have a complete amino acid profile. And some are less bioavailable than whey protein, too. Therefore, for optimum results, you need to be informed about picking a good plant-based blend. (More on that below.)
Plant-based proteins can also be a little harder to find in stores. If you have access to larger health food stores, you’ll probably be able to find them. But if not, you may have to order them online.
Because plant-based protein powders have only recently seen dramatic improvements, some people also associate them with possibly worse taste or worse ability to blend with liquids. These problems are less of a problem today, though.
Types of Plant-Based Protein Powders
Let’s take a look at a few different types of plant-based protein powders.
Pea Protein Powder
Pea protein powder is made from split yellow peas. It’s become one of the most popular plant-based options available today.
Pea protein is high in key amino acids, particularly the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), otherwise known as leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These are the most responsible for muscle-building gains.
A quarter-cup serving of pea protein powder yields about 21 grams of protein and about 100 calories.
Some studies suggest consuming pea protein provides the same gains as whey protein. Preliminary animal and human studies showed a possible link between pea protein and lower blood pressure. Plus, it should help you feel full—and that can help reduce snacking and overall calories.
Brown Rice Protein Powder
Brown rice protein powder is easy to find, too, and it has around 22 grams of protein per quarter-cup serving. It’s low in lysine but high in many muscle-building amino acids like essential BCAAs.
A preliminary study suggests that brown rice powder may be on the same level as whey protein when it comes to building muscle—but results are not conclusive.
It doesn’t have a complete amino acid profile by itself, so you may need to monitor your overall diet to make sure you’re filling any gaps. (Or just choose a protein powder that combines brown rice with pea protein, which is naturally complementary to it.)
A word of caution: Rice is often associated with high levels of arsenic. If rice sources have this contamination, the protein powder will have it, too. This won’t cause immediate problems, but it could increase disease risk over the course of years. Choose brands that state the testing levels to ensure that you’re safe.
Hemp Protein Powder
Hemp protein comes from the same plant as cannabis, but it’s free of THC. A quarter-cup serving of unflavored hemp protein powder offers 12 grams of protein with around 108 calories. It’s an excellent source of fiber, iron, ALA, omega-3s, and magnesium.
Hemp is not a complete protein—it’s low in lysine—but if you eat legumes or quinoa regularly, you should be fine. Those combinations of foods can create complete amino acid profiles.
Some preliminary studies indicate that hemp protein may lower blood pressure.
Pumpkin Seed Protein Powder
Pumpkin seeds are naturally high in both protein and healthy fats, but in the powdered form, it has fewer calories. A quarter cup of unflavored pumpkin seed protein powder has around 18 grams of protein and about 108 calories.
Pumpkin seed protein does not have a complete amino acid profile—it’s low in both threonine and lysine. However, if you regularly eat balanced meals, you should be able to get all the building blocks you need.
Pumpkin seed powder offers other nutrients, too, such as magnesium, iron, and zinc. In animal studies, researchers found a potential link between the consumption of pumpkin seed protein and a reduction in bad cholesterol.
Animal studies also showed benefits for liver function and antioxidant activity over animals given casein protein. There are no human studies on this just yet, so results aren’t conclusive. However, the high amounts of minerals could be good news.
Chia Seed Protein Powder
Chia is a popular source of protein for vegans, and it comes in a convenient protein powder as well. A quarter cup of chia protein powder has just 50 calories and around 10 grams of protein. It’s low in lysine, so be aware of that, but the low calorie count may be helpful depending on your needs.
Chia powder may be more digestible than the raw seed form according to one study, allowing your body to absorb nutrients better. It’s high in other nutrients and minerals, including biotin, and provides a plentiful amount of fiber per serving.
Chia is great for those of you who want a small protein boost but are concerned about the number of calories in protein powders. It’s best if you already have plenty of plant-based protein sources in your diet, and you just want to add a bit more.
Soy Protein Powder
Soy is another plant source that offers a complete amino acid profile. A quarter cup of unflavored soy protein powder contains 22 grams of protein and around 95 calories.
Soy is a common allergen, so use caution if you suspect you’re allergic. The compounds responsible for your allergy will still be in the protein powder.
Soy protein is typically easy to find and one of the less expensive options, comparatively speaking.
Sacha Inchi Protein Powder
This protein source comes from a nut grown in Peru. It’s quite rare, so this protein powder will be a more significant investment if you decide to go this route.
A quarter cup of unflavored sacha inchi protein powder has 17 grams of protein and around 120 calories. It’s low in lysine but plentiful in other amino acids required for muscle growth.
Recent studies suggested that Sacha Inchi is comparable to taking soy protein powder with participants showing effective protein synthesis.
It is also high in arginine, which your body uses to make nitric oxide. Nitric oxide triggers blood vessel expansion. This can help support blood flow and lower blood pressure. It can also increase vascularity (visible veins, desired by bodybuilders).
Also, sacha inchi is high in ALA Omega 3, which supports heart and brain health.
Sunflower Seed Protein Powder
Sunflower seed protein powder is relatively new, but it is growing in popularity. A quarter cup of unflavored protein powder has around 13 grams of protein but only approximately 91 calories.
It doesn’t have a complete amino acid profile because it’s short on lysine. Manufacturers often combine sunflower seed protein with quinoa to fill in the gaps, but you could do the same on your own, too.
So far, there aren’t many studies out about sunflower seed protein, so it’s still a bit of an unknown as far as effectiveness. It’s not as common, so you may not be able to find it in your local store as quickly either.
Blended Plant Proteins
Because only a few plant sources provide a full amino acid profile, manufacturers often combine plant sources to fill in the gaps. Common blends include pea and brown rice protein, or any plant protein with quinoa.
These blends help provide complete proteins and may help with things like taste and the ability to blend the powder with liquid, too.
Other common additions to plant-based proteins include enzymes to help your body digest and absorb the protein more efficiently. Fermented plant sources may be added to help with the same.
Sprouted vegetable sources may also be added to help break down compounds that inhibit mineral and nutrient absorption.
Why I Recommend Going With Plant-Based Protein
Admittedly, I am a little biased in this discussion—if you didn’t notice, this is a vegan website. But I think there are solid reasons for choosing plant-based protein, which I’ve outlined above.
Like I said above, whey works for muscle building, but plant-based protein can, too, and it appears to be superior for long-term health and disease prevention.
Plant-based is also the clear choice if you care about animal rights or the environment. And it’s better at preventing acne and digestive issues for many people.
If plant-based is your choice, the next step is to find a formula that’s reliable, safe, and high quality. The following plant-based protein powders deliver nutrition with safety-tested ingredients and are available online and possibly in your local store.
This is the protein powder I’ve used for a couple of years now. It has a blend of plant sources—chia, brown rice, and pea—to provide a complete amino acid profile. It has 21 grams of protein and 150 calories per serving, with 0 sugars and only four net carbs.
It uses non-GMO ingredients with no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. The chocolate flavor is great in my opinion, but it may be too much if you want to blend it with things that don’t go well with chocolate.
I’ve noticed it blends into water much better than almond milk, but even in the almond milk, it’s not a problem. It’s a solid choice for an all-around plant-based protein powder.
This is a blend of pea protein and brown rice protein that gets you a full amino acid profile. This is the plant protein formulated and promoted by Michael Matthews, author of the famous Bigger Leaner Stronger book series (which is great, by the way).
It contains 25 grams of protein in a 160-calorie scoop. It also includes a bunch of extra nutrients sometimes missing on plant-based diets, including digestive enzymes, vitamin B12, beta-alanine, and creatine. Many vegans say this is their favorite protein powder.
This gluten-free, vegan-friendly protein powder uses a single ingredient to provide 17 grams of complete protein in only 80 calories. It also contains around 11mg of soy isoflavones, a compound that may improve cognitive function.
It’s colorless and flavorless, mixing well with beverages or vegan yogurts. It also performs well when added to baked goods like granola or muffins.
This option is best if you’d like to add protein to your baked goods instead of drinking it. While it also performs well in a drink, it withstands the heat of cooking better than some other protein powders on the market.
KOS protein powder is another great blend. It uses pumpkin seed, pea, quinoa, flaxseed, and chia seed. It features a full amino acid profile with a proprietary enzyme blend designed for easier digestion and absorption.
It’s a raw vegan option made with mechanical extraction and contains all the fiber found in these plant sources. It provides 20 grams of protein (including BCAAs) in a 160-calorie serving.
It comes in a few flavors and uses a natural sugar derived from monk fruit. It does contain tree nuts but no peanuts or soy for those of you with allergies.
This plain protein powder uses pea protein for a complete amino acid profile. It’s unflavored and designed to blend seamlessly with a beverage, vegan yogurt, or other food sources.
It has 22 grams of protein per serving with 4.8 grams of BCAAs and 2.18 grams of arginine (helps your body produce nitric acid).
It uses no added flavors, sugars, or colors and is sourced from an organic farm in Canada. The company works with the farm to ensure sustainable farming practices for the environment and fair treatment for workers and animal welfare.
This pea protein is isolated without the use of hexane or enzymes, eliminating any toxins. It’s third-party tested for nutritional content and provides around 35 servings per container.
This organic protein powder provides complete protein and fiber profiles with necessary nutrients and minerals. It offers four grams of protein per one-tablespoon serving with around 34 tablespoons in the container. So it’s more expensive per gram of protein.
Still, if you’re interested in the complete amino acid profile along with the potential to boost nitric acid in the body, this could be a good choice. Plus, it’s free of gluten, preservatives, refined sugars, fillers, and any artificial ingredients.
It blends well with beverages and is suitable to mix with other foods like vegan yogurt. It has a delicious flavor that many people even find addictive.
Building Muscle As A Vegan
You don’t have to sacrifice long-term health or compassionate principles for the sake of building the body you want. With plant protein, it’s possible to have it all.
With plant-based protein blends, sticking with your commitment is much easier even while hitting high protein numbers (many athletes aim for 0.8g of protein per pound of bodyweight or higher each day).
Watch calories, exercise, get good sleep, and support your body with the right overall nutrition so that protein powder can push you over the finish line.
For more on building a ripped vegan physique, check out my post on “How to Get Six Pack Abs on a Vegan Diet.” It’s where I outline all my personal hacks for getting lean (beyond the level that a healthy diet will naturally get you to).
Two More Recommendations for Your Plant-Based Journey
1. This is the best free video training I’ve found on plant-based nutrition. You’ll learn how to reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and obesity—all with plant-based food. Watch the free “Food for Health Masterclass” here.
2. This is the best vegan multivitamin I’ve found in my 14 years of being vegan. It has vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3—and nothing else. Translation: It only has the nutrients vegans are actually low in. Read my full review of Future Kind’s multivitamin here (with 10% discount).
If you found this guide helpful and want to remember the tips, consider saving the Pin below to your Pinterest “Nutrition” or “Plant-Based Diet” boards!