Protein powders are among the most popular nutrition supplements on the market.

To accommodate different dietary restrictions and lifestyles, many manufacturers provide both whey protein powder — derived from cow’s milk — and plant-based alternatives.

With so many types of protein powders available, you may wonder if any specific type is superior and which one suits your needs and preferences.

This article compares plant-based and whey protein powders to help you decide which one is best for you.

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Whey protein powderPlant-based protein powder
Lactose-freenoyes
Vegan-friendlynoyes
Complete proteinyesno (except soy or specific mixes)
Provides 20–30 grams of protein per scoopyessometimes
Helps build muscleyesyes
Supports weight lossyesyes
Costdepends on branddepends on brand

There are many similarities and differences between plant-based and whey protein powders.

How they’re made

Most whey protein powders are isolated from whey, a milky liquid byproduct from cheese making. Once the liquid has been collected, carbohydrates, fat, water, and other components are removed. The remaining protein is then spray-dried into a powder (1, 2).

Since whey protein powder is made from cow’s milk, it contains a milk sugar called lactose. Due to processing differences, whey protein isolate contains less lactose than whey protein concentrate (1, 2).

Plant-based protein powders are derived from various types of plants — commonly brown rice, pea, soy, and hemp. Depending on the brand, a powder may be made from one type of plant or a combination of plants (3).

Since they’re made entirely from plants, plant-based protein powders don’t contain dairy or lactose, which makes them a good option if you follow a vegan diet or are lactose intolerant.

Protein content

Typically, whey and plant-based protein powders contain similar amounts of protein, with the average product providing 20–30 grams per serving.

Whey protein powder is considered a complete protein since it contains all nine essential amino acids — the building blocks of protein. It also contains leucine, isoleucine, and valine, which are branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) important for muscle building (4, 5).

The protein content of plant-based protein powder depends on which plant it’s made from. Plant-based powders typically contain fewer BCAAs than whey powders. Plus, only soy protein powder is considered complete (3).

Conveniently, some manufacturers combine multiple plant proteins in their products to ensure they contain all essential amino acids and BCAAs.

Ultimately, the best way to know if a protein powder contains a good amount of protein — 20–30 grams per serving — and an optimal combination of amino acids is to read the nutrition label.

Digestibility and food sensitivities

Whey protein powder contains lactose, a common food sensitivity. Opting for whey protein isolate can lower the amount of lactose per serving but may still lead to stomach upset, bloating, and gas if you’re highly sensitive to lactose.

Plant-based protein powders contain varying ingredients. Some types contain the common allergens soy and gluten, so read labels carefully and select products specifically labeled soy-free and/or gluten-free if needed.

Some plant-based protein powders — especially those containing pea protein — can cause bloating and cramping if you have irritable bowel syndrome or are sensitive to FODMAPs.

If you have food sensitivities, a good way to find out which protein powder is right for you is to simply try out a selection and keep a food and health diary. This can help you identify and keep track of any side effects that arise from using different products.

Cost

The prices of plant-based and whey protein powders largely depend on the brand.

In general, you can find either type with similar pricing. Still, products that are advertised as organic, keto, or paleo or have other specialized qualities often come at a higher cost.

Also keep in mind that the serving sizes of some plant-based protein powders, such as hemp, are larger than others, such as pea. Thus, you’ll use more powder in less time, which can increase the overall cost.

If you’re looking for a cheaper plant-based option, choose one with a similar serving size to whey products.

Summary

Whey protein powder is a high quality protein derived from cow’s milk that contains lactose. Plant-based protein powders are made from various plants, such as brown rice, soy, or pea, and are vegan-friendly and lactose-free.

To build muscle, you need to engage in strength training and consume enough protein that contains all essential amino acids and BCAAs.

Whey protein isolate is considered the gold standard for muscle growth, as it’s a complete protein, contains a high amount of the BCAA leucine, and is absorbed the quickest (5).

However, plant-based protein powders can also be complete proteins and contain high amounts of leucine, provided that they contain two or more plant proteins or are fortified with BCAAs (5, 6).

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).

Regardless of the type of protein powder you choose, a good one contains at least 20–30 grams of protein and 5–12 grams of BCAAs — at least 3 grams of which are leucine — per serving (5, 11).

While protein powders can be a convenient way to get protein into your diet, they should not be your main protein source. Rather, opt for whole food protein sources like chicken, fish, tofu, eggs, or legumes and use powder to supplement if you need additional protein.

The amount of protein you get per day is one of the most important considerations for muscle growth. Most people should aim to get 0.6–0.9 grams of protein per pound (1.4–2.0 grams per kg) of body weight per day, or 20–40 grams of protein per meal (5, 12, 13, 14).

Summary

Both whey and plant-based protein powders are effective for building muscle. Ideally, opt for a protein powder that contains at least 20 grams of protein per serving.

Weight loss is achieved through a calorie deficit, which is when you consume fewer calories than your body burns in a day. This is usually achieved by eating and drinking fewer calories and increasing physical activity.

Both whey and plant-based protein powders can help you lose weight by promoting feelings of fullness and helping preserve lean muscle mass — the fat-free part of your body.

Here are some considerations that may further help your weight loss efforts:

  • Stick with protein-only supplements. Many protein powders contain ingredients that add calories, such as added sugars. Opt for a protein powder that contains just protein.
  • Look for 100–150 calories or fewer per serving. If the number is any higher, the product likely contains additional ingredients.
  • Limit smoothies. If you add protein powder to a smoothie, stick with a 1-cup (250-mL) serving. Adding many other ingredients, such as milk, fruit, peanut butter, or juice, can make your smoothie significantly higher in calories.
  • Add it to other foods. Try adding protein powder to whole foods like pancakes or oatmeal.
  • Don’t use it as a meal replacement. Protein powders and drinks don’t contain enough nutrients or calories to be considered meals. Relying on them for meal replacements can lead to hunger and excess snacking throughout the day.
  • Incorporate strength training. Strength training at least a few times per week can help preserve muscle mass and promote muscle building. Having more muscle mass may increase your metabolism to further support weight loss (15, 16, 17).
Summary

Using protein powder to get in extra protein can aid weight loss by promoting feelings of fullness and preserving muscle mass. For the best results, use it alongside a healthy diet and stick with protein powders with minimal ingredients.

Choosing a protein powder is highly individual.

If you’re already using and enjoying whey protein powder, there’s no reason to replace it with a plant-based version.

However, if you find yourself experiencing stomach issues or wish to try a non-whey option, there are many plant-based protein powders that can also give you great results. Ideally, choose a version that contains more than one plant protein source.

Ultimately, the best protein powder for you is one you enjoy that meets your dietary needs and contains 20–30 grams of protein per serving.

Protein powders are a great supplement that supports muscle growth and weight loss.

Depending on your needs, you may prefer to use an animal-based whey protein powder or a plant-based powder. Either type can provide enough protein to support your fitness goals.

When looking for a protein powder, look for one that has minimal ingredients and contains 20–30 grams of protein and 5–12 grams of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) per serving. If you opt for plant-based protein, choose a mixed blend.