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Plant Protein vs. Whey Protein: Which Is Best for Endurance Athletes?

BY James Eacott

Whey protein is a popular choice among endurance athletes for recovery and muscle building—but you might be surprised how plant-based options stack up.

Protein is crucial for endurance athletes to recover, rebuild, and keep training. We know how much is needed and when’s best to consume it, but here we’ll delve into some of the differences between protein sources.

Whey protein powders have been the go-to since the bodybuilding boom of the 80s, and clever marketing has persuaded both athletes and the wider population that protein powder is key (or at least a handy shortcut) to optimal health and performance.

But meat and dairy are no longer considered the only viable sources of protein. As plant-based diets gather momentum, it’s easier and more delicious than ever to explore the benefits of plant protein sources instead of the old standbys like whey.

Plant Protein vs. Whey: How They’re Produced

Whey is the liquid part of milk that separates during the production of cheese. For many years, this by-product was considered waste and was fed to pigs until bodybuilders and dairy marketers realized it was high in protein and very cheap. Once the whey is separated, it’s heated, microfiltered, pasteurized, and dried. Then, sweeteners and preservatives are added to produce what we recognize as protein powder.

Plant-based protein sources, on the other hand, require little-to-no processing. Some, like oats, nuts, and beans simply grow with essential amino acids included. Others, like nut butter and tofu, require some processing, but generally less than it takes to create a container of whey protein powder.

Plant Protein vs. Whey: Complete Proteins

Of course, athletes often choose whey because it’s a complete protein source: it contains all nine essential amino acids we need to consume with our diet. Most animal products are complete proteins, while plant-based protein sources often need to join forces to provide all nine amino acids (a popular example is beans and rice, which contain complementary amino acids and together make a complete protein).

But it’s a mistake to think no plant sources provide complete proteins. Soy, quinoa, pea, hemp, chia, and sunflower protein are just some of the complete plant proteins out there — which makes them just as convenient as whey when it comes to getting your body the amino acids it needs.

Plant Protein vs. Whey: Nutrient Density

Nutrient density refers to the number of nutrients food can offer per calorie. Nutrient-dense foods include fruits, veggies, whole grains, and legumes. You’ll find nutrient-poor foods at the other end of the scale, which contain few nutrients and often a lot of calories (think junk food). To maintain optimal health, endurance athletes need to consume foods dense in nutrients.

Despite being packed with protein, whey powder lacks any other nutrients. Plant-based sources, on the other hand, deliver all your protein needs while packing further nutritional goodness beyond protein alone.  

Plant Protein vs. Whey: Digestion and Health

65 percent of us suffer some degree of lactose intolerance. Because whey derives from milk, it can be hard to digest. If you’ve ever had GI distress after consuming whey, you might be in this camp. Some studies also show the consumption of milk or milk products increases risk of cancer and heart disease — and that’s before we include the implications of consuming dairy from an industry which widely uses antibiotics on livestock.

The additives in protein powders can also damage health. Whether whey- or plant-based, be sure that whatever protein you choose doesn’t contain maltodextrin, acesulfame k, sucralose, or aspartame. Despite being legally approved food additives, all are associated with serious short and long-term health issues. You can learn more about them here.

Plant sources, on the other hand, contain fiber and enzymes which actively aid digestion. Most plants are tolerated well by most people, and if you choose a whole plant instead of a powder, you’ll also avoid harmful additives.

Plant Protein vs. Whey: The Environment

Sure, we’re talking about protein sources for endurance athletes, but it’d be remiss to ignore the effects these decisions can have on the environment. A brief Google search will highlight the unsustainable impact of the meat and dairy industries on the environment, highlighting the need for alternatives.

As an athlete, one aspect I love most about my sport is training and racing in nature. If my dietary choices can benefit those places, then I’ll do my best to adjust them towards a more sustainable future.

Which to Choose?

There are many negative issues surrounding the use of whey protein powder for endurance performance. It’s effective at building muscle, but in my opinion, that’s where the benefits stop, and, in many cases, the harmful impacts appear.

When there’s an alternative protein option that packs all the benefits of whey (and eliminates many of the downsides at a comparable cost), why wouldn’t we explore that option?

Plant protein sources build muscle and aid recovery as well or better than whey, but they can also improve our health, deliver a broader range of beneficial nutrients and are much better for the environment.

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About James Eacott

James Eacott is a highly-qualified endurance coach, an experienced athlete, and a total nutrition geek. He’s on the development team at 33Fuel natural sports nutrition, a leading-edge nutrition company specializing in powerful natural products for endurance performance. Follow @33fuel for more.