WHICH PROTEIN POWDER IS BETTER: PLANT-BASED OR ANIMAL-BASED?

Are you considering supplementing with a protein powder? From plant-based to whey, let’s break down some of your options.


BY: ANNE DANAHY, MS, RD

Protein powders have long been viewed as a convenient way to boost your protein intake.  They’re a great way to flavor a smoothie, and that extra protein helps keep hunger away for a lot longer.

However, food purists always ask – isn’t it best to get your protein from real foods? Do we really need that extra protein?

And are the emerging plant-based protein products a healthier option than whey or other animal-based protein powders?

Let’s first start with some basics.

  • Protein is an essential macronutrient, along with fat, carbohydrates and water.
  • Most of us get plenty of protein each day, even if we eat a mostly plant-based diet.
  • You don’t have to eat animal foods to get adequate protein.
  • Your body breaks down all of the protein you eat into 20 individual amino acids. It then uses those amino acids to rebuild tissues, organs and throughout your body. Of the 20 amino acids that are used to run your body, 9 are essential – which means you have to get them through your diet. The others can be made in your body.

The most important difference between animal-based and plant-based proteins is their amino acid composition. Animal proteins (meat, dairy, eggs, or supplements made from these) provide all 9 of the essential amino acids.

Plant proteins (soy, legumes, nuts, seeds, grains, and vegetables) are missing one or more of those essential acids. However, what one plant protein is lacking, another probably has. What that means is that as long as you’re getting a variety in the type of proteins you’re eating, you should be fine.

So why is protein intake important to maintain throughout your life?

By including a good source of protein throughout the day as you eat, it can help stabilize your blood sugar and insulin levels, and it also helps stimulate muscle synthesis.

Muscle tissue can use 20-30 grams of protein 3-4 times each day for repair and growth. If you’re getting much less, it might not be enough to maintain or grow your muscles. This is important because muscles aren’t just for bodybuilders.

Muscle tissue breaks down faster as we age, and less muscle mass means an altered and slower metabolism. As muscle breakdown continues into old age, it leads to weight gain and the risk of diabetes, as well as osteoporosis, frailty, loss of independence, and poor quality of life.

It’s important to note, however, that eating more protein alone won’t cause muscle growth. It must be coupled with exercise, especially strength training along with 20-30 grams of protein every few hours to improve muscle synthesis. Ideally, you can get it from protein-rich sources such as eggs, meat, dairy, organic soy, or legumes. You’ll get not only the protein, but also the other nutrients these foods provide.

However, if you need a way to supplement your protein intake, here’s what to look for.

PLANT PROTEIN POWDERS

If you are vegan or want to experiment with a more plant-based diet, plant protein powders can be a great option. Many people find plant proteins easier to digest, and 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. However, if you choose a plant protein powder that’s made from a blend of protein sources, you’re likely covered.

ANIMAL-BASED PROTEIN POWDERS

The most common animal-based protein supplements are made from whey or casein (milk-based), egg, or collagen (bone-based, although there are 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. Some research studies indicate that whey is preferred over other forms of protein for muscle synthesis, especially after you work out. If you like the idea of whey, but you’re sensitive to cow’s milk, goat’s milk options have a different type of protein which some people find it easier to digest.
  • Casein is also derived from milk, and provides a full range of amino acids. However, it’s more slowly absorbed and tends to stick around in your body for longer. It may not give your muscles as much of a boost right after a workout, but it will keep you satisfied for a longer period of time.
  • Egg white protein is a good option for those who are sensitive to dairy, and has a neutral taste. However, while it will help you meet your protein goals, one small research study suggests that it’s not as effective in stimulating muscle growth.
  • Collagen is the newer protein supplement on the block that’s most commonly made  from 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. However, there’s still limited research to support these claims.

No matter what type of protein supplement you choose, scan the ingredients label for artificial flavors, sweeteners, colors, additives, or ingredients you don’t recognize. It’s also not worth investing in brands that tout muscle-building additives.

However you decide to consume protein, the bottom line is to eat a variety from real foods. And if you want or need a supplement, try a few different brands to see which one works best for you.

It’s your body, and you know it best.

Adapted from the original article.

Anne Danahy, MS, RD is a Scottsdale-AZ-based registered dietitian and nutrition communications consultant specializing in women’s health and healthy aging. Anne is passionate about teaching people how to make the science of nutrition more delicious on their plates. Visit her at Craving Something Healthy.

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