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Whey or No Whey? A Look at Protein Powder Supplements

July 31, 2019

Whey or no whey? No, that’s not a Shakespearean quote, but walk into a GNC or Vitamin Shoppe and that may be the question you get when you inquire about their protein powders. There has been a definite shift away from traditional, popular dairy-based whey  and casein protein as of late, led by more health-conscious consumers. Whey protein (more than the other popular milk protein — casein)  has been king of the protein powder aisle for decades. As a quick, cost-effective, and easy source of muscle-building protein it’s easy to see why. But whey protein has its downsides. 

The Downsides of Whey

It’s made from cow’s milk, which a good deal of the global population can’t properly digest. Dairy products in general are an issue for many people for other reasons too, including environmental. Studies show that the land reserved for bovine agriculture has led to widespread environmental destruction, given the heavy environmental footprint of cows. So digestive, environmental and other concerns have consumers looking for a better alternative to whey protein.

Let’s take a look at two other protein sources that are growing in popularity, which provide many nutritional, fitness-focused, and other benefits similar to those found in whey protein... and in some cases, even better!

Collagen Proteins

Collagen is found throughout the body, especially in our skin and and some is found in muscle tissue. It naturally decreases as we age, and supplementing with collagen protein, called collagen peptides, is an effective way to replace it, with many anti-aging benefits.

There are actually 5 different types of collagen, but most collagen is either type 1, 2 or 3. 80% of the collagen in your skin, the collagen that helps minimize fine lines and wrinkles and improves skin elasticity, is Type 1. By far the most abundant source of Type 1 collagen is fish collagen.

Beef collagen protein powder, also called bovine collagen, contains two types of collagen: type 3 collagen and some type 1. Type 3 collagen is found in large quantities in your intestines, muscles, and blood vessels. In studies, combined with resistance training, bovine collagen (like whey) has been shown to be an effective way to promote lean muscle tissue growth, especially for older people. Research has shown that consuming collagen supplements increased muscle growth and strength in people with age-related muscle mass loss. 

Type 2 collagen makes up the majority of the collagen in your joint cartilage, and the connective tissue that protects your bones at the joints, plus it’s in your spinal disks too. Basically it’s a great collagen for your joints. The best source of type 2 collagen is from chicken cartilage. 

A Better Option for Collagen?

A high-quality fish collagen peptide powder is definitely one of the best collagen sources for your skin — helping to replace lost skin collagen and helping your skin become more radiant and beautiful. You don’t get this skin benefit from whey protein powder, but fish collagen’s muscle-building benefits fall short of what you get from whey protein powders.    

As you may have already guessed, beef collagen, though better for muscle than fish collagen, presents a problem similar to that of whey protein. Bovine collagen is made from the bones of cows, and livestock require a lot of land, which isn’t good for the environment — so people who don’t like to use whey protein powder often won’t want to use bovine collagen either. Luckily, there’s another form of protein that does not share the environmental impact of bovine-based protein sources.

Introducing Plant-Based Protein

Plant-based protein is an umbrella term used to describe powdered plant-based sources that are high in protein. Blending different types of plant proteins is essential for this type of protein supplement as you generally need a few sources to make it a complete protein with highest enough levels of all essential amino acids needed for muscle growth.

A complete protein has all nine of the essential amino acids: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. An incomplete protein lacks one or more of these essential amino acids in the right amounts. Most plant sources are considered incomplete, unless you blend them, which is why you often see brown rice protein and pea protein together in a blend.

Benefits of Plant-Based Protein

Experts agree that the western diet needs more vegetables. While there is a time and place for animal-focused choices, some studies suggest that in general we’re eating too much meat. Incorporating more plant-based options into your diet, including a plant protein supplement, can help you get more micronutrients and avoid some risks associated with a meat-based diets, such as high blood pressure. Eating a more plant-based diet is a trend that’s here to stay, and there are plenty of great reasons for this.

Builds Muscle Like Whey

This might come as a surprise, but a plant protein supplements can build lean muscle as efficiently as whey protein. 

One study published in Sports pitted whey protein against a pea protein supplement. Subjects were put through an eight-week exercise program featuring high-intensity functional exercises with four workouts per week. Before and after workouts, the subjects consumed twenty-four grams of either a whey protein or pea protein supplement. At the conclusion of the study, researchers found that all subjects had more muscle mass and strength and less fat. There were no dramatic differences between the two groups. 

Better Digestion

One big difference between animal-based protein and plant-based protein is fiber. There is no fiber in whey supplements, but there is plenty in plant-based proteins. Fiber is essential for proper digestion, and can help support cardiovascular health and weight loss.

More Micronutrients

While macronutrients — protein, carbohydrates, and fat — get all of the attention, micronutrients are equally as important. Micronutrients are vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that are naturally present in healthy foods such as vegetables and fruits. 

Many people are deficient in one or more micronutrients, which may present a number of health issues, such as daily fatigue. When you switch to a plant-based protein supplement, you’ll naturally get more of these micronutrients in your diet. From a fitness standpoint, this is excellent news because micronutrients, like protein, also help support post-workout recovery and results.

How Much Protein Should You Eat Per Meal?

Whether you consume whey, beef, or plants, you may be wondering how much protein you need to eat at each meal. While there is no universal number out there, most experts suggest that if you want to support muscle building and fat loss, you should aim to get 30 grams of protein with each meal.

Should You Cut Out Whey Protein Entirely?

If you have lactose or other dairy issues, or struggle with inflammation, then the answer is yes: cut it out entirely. However, if you do not, then whey protein has been shown to have a number of benefits outside of muscle building, including fat-loss, a lower risk of obesity, diabetes, and certain cancers. Either way, consider giving other sources of protein a try with a focus on plant-based protein for muscle, and fish collagen protein for your skin.

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