Protein is critical for your health. Whether you’re trying to build muscle or simply living day-to-day, you need to be getting enough protein.
Protein supplements are an effective choice. But, if you’re thinking about pea protein vs whey protein, which is best?
Well, they’re both significant sources of protein and you can use either one. But, there are key differences too.
Whey is often considered the king of protein powders. It is quickly digested and is strongly associated with muscle development and weight loss.
The protein is produced from milk, which contains two types of protein: casein and whey (1). Casein is a slow-digesting protein and is not present in whey protein powders.
Whey protein powder is found in two forms: whey concentrate and whey isolate. The concentrate goes through less processing, which creates a cheaper product that contains fat and carbs, and less protein (per hundred grams). Isolate is more refined and is a better source of protein.
But, both styles can be effective. People typically decide based on their budget and their goals.
Whey is a powerful protein powder that is produced from dairy and comes in two forms
The Advantages of Whey Protein
Whey protein is popular for a reason. It offers a range of health benefits and it’s also easy to find. Key advantages include the following:
1. A Complete Source of Protein
Whey is considered a quality protein, one that contains all of the essential amino acids and many non-essential ones. This is exceptionally significant for health and muscle development.
It means you’re getting all your amino acids in one place. You can be certain you’re getting everything you need, without having to rely on multiple protein sources.
2. Significant Source of BCAAs and CLA
Whey protein is a powerful way to get BCAAs (branched chain amino acids). These are important in muscle development and for sports performance. Pea protein contains BCAAs too but whey protein has higher levels.
Whey protein also has decent levels of cysteine (2). Cysteine isn’t a BCAA but it can help promote health in other ways (3,4).
Likewise, whey protein contains CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). This compound has been linked to various health benefits, including body composition improvement (5,6,7,8).
3. Is Quickly Digested
Whey is a fast digesting source of protein and it tends to be absorbed quickly as well (9,10). This makes it much more effective for muscle synthesis. It’s also another reason why whey is so popular.
Precision Nutrition highlights this pattern in their post on whey vs casein protein.
4. More Effective for Weight Loss
Research shows that whey protein is particularly important for weight loss, helping people to lose fat without compromising their muscle mass (11).
This pattern is true for protein in general, which is why high protein diets can promote weight loss. But, whey protein seems to be especially effective, suggesting that some benefits are from the whey itself, not the protein.
There are multiple mechanisms that can help promote weight loss (12). One is the levels of leptin and ghrelin. These are both hormones that affect appetite regulation. By impacting these, whey can help to decrease cravings and potentially lower the amount you eat (13).
5. Powerful for Muscle Development
Whey is often promoted as a muscle gaining supplement and research supports this claim. This isn’t just true for bodybuilders and people passionate about building muscle. Instead, whey also helps people to maintain their muscles and muscle strength as they age (14).
And, of course, the BCAAs in whey are also critical for muscle development. The site Life Mastery Nutrition has a great guide on why BCAA supplementation is so relevant, even if you’re not a regular at the gym.
6. Proven to Provide Many Health Benefits
There have been many studies on whey protein specifically. These have found a wide range of health benefits, including:
In contrast, pea protein hasn’t been studied in the same depth. It may still have some of the same benefits but probably not all of them.
Whey protein offers many benefits, particularly for muscle development. It also contains more of the compounds you need and has been studied extensively
Pea protein is a common alternative to whey – and it’s recently become exceptionally popular. The powder is simply made from peas, specifically yellow split peas. These are a surprisingly good source of protein.
As with whey protein, the powder comes in two forms: pea concentrate and pea isolate. The isolate is more refined, tends to be a better source of protein and is often more expensive.
Pea protein is a plant-based alternative to whey that also has concentrate and isolate forms
The Advantages of Pea Protein
Thus far, whey looks like the clear winner. But, pea protein does have some key benefits too.
Whey protein is sourced from milk and contains lactose. This makes it a poor choice for anyone with a lactose intolerance. People with lactose intolerance can experience various symptoms, including digestion problems, sore stomachs and diarrhea. Whey isolate contains less lactose but it can still cause side effects.
In contrast, pea protein is sourced from plants. There is no lactose present. This makes it perfect for anyone with allergies. It also works well for anyone who is avoiding milk for other reasons. This is something that Dr. Axe highlights in his article on pea protein.
2. A Vegan and Vegetarian Option
Pea protein is also entirely vegan (and vegetarian). No animal products are used to create the powder and many brands proudly display a vegan label as well.
This makes it effective for anyone on who is a vegetarian or a vegan. It may also work if you simply want to add more plants to your diet.
While it isn’t a complete protein, pea protein isn’t missing many amino acids (23). This means it is still a decent choice and is more effective than some other plant-based options.
There is significant debate about whether or not pea protein is complete or not. Some sites say that yes, it is. Others make the reverse claim. This may be due to the levels of amino acids. Pea protein does contain all the essential amino acids but the quantities aren't all at desirable doses.
In particular, pea protein is low in the amino acid methionine (as Legion Athletics highlights). This might be a problem if pea protein was your primary protein source. But, if you rely on other types of protein as well, the difference doesn't matter so much.
3. Contains More Arginine
Discussions of amino acids in protein normally focus on BCAAs which are important in bodybuilding. One example is leucine.
Whey protein contains more BCAAs. But, pea protein contains higher levels of arginine. This isn’t a BCAA but it is important for muscle building. In fact, as Men’s Health highlighted, pea protein can be as effective as whey for muscle building.
4. Fewer Digestion Problems
Whey protein is quickly digested – by most people. However, people who are lactose intolerant or sensitive may experience poorer digestion. This could lead to fewer benefits from the protein.
If you’re strongly lactose intolerant, you probably already know about it. But, some people may only have a weak sensitivity. That could be enough to affect digestion, without being extremely obvious.
This may make pea protein a safer choice for anyone worried about digestion.
5. Contains BCAAs
Pea protein contains fewer BCAAs per hundred grams than whey powder. Despite this, you do still get a decent number of them. This is another reason why the powder works well for muscle building.
Pea protein is a good choice for vegetarians, vegans and anyone sensitive to lactose
Pea Protein vs Whey Protein
Aside from their amino acids, pea and whey protein are similar nutritionally. They both have isolate and concentrate versions – and there are many products on the market. Their nutritional profile is similar as well (24), with neither having a clear advantage.
Nevertheless, whey protein is much more powerful, offering all the amino acids that you need. It’s also a better choice for muscle building and weight loss, partly because it is digested so quickly. The higher amount of BCAAs also helps in this area.
But, if you’re vegan, vegetarian or have a lactose allergy, pea protein could be a better choice. Some people even prefer the taste.
You can also combine pea protein with other plant-based proteins like hemp, soy and rice. Many plant-based protein powders do exactly that. Individual powders offer different amino acids. By combining multiple options, you can effectively get a complete source of protein.
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2 thoughts on “Whey Protein vs Pea Protein – Which Should You Use?”
Hey there Vince,
Great articles always. I was always in the middle of these two, however I am going to give a shot to pea protein. I’ll let you know the results
Thank you. Both do have their advantages. I prefer whey myself but I can easily see why others end up with pea protein.