Whey protein is commonly used by athletes and fitness enthusiasts looking to build muscle and aid recovery.
However, whey protein isn't for everyone. Some people have trouble digesting dairy, follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, or simply don't like the taste of whey.
Some key benefits of pea protein include:
- Vegan and hypoallergenic
- Easy to digest
- Helps build muscle similarly to whey protein
- May aid weight loss by increasing satiety
A 30-gram serving of pea protein powder provides around 23 grams of protein. While pea protein is lower in the amino acid methionine, combining it with rice or hemp protein can create a complete amino acid profile.
Key Takeaway: Pea protein is a quality vegan protein source that contains all essential amino acids and is easy to digest.
Rice protein is an excellent whey protein substitute for those following plant-based diets or who have trouble digesting dairy. It's made by removing carbohydrates, fats, and other plant material from brown rice, leaving behind a high-protein powder.
Benefits of rice protein include:
- Highly bioavailable
- Enhances muscle growth similarly to whey protein
Although rice protein is low in the amino acid lysine, combining it with pea protein can compensate for this. Rice protein provides about 25 grams of protein per 30-gram serving.
Key Takeaway: Rice protein is a plant-based, dairy-free protein that effectively builds muscle. Pairing it with pea protein rounds out the amino acid profile.
Soy protein comes from grinding de-hulled soybeans into a fine powder. It's considered a complete protein and is packed with BCAAs.
Here are some of the top benefits of soy protein powder:
- Vegan protein source
- Complete amino acid profile
- May reduce cholesterol
- High in antioxidants
- 17 grams of protein per 30-gram serving
Soy does contain phytoestrogens that mimic estrogen in the body. However, research shows that soy likely doesn't negatively impact hormones in men when consumed in normal amounts. Those with soy allergies will want to avoid soy protein.
Key Takeaway: With its impressive amino acid profile, soy protein promotes muscle growth similarly to whey protein while providing antioxidants.
Derived from hemp seeds, hemp protein contains all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. It offers several advantages:
- Promotes muscle growth and recovery
- Vegan-friendly and easily digestible
- Provides antioxidants, omega-3s, and fiber
- Has a nutty flavor that blends well into smoothies
- Around 13 grams of protein per 30-gram serving
Compared to other vegan proteins, hemp does have lower amounts of certain amino acids like lysine and leucine. Combining it with pea or rice protein is recommended to optimize muscle building.
Key Takeaway: As a complete protein containing healthy fats and fiber, hemp protein is an excellent addition to a plant-based diet. Blending it with pea or rice protein maximizes BCAA content.
Casein is the other major milk protein besides whey. During cheese production, casein forms the curds while whey is the liquid byproduct.
Casein offers unique benefits:
- Provides extended release of amino acids, unlike fast-acting whey
- Helps build muscle when consumed before bed
- Contains casomorphins that may aid in sleep quality
- Around 25 grams of protein per 30-gram serving
Those with dairy sensitivities can use micellar casein isolate to avoid lactose and milk fat. But vegans will need to avoid casein protein altogether since it's dairy-based.
Key Takeaway: Casein protein provides a slow release of amino acids, making it useful as a pre-bedtime protein powder.
Egg White Protein
Egg white protein powder isolates the high-quality protein in egg whites while removing the fat and cholesterol found in egg yolks.
Benefits of egg white protein include:
- Dairy-free and generally well-tolerated
- No carbs or fat
- Complete protein comparable to whey
- Has the highest leucine content out of all proteins
- Roughly 25 grams of protein per 30-gram serving
The only downside of egg white protein is that it's unsuitable for vegans. But for lactose-intolerant individuals or those avoiding dairy, it can be an excellent whey protein substitute.
Key Takeaway: With its stellar amino acid profile and lactose-free nature, egg white protein rivals whey for supporting muscle building and recovery.
Collagen powder provides unique benefits beyond muscle building:
- Boosts skin, hair, nail, and joint health
- Easily mixed into foods or liquids
- Helps increase muscle mass when combined with whey or plant protein
- Contains 18 grams of protein per 30-gram serving
Collagen is lacking some essential amino acids, so it shouldn't replace whey or plant proteins altogether. But blended together, collagen + whey or plant protein makes for an effective muscle-building combo.
Key Takeaway: Collagen protein complements whey protein or plant proteins by supporting joint health, skin elasticity, and hair growth.
Pumpkin Seed Protein
Pumpkin seed protein is an overlooked vegan protein source. It's made by shelling pumpkin seeds and processing the seed meat into a powder.
Here's what makes pumpkin seed protein unique:
- Excellent source of iron and zinc for vegans
- Has a high leucine content comparable to whey
- Rich in omega-3s, magnesium and fiber
- Around 18 grams of protein per 30-gram serving
Compared to other vegan proteins, pumpkin seed protein has the highest percentage of essential amino acids. It's an excellent addition to a plant-based diet.
Key Takeaway: With its well-rounded nutrition profile and high leucine content, pumpkin seed protein nicely complements rice, pea, or hemp protein.
Brown Rice Protein
Brown rice protein is a popular vegan protein made through a natural enzymatic process rather than chemicals. Benefits include:
- Gentle on the stomach and highly digestible
- Naturally gluten-free and hypoallergenic
- Provides 25 grams of protein per 30-gram serving
- May enhance exercise performance and recovery
One downside is that brown rice protein is low in lysine. Combining it with pumpkin seed or pea protein can compensate for this. Those sensitive to rice or grains should confirm if brown rice protein is suitable.
Key Takeaway: Brown rice protein effectively aids workout recovery without common allergens like dairy, soy, or gluten. Pairing it with other plant proteins rounds out its amino acid profile.
Nut Protein Blends
Nuts like almonds, cashews, and pistachios can be ground into flours and made into protein powders. Benefits include:
- Vegan and environmentally sustainable
- Rich in healthy fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals
- Have a mild, nutty taste
- Provide 12-15 grams protein per 30-gram serving
Nut proteins aren't complete on their own, so combining 2-3 types is ideal. Look for blends of nut flours like almond-cashew-macadamia. Those with tree nut allergies should avoid nut-based proteins.
Key Takeaway: Nut protein powders made from blends of almond, cashew, and other nuts provide a nutritious, plant-based protein option.
Bone Broth Protein
Bone broth protein harnesses protein from beef or chicken bone broth. Potential benefits include:
- Rich in collagen, glucosamine, and chondroitin for joint health
- Contains amino acids like proline and glycine
- May support immune function and gut healing
- Around 20 grams of protein per 30-gram serving
Bone broth powder has a more specialized purpose than whey protein. It supports joints and immunity rather than maximizing muscle gains. Those on vegan or vegetarian diets will want to avoid it.
Key Takeaway: Bone broth protein provides collagen and amino acids that benefit joints, immunity, and digestion. It complements whey protein rather than replacing it.
Natural Protein-Rich Foods
Finally, don't forget that protein powders aren't your only option. You can get high-quality protein from natural whole foods like:
Meat and Poultry: Chicken, turkey, lean beef, lamb
Fish and Seafood: Salmon, cod, tuna, shrimp
Eggs and Dairy: Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, milk, cheese
Legumes: Lentils, beans, peas, chickpeas
Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds
Whole Grains: Quinoa, brown rice, oats
Eating a balanced diet focused on these whole protein sources is crucial, regardless if you use protein powders or not. Powders are simply meant to supplement, not replace, the protein in your diet.
Key Takeaway: Natural protein-rich foods should make up the bulk of your daily protein intake. Protein powders fill in the gaps and provide convenience.
Whey Protein Substitutes Compared
Here's a quick overview comparing the amino acid profiles, protein content, and key benefits of the top 12 whey protein substitutes:
|Protein Source||Amino Acid Profile||Protein per 30g Serving||Key Benefits|
|Collagen||Incomplete||18g||Joint and skin health|
|Pumpkin Seed||Complete||18g||Iron, zinc, omegas|
|Nut Blends||Incomplete||12-15g||Healthy fats|
|Bone Broth||Incomplete||20g||Collagen, glycine|
|Whole Foods||Varies||Varies||Most natural form|
As shown, both complete and incomplete vegan proteins are excellent alternatives providing comparable protein content to whey protein powder.
Choosing the Best Whey Protein Substitute
When choosing a whey protein substitute, take into account your dietary needs, preferences, and goals:
Dietary Restrictions: Vegans and vegetarians should opt for plant-based proteins like pea, rice, hemp, or nut proteins. People with lactose intolerance or dairy allergies will want to avoid whey and casein.
Taste Preferences: Those who dislike the flavor of whey may prefer alternatives like soy, bone broth, or nut proteins that come in cocoa, vanilla, and other flavors. Or unflavored types that blend smoothly into foods.
Workout Goals: If you lift weights and your priority is building muscle, look for complete proteins higher in leucine and BCAAs like soy, pea, hemp, pumpkin seed, or nut blends.
Other Health Goals: People looking to support skin, hair, nail, and joint health should consider incorporating collagen into their protein routine. Bone broth provides similar benefits.
Experiment with a few different whey protein substitutes to find which you enjoy and tolerate the best. Combining 2-3 vegan protein types can ensure you get all essential amino acids.
Top Tips for Using Whey Protein Alternatives
Here are some tips for effectively incorporating whey protein substitutes into your diet:
- Read labels carefully to check for added sugars, fillers, and artificial ingredients
- Mix it up by including a few different plant-based proteins like pea, rice, and hemp
- Have some pre- and post-workout for optimal use of amino acids for muscle repair and growth
- Blend them into smoothies, oats, yogurt, and other foods to boost nutrition
- Use unflavored types to avoid overly sweet flavors
- Confirm they work for your diet if you have food intolerances or allergies
- Make sure to get plenty of protein from whole foods in addition to any powders or supplements
With so many high-quality alternatives, you can definitely meet your protein needs without whey, as long as you plan your diet wisely.
Is pea protein as good as whey?
Pea protein is comparable to whey protein in its ability to build muscle and aid workout recovery. Multiple studies have found similar improvements in muscle thickness and body composition with pea protein versus whey protein supplementation. The only difference is that pea protein has slightly lower methionine levels.
What can vegetarians use instead of whey?
Great protein options for vegetarians avoiding dairy include pea, soy, rice, hemp, pumpkin seed, and nut-based proteins. Combining 2-3 plant proteins helps ensure you get all essential amino acids. Lentils, beans, tofu, tempeh, seitan, and eggs are also smart choices.
Is casein or whey better?
Casein and whey each have unique advantages. Whey is faster acting while casein provides a slower sustained release of amino acids. Most experts recommend whey immediately after training when your body can quickly use the amino acids. Casein is ideal later at night since it "feeds" your muscles over a longer period.
Is egg or whey protein better?
For anyone not vegan, egg and whey protein are comparable in building muscle and supporting recovery. The amino acid profile differs slightly - whey is higher in leucine while egg protein has more overall essential amino acids. Egg protein may be preferable for those avoiding dairy.
Can you build muscle without protein powder?
Yes, protein powders are a supplement to help meet protein needs, not a requirement. You can absolutely build substantial muscle solely from a high-protein diet without any powders or supplements. Focus on getting enough protein from foods first before adding powders.
Whey protein has its advantages, but there are plenty of healthy, high-quality alternatives like pea, rice, soy, and hemp protein to choose from. Combining a few vegan proteins can ensure you get all the essential amino acids your body needs.
Those avoiding dairy have excellent options in plant proteins, egg white protein, and collagen peptides. Pick ones that work with your diet and goals. Taste preferences also come into play when deciding on powders or supplements.