The Truth About Plant-Based Protein

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plant-based protein supplements.A juicy steak, chicken breast, cartons upon cartons of eggs: these are the things you think about when you think about protein. 

But what about plants? 

For the first 25 years of my life, my diet would reach near-carnivorous levels when I was bulking. My diet was made up almost entirely of red meat. 

My body grew bigger and stronger, but I also felt like crap: I faced chronic fatigue, constant stomach bloating, and achy joints. 

This is a common experience for my clients.

The other issue that weighed on me, is that meat lovers aren’t exactly nature’s best friend. A vegetarian’s carbon footprint is about half that of someone who eats meat, and it’s even lower for a vegan.

In fact, the biggest thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint isn’t abandoning their cars, but to eat significantly less meat (1). And, new research shows better health outcomes for low-carbon-footprint diets (2).

…so, I did.

I quit eating meat.

Now, I know this isn’t for everyone, but for those who also choose to do this, we need to find other sources of protein. 

Here are a few reasons you can’t just cut meat out of your diet without having a backup plan:

  1. Your body can store carbohydrates and fat, but not protein. If you stop eating it, then your muscles are out of luck and will begin to atrophy over time.
  2. Protein is essential for your body when it comes to healing itself. Eating more protein may not give you Wolverine’s instant healing power, but your body uses it to build, repair, and regenerate tissue.
  3. Protein and your body cooperate to make hormones, enzymes, and other essential body chemicals. If you’re low on protein, then your immune system and overall health will suffer.
  4. Protein makes you look good. Aside from contributing to a great physique, protein will help you maintain healthy hair, skin, and fingernails.

So, Whey Protein to the Rescue?

Do you know where whey comes from?

It’s created by separating components of milk during the cheese-making process.

At one time, it was seen as an annoying byproduct that didn’t have much market value at all. In fact, farmers would literally throw their whey out until food companies finally recognized its high protein content in the 1940s and started marketing it as a food supplement. 

Whey was a goldmine: plentiful, inexpensive, high in protein, had a long shelf life, and had tremendous marketability.

Is whey a meat-free protein savor? 

Not exactly. There are several problems with using whey protein as a dietary supplement:

  • Not everyone can digest whey protein because it contains lactose, which can cause diarrhea and bloating. And, the ability to digest lactose breaks down as you age (3).
  • Whey protein is heavily processed, which drastically degrades its nutritional quality.
  • Whey supplements are not regulated by the FDA. They are dietary supplements, which means manufacturers don’t have to jump through the same safety hoops that food and drug manufacturers face. 
  • Dairy cows are often treated with antibiotics. These are potentially harmful to humans and are passed onto the cows’ milk (that eventually turns into the whey).
  • A 2010 study found heavy metals (including arsenic, lead, and cadmium) in several whey protein brands. As mentioned, supplements aren’t FDA regulated, which can lead to slips in the cracks like this.
  • Modern manufacturers include artificial sweeteners (acesulfame potassium and sucralose) in their whey protein products to hide the bland taste of the processed powder.

Whey is a cheap protein source that can be made to taste great, but there are drawbacks that might make you think twice before you down your next shake.

That leads us to…

Plant-Based Protein: The Batman of Protein Supplements

Think about plant-based protein as Batman who comes to the rescue of Gotham (your body) and takes you on a diarrhea-free, farting-free, sweetener-free journey of protein bliss.

That makes whey protein our Superman, who is strong and intelligent but is prone to suffering from sonic and psychic attacks. And on top of that, he’s useless around kryptonite. 

Plant-based protein can be just as potent as whey while avoiding its most common criticisms.

Notably, plant-based protein is much easier to digest for most people, which can mean that you actually absorb a greater percentage of the protein you consume. This absorption factor can help overcome a slight price premium you’ll likely pay if you switch from whey to plant-based protein. 

Why Doesn’t Everyone Use Plant-Based Protein?

Some of you who know a thing or two about protein may ask, “How can plant-based protein be considered a good supplement choice if it isn’t even a complete protein?”

That’s a fair point.

A complete protein is one that has all nine of the essential amino acids, the amino acids that our body can’t produce on its own. Plant-based proteins are sometimes dismissed because they are incomplete, containing some, but not all, of these amino acids.

Fortunately, we don’t need all nine essential amino acids in every single food or meal we eat. If you fulfill the spectrum of amino acids through your total daily diet, then you’re all set.

Also, keep in mind that most plant-based proteins contain 6-8 of the essential amino acids, so they don’t fall too far behind whey or other animal-derived proteins.

If you’re a regular gym-goer and your main goal is muscle growth and recovery, opting for a combination of brown rice and pea protein gets you all the nine amino acids that you can find in whey protein (4).

The Best Plant-Based Protein Options

There are four main options for plant-based protein supplements, each offering different benefits:

Brown rice

A 2013 study found that both brown rice and whey protein have nearly the same benefits for muscle-building and overall health (5). Brown rice protein is super-digestible and is typically very cost-effective. 

The only downside of brown rice protein is that it lacks the amino acid lysine. But remember, you can always pair brown rice protein with other plant and animal-based proteins to get your lysine quota.


This fat and cholesterol-free plant-based protein is typically made from yellow split peas. Pea protein contains similar levels of protein per serving as whey and casein (another milk-derived protein supplement).

Pea protein usually contains few ingredients, making it a great choice for clean eating. Just take a look at the ingredients list for most brands — most include only yellow split peas.

The only downside of pea protein is that it lacks one amino acid, cysteine.  


 This plant-based protein is a derivative of cannabis (it’s actually made from hemp seeds). Don’t get too excited just yet; this protein contains very little THC, the high-inducing ingredient in marijuana.

Another great thing about hemp protein is that it has a high content of omega-3 fatty acids, which are also regularly lacking in typical Western diets. As with the other plant-based proteins on this list, hemp protein digests easily.


 A 2009 study found that soy protein has similar muscle growth-stimulating effects to whey protein (6). That’s the good news. The bad news is that the isoflavones found in soy can interact with estrogen and potentially mess with your body’s hormone levels when taken in excess. But, although some evidence has shown soy negatively affects testosterone production, the data are mixed (7).

Don’t Knock It Until You Try It

Like dozens of my clients who have made the switch to a brown rice and pea protein blend, I’ll never go back. Personally, this decision originally came down to valuing the environmental impact and my health, or inconvenience. But once I shifted, I felt my gut health improved and I had no issue maintaining muscle mass. While the research is still limited on plant-based diets for performance, for the general population, it seems to be incurring better health outcomes. Save the world plus be healthier became a no-brainer for me.

If you’re looking to try a plant-based protein powder, you can check out our article on the best plant-based protein powders out there.

It may not sound like a tedious option at first, but don’t dismiss plant-based proteins until you’ve tried it for yourself. You can change the way your body feels and performs, while also helping the environment. 

About the Author

Dave Smith is a fitness and weight-loss coach who was chosen as “Canada’s Top Fitness Professional” in 2013. He works with clients from around the world using the Total Coaching training platform, helping each client institute the right habits that will lead to meaningful results. You can catch Dave’s weekly Q&A fitness podcast, or learn about all things health-related on his blog at

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