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New Research: Plant Protein Blends May Stimulate Muscle Repair Just As Well As Whey

Not all exercises you hit at the gym are created equal, and neither are the post-workout protein shakes you consume afterwards—or so says the gospel of many gym-goers. Indeed, most lifters subscribe to the belief that whey protein powders are superior to their plant-based alternatives for post-workout muscle repair. However, research recently published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports Exercise suggests this idea may be more perception than reality.

Is a revamping of our protein powder hierarchy in order? Ahead, we take an in-depth look at the differences between whey and plant-based protein powders for post-workout muscle repair. 

  • ABOUT OUR EXPERTs: Charlotte Martin, M.S., R.D.N., C.P.T., is a certified personal trainer, registered dietitian, and owner of Shaped by Charlotte. Kylene Bogden, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.S.D., I.F.N.C.P., is a performance dietitian for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Quick Refresher: Why Protein Is Important After Exercise 

If lifting things up and putting them back down plays a role in your exercise routine—and especially if you have strength or performance goals​​—consuming adequate protein is paramount. The reason? “When you strength train, your muscle fibers become damaged,” explains certified personal trainer and registered dietitian Charlotte Martin, M.S., R.D.N., C.P.T., owner of Shaped by Charlotte. In order to repair these muscle fibers so that they (and therefore, you) become stronger, the body needs amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. The body gets amino acids from breaking down protein, so “consuming a sufficient amount of protein after training helps support the muscle repair process and leads to better performance and recovery,” she says. 

Read More: How Often To Train Each Muscle Group For Maximum Gains

Failure to consume an adequate amount of protein post-workout—which research suggests is at least 20 grams—can actually keep you from reaping the benefits associated with strength training, says Kylene Bogden, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.S.D., I.F.N.C.P., performance dietitian for the Cleveland Cavaliers. You can even damage your body if you consistently go hard at the gym but don’t refuel with protein after, she says. At best, insufficient protein intake post-workout will put your body in a state of constant disrepair and soreness. Meanwhile, at its worst, protein deficiency can lead to fatigue, increased incidence of broken bones and osteoporosis, decreased lean muscle mass and fat gain, and even premature mortality

Whey Protein Powder Is Popular for a Reason

The widely held belief amongst gym-goers that whey protein powders are the king of the supplement jungle is justified. 

Whey protein, which is derived from the watery portion of cow’s milk, is a complete protein, explains Martin. That means it contains all nine essential amino acids—the amino acids the body cannot make—in adequate quantities for the body to use for muscle protein synthesis (a.k.a. muscle repair) post-workout. 

Whey protein powders also contain high levels of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), specific essential amino acids with a chemical structure that allows the body to direct them right to muscles, explains Martin. “In particular, whey protein contains high levels of a BCAA called leucine, which plays a crucial role in promoting muscle protein synthesis,” she says. 

Plant-based proteins are sourced from non-animal sources like peas, rice, and hemp. They are considered less complete (or incomplete) proteins, which means they do not contain all of the essential amino acids at the levels the body needs, notes Martin. (The exception to this is soy protein, which stands out as one of the few plant-based protein sources with a complete amino acid profile).

Read More: 6 Strength-Training Tweaks To Ease And Prevent Back Pain

The BCAA content of plant-based protein sources is particularly low, notes Martin. Indeed, while the BCAA leucine makes up about 14 percent of whey protein powder, it makes up just six to seven percent of plant-based options like soy, rice, hemp, and pea protein, according to research published in the Journal of Nutrition

“Whey protein is also generally more bioavailable than plant-based protein sources,” adds Martin. Bioavailability refers to the extent and rate at which a nutrient is absorbed and used by the body. So, the body absorbs the bulk of the nutrients in whey protein sources, rather than just excreting them as it does options with reduced bioavailability (like most plant-based protein sources). 

Amino acid profile and bioavailability aside, whey protein is generally preferred by meat-eaters because it is rapidly digested and often easier on sensitive stomachs than plant-based protein sources, notes Martin. The only group for whom this may not be true is those with milk allergies, as whey protein powders often contain small amounts of lactose, she says. 

New Research Says Plant-Based Protein Blends May Be Just As Good as Whey Protein 

Given its amino acid protein profile, exercisers and sports nutritionists alike have long considered whey protein powder superior to plant-based options. However, researchers behind a study just published in Medicine & Science in Sports Exercise set out to discover whether consuming a powder that combines multiple plant-based protein sources (each with a different amino acid profile) could support muscle repair as well as whey. Their findings suggest that the answer may be YES.

For the study, 10 young adults hit a leg workout and immediately consumed 32 grams of whey protein powder or a plant-protein blend made from peas, brown rice, and canola. The researchers tested the participants’ blood and muscles immediately following protein administration, and again two and four hours later to assess how many amino acids had been ingested, and to gauge the amino acids’ ability to support muscle protein synthesis. 

The researchers found no difference in how much of the protein was absorbed at any of the three measured points following ingestion between exercisers who consumed the whey protein and those who consumed the protein blend. The lack of variation in absorbability between the protein powders drove researchers to conclude that ingesting plant-based protein powder blends can support muscle repair post-exercise as effectively as whey. 

What Does This Mean For You? 

At the very least, the research suggests that anyone using plant-based protein over whey protein—be it because they are on a vegan or vegetarian diet or have lactose intolerance—should opt for a plant protein blend rather than a single-source plant protein powder. (Remember, soy—a complete protein source previously shown to have the amino acids required for optimal muscle repair—is the exception here.)

The participants in the study used a plant protein blend with 39.5 percent pea protein, 39.5 percent brown rice protein, and 21 percent canola protein. That said, Martin notes that most other plant-based blends will have a more optimal amino acid profile compared to single-source options.

Don’t stress too much about which option you pick; just spend a little extra time eying the ingredient list of store-bought options. “Many big-name plant protein powders feature a blend of at least two different plant protein sources,” Martin explains. Indeed, popular plant-based protein powders like SunWarrior Warrior Blend Organic Plant-Based Protein, Vega Sport Premium Plant-Based Protein, and Orgain Organic Plant-Based Vegan Protein all feature three or more plant-based protein sources. 

Of course, you could also DIY it, if you so choose. “You could also combine rice protein, which is high in an amino acid called methionine, with pea protein, which is high in lysine, to create the experience of a more complete amino acid profile,” says Martin. Hemp with pea protein and hemp with chia seed protein may also be good blend options, she says. 

That said, it’s important to keep in mind that this is just one study—and in no way suggests those who tolerate whey protein powder should switch to plant-protein powder instead, according to Bogden. After all, numerous existing studies still suggest whey is the superior option. Still, it’s certainly promising for non-animal eaters who want to maximize muscle recovery without dairy-based protein.

The Takeaway

At the end of the day, consuming protein post-workout is essential for optimal post-workout muscle repair—and consuming any plant-based protein source is better than consuming no protein at all. However, if you need to—or are choosing to—consume a plant-based option, a plant-based blend is best. When shopping for a plant-based protein powder, look out for multiple protein sources on the ingredient list. 

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