Is Plant-Based Protein Just As Effective As Whey Protein?

When it comes to protein, we tend to think of animal products like meat, dairy, and eggs as the best of the best, but a recent study suggests that plant-based protein sources deserve more credit than they usually get.

Published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, the study assigned 11 mixed martial artists (MMA) athletes to either a rice or whey protein supplement. They supplemented with three scoops (75 grams) of their designated protein throughout six weeks of high-volume and high-intensity training in preparation for an upcoming fight. They took one of their three scoops of protein before training and followed their usual diets otherwise.

After the six weeks, the study found the rice and whey proteins had ‘statistically similar’ abilities to help the athletes hang onto their muscle mass while undergoing the stress of intense training. That’s right, rice protein benefited their muscles just as much as good ol’ whey.  

The main takeaway: Upping our overall protein intake has a major impact on our ability to maintain fat-free mass and a healthy body composition, regardless of the source of that protein. “The whole point was increasing protein intake, period,” says one of the study’s authors, Alison Escalante, R.D., L.D.N., C.I.S.S.N., of ALLYFIT. “Though we were working with dieters that were cutting weight and in strict preparation for a fight, they were still able to both maintain their lean body mass and their performance by increasing overall protein intake.”

“We wanted to explore this because there’s a lot of hype about plant-based dieting and that’s something that we found intriguing,” she explains. So whether you have a dairy allergy, are vegan, or just need a change of pace, consider this study confirmation that plant-based proteins do in fact hold their weight, and that it is possible to nourish your muscles without relying on animal proteins.

Related: 5 Plant-Based Protein Bars That’ll Make You A Believer

We know many of you whey loyalists still aren’t sold—after all, whey protein has long been considered top dog when it comes to building muscle, as it  contains all nine of the essential amino acids, including high amounts of the branched-chain amino acids (leucine, valine, and isoleucine), which are key to muscle protein synthesis (the process through which our muscles recover and grow). It’s also digested more quickly than plant-based proteins. For those reasons, past research concluded that whey better stimulates muscle protein synthesis than other popular protein options, such as casein and soy.

Featured Proteins

Ultimately, though, you can still maintain or build muscle using a plant-based protein supplement. “The body can combine an amino acid from one food source with the amino acids from another food source to make the proteins it needs, including what it needs to grow and maintain muscle,” says Isabel Maples, R.D.N., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Plus, many plant-based proteins out there these days combine a number of protein sources—like rice, pea, and hemp—to pack more of amino acids into every scoop. So if you’re really concerned about coming as close to whey as possible, go for one of these combo plant proteins. Look for about 20 to 30 grams of protein—and two to five grams of the BCAA leucine, the most crucial for muscle protein synthesis—per serving.