Whey, Casein and Plant-Based Protein: What's the Difference?

Whey, Casein and Plant-Based Protein: What's the Difference?

Protein is the most common supplement out there. Bodybuilders, athletes, marathon runners and everyday active individuals incorporate protein into their daily regimen for an abundance of reasons. It’s great for both fuel and recovery, and it offers substantial benefits that make it a cornerstone in everything from good nutrition to pushing the limits of your physical endurance.

When it comes to protein, you’ve got options. While the go-to for most people is whey protein, it’s far from the only one. Some people lean toward casein protein, while vegans and those who prefer more natural supplementation may trend toward plant-based proteins. Each has benefits, and it’s worth understanding what makes them unique when choosing how to supplement your daily routine.

Get the scoop on the different types of protein and what makes them unique as you start to mindfully think about your body and its needs.

The importance of protein supplementation

To understand why protein supplements are important, it’s best to look at the benefits they offer for your body. Protein is one of the three macro nutrients we need on a daily basis—along with fat and carbohydrates. Our bodies digest protein and use these fundamental building blocks for a variety of cellular-level processes.

  • Protein is instrumental for muscle building and muscle repair after workouts
  • It’s used in repairing general soft tissue throughout the body
  • Proteins are building blocks in the production of different enzymes and hormones
  • Proteins are also part of our body’s energy stores and sources
  • When used as a supplement, protein can help control weight by satiating hunger

As you can see, our bodies rely heavily on protein for a variety of essential, everyday physiological processes. While most diets ensure we get enough of it, supplements are great for giving our bodies a little extra boost—especially if you’re training or pushing your body’s limits.

Animal vs. plant protein

There are two groups of protein you might consider supplementing with: animal and plant.

Animal proteins come from sources like cooked meats (chicken, beef), as well as the byproducts of animals, such as cow’s milk. The two most popular forms of animal protein supplements are whey and casein. Animal protein is considered the highest quality protein source because they offer a complete amino acid profile. They also come with a high concentration of vitamins and minerals.

Plant protein typically refers to pea, soy and hemp proteins, since these are the plants with the most abundant levels of protein. While they don’t offer the same complete amino acid profile of animal proteins, plant proteins are also considered “clean burning.” Red meat is linked with many health side effects, which is why people tend to supplement whey and casein—or avoid animal proteins altogether and choose plant-based supplements.

Breaking down the protein profile

While eating a mix of protein-rich foods is a great way to get your body what it needs each day, protein supplements go above and beyond to provide additional support for athletes. Typically, this comes down to choosing from three of the most common protein supplements:

  • Whey: Whey protein is the easiest to come by and the most complete protein source. It’s a very bioavailable protein supplement that’s quickly absorbed, which means the body starts using it very quickly. It’s a milk protein, which means it might not be suitable for vegans.
  • Casein: Casein is another animal protein, directly derived from milk. It’s a slow-dissolving protein, which makes it great to take at night before bed. The chief benefit of this protein supplement is its high glutamine content, which is great for digestive health and inflammation reduction. This type isn’t suitable for lactose-intolerant people or vegans.
  • Plant: In the realm of plant protein, you’ve got three main options. First, is pure pea protein, which is considered the most complete of the plant proteins. Second, is soy protein, which is quickly absorbed by the body to high effect. The third is hemp protein, which is most commonly preferred by vegans with a soy allergy.

Some companies may offer proprietary blends of proteins, and many pre-formulated supplements also come with vitamin additions (such as Vitamin B12). All these supplements come in powder form, which also makes them easy to blend with other ingredients.

Is there a best option?

By now, you’re probably asking, “what’s the best option for protein?” The answer depends on your body, your lifestyle and your needs. For bodybuilders and those looking to put on muscle, there’s no beating whey. For those using protein for recovery, casein has its benefits. For vegans and those who believe strongly in the power of plants, the choice is obvious. As you consider your body and its needs, connect them to the best protein option for you.

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