What are the Best Whey Protein Alternatives?

Whey protein is one of the most prolific supplements on the market. Almost every brand has a version of whey protein in their lineup, and flavors are nearly limitless. 

While the accessibility is great, whey isn’t always the top choice for every athlete. Some find that increased whey in their diet can cause bloating, headaches, or other forms of inflammation like acne. If you’re looking for whey protein alternatives, they are plentiful!

Top Alternatives to Whey Protein

Whey protein comes from cow’s milk. If you are one of the many athletes out there that prefer to limit their milk intake, you’ve got a variety of options, and the market is continually expanding. Whether you want animal or plant-based proteins, there is certainly a supplement on the market that meets your needs. [1]

Lactose-Free Protein

One of the main reasons why whey protein can sometimes irritate digestion or cause inflammatory responses in athletes is because of its high lactose content. If you are sensitive to lactose or want to cut it from your diet, you may be concerned that it is lurking in your other protein supplements. 

Not to worry! As long as a protein does not contain whey, it also does not contain lactose. That means you are safe to consume any other protein sources. Even casein and beef proteins are safe.

Beef Protein

One of the main reasons why whey protein is so popular is its excellent bioavailability, or how easily the body can break down and absorb the nutrients. 

Beef protein is an excellent contender for a whey alternative because its bioavailability is very similar to whey. 

Beef protein also has very similar benefits when it comes to amino acids: whey has more BCAAs, but beef protein has more CEAAs.

Beef protein is also considered a complete protein because of its robust micronutrient content. It’s a great choice for those with very high protein requirements, like athletes with robust muscle-building routines.

Casein Protein

When milk is separated, it’s broken down into two parts: casein and whey. Whey is a crowd favorite because of its quick absorption (great for immediately after workouts). However, there are benefits to a slower-digesting protein. 

Amino acids stay elevated in the bloodstream for around 90 minutes after consuming whey protein, but they remain high for 4-5 hours with casein.

This slow absorption makes it an excellent choice to consume before bed. The body repairs and builds muscle during our sleep cycles, and the assistance from a slow-absorbing protein like casein can enhance that process.

Collagen Protein

Collagen is a superstar supplement that has caused quite the buzz in the fitness community in the last few years. Benefits touted can include reduced inflammation, easing joint pain, and even cosmetic benefits like healthier skin. 

As this supplement has made waves, it’s commonly seen in powder form alongside protein powders, but collagen is not a source of protein. Collagen is sourced from beef and is added to beef protein. That said, collagen is easily blended with other protein sources as well, and the powders are a very convenient way to ingest them.

Of note, some collagen powders that are mixed with protein can be combined with whey, particularly those that are lower quality. If you are adding a collagen protein mix to your diet, double-check the nutrition label to ensure they only use beef ingredients without adding whey.

Egg White Protein

Egg white protein is as simple as it sounds: the egg yolk is separated from the white, and the egg white is then dehydrated into a fine powder. 

Egg white protein powder can be superior to its whey counterpart, particularly for those that are on a caloric deficit or looking to cut body fat. On average, egg white protein has fewer calories per serving than whey. 

Egg whites also contain almost zero fat or carbs, which can make them an easy choice for those that are new to counting and balancing macros.

Vegan or Vegetarian Proteins

There is a common misconception about protein in plant-based diets. Many believe that protein is hard to come by without animal-based ingredients, but that does not have to be the case. 

As plant-based, vegan, and vegetarian-based diets continue to gain popularity, the supplements supporting those diets also continue to grow. If you’re looking for vegan or vegetarian protein powders, there are several options available on the market today.

Brown Rice Protein

One of the common complaints with plant-based diets is the lack of amino acids found in dairy (like whey in particular). If that is of concern to you, you may be surprised that brown rice protein closely compares to whey protein when it comes to amino acid makeup. [2]

Rice protein has another benefit that often gets overlooked in the supplement world – pleasant consumption! Rice blends easily to a fine powder and dissolves well in liquid. If you’re someone who likes to bake with protein powders (like protein pancakes or muffins), it performs very well in that presentation too. 

If you are averse to choking down a chalky shake, brown rice protein may be your top contender.

Hemp Protein

Hemp, similar to beef, is considered a complete protein because of its amino acid makeup. As an added bonus, hemp also contains omega-3s, which are great for athletes.

Hemp has a lower protein composition than its whey counterpart: 15 grams per serving (on average) compared to whey at closer to 24 grams on average. Despite the lower protein concentration, it has higher fiber, which makes it much easier to digest.

Beyond the physical benefits of omegas and fiber, hemp protein is the easiest on the environment of all its competitors! The plant grows quickly, with minimal damage to topsoil, and needs little processing. If you are the type of athlete that also cares for the health of the planet, hemp protein may be your ideal supplement.

Pea Protein

Pea protein is isolated from legumes – yellow split peas. Pea proteins are often considered one of the safest choices for those with food allergies or sensitivities. If you find that many proteins give you issues with bloating or headaches, it could be the next on your list to explore. [3]

Unlike the previously mentioned brown rice supplement, pea protein is not considered a complete protein because of its lack of amino acids. That said, it has many other micronutrient benefits, such as antioxidants, which can help fight disease. 

Soy Protein

When looking for plant-based protein alternatives, soy is probably the first that comes to mind for many people. Soy protein comes from ground and dehydrated whole soybeans, so it is legume-based, similar to pea protein.

One of the most commonly reported benefits of soy is that it may help to manage cholesterol, as it has been linked to lower LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) and higher HDL (“good” cholesterol) levels.

Soy also contains all essential and branch amino acids and is very high in calcium. If your entire diet is plant-based, it can be great to include soy to help reach your micronutrient goals.

The other significant difference between soy and whey protein comes from consumer preference. Whey is often considered creamier with less of an aftertaste than its soy alternative. Soy proteins often have a nutty or earthy taste, which is best camouflaged when blended with other ingredients, like in a protein smoothie.

Alternatives to Protein Powder

Protein powders are a cost-effective and quick solution to increasing dietary protein without too much fuss. However, it’s not for everyone. Fear not! You’ve got several alternatives to increase your protein intake without scooping powder.

Protein bars would be the most common alternative to protein powder. You can find them at a myriad of price points and flavors online, at gym retail counters, and just about anywhere you buy groceries.

Quest and some other companies also have different protein snack options like protein cookies, protein chips, etc. There are even high-protein cereal and baking mix options on shelves these days. However, these options may not be the most delicious to everyone. 

The best way to ingest protein also happens to be the simplest: real whole foods!

Foods that are High in Protein

There is an abundance of high-protein whole foods that are economical, easy to prepare, and full of micronutrients to fuel your body alongside the protein benefits:

  • Lean ground beef has 22 grams of protein per 3 oz serving 
  • Chicken breast has 27 grams of protein per 3 oz serving
  • Cottage cheese has 12 grams of protein in every half-cup serving
  • Beans, on average, have 8 grams of protein in every half-cup serving. They are also a source of iron, making them beneficial for those who don’t consume animal products.
  • Canned tuna has a whopping 24-44 grams of protein per pound, making it an excellent option for those on a budget or who need shelf-stable options when on the go.
  • Tempeh is another plant-based option with 16 grams of protein in every 3 oz serving.
  • Greek yogurt has 20 grams of protein in every 1-cup serving
  • Every egg white contains 3.6 grams of protein, making them easy to add to many meals to increase protein.

Conclusion 

For those focused on fitness, particularly muscle building, protein is a fundamental building block to prioritize. A protein powder is a quick and easy way to meet those targeted goals without having to commit to cooking a balanced meal. Protein powders should never be your primary source of nutrition, but they are a handy tool to always have in your cabinet. If you prefer avoiding whey, you have many options on the market to explore.

  1. Dietary proteins. MedlinePlus Available at: https://medlineplus.gov/dietaryproteins.html. (Accessed: 29th November 2022)
  2. DS;, K. Amino acid composition of an organic brown rice protein concentrate and isolate compared to soy and whey concentrates and isolates. Foods (Basel, Switzerland) Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28234326/. (Accessed: 29th November 2022)
  3. Ge J;Sun CX;Corke H;Gul K;Gan RY;Fang Y; The health benefits, functional properties, modifications, and applications of pea (pisum sativum L.) protein: Current status, Challenges, and perspectives. Comprehensive reviews in food science and food safety Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33337084/. (Accessed: 29th November 2022)
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