Plant-based protein products are becoming “the next big thing” in the health world. And that was true long before last year when The Game Changers — that hideous, cherry-picked, and misleading documentary — came out on Netflix.

It’s estimated that by 2025, plant-based protein will be a $40 billion industry — increasing in profit from $18.5 billion in 2019. So yea, it’s gonna be a big deal. And there are two questions here about plant-based protein that I’m going to answer. 

Firstly, the most important question, can you build muscle with plant-based protein sources? 

And secondly, since it’s the title of the article, is plant-based protein worth the hype?

Let’s cover some protein basics first:

  • Protein turns those tiny pea shooters you call biceps into bazookas that explode out of your sleeves. 
  • Your body uses protein in thousands of processes besides muscle building.
  • Animal-based protein powders come from dairy (whey and casein); eggs; collagen (which comes from bones); and beef protein powder (created from the leftover and unused parts of a cow, like its ears).
  • Plant-based protein comes from sources like hemp, various seeds, peas, oats, microalgae, corn, rice, and potatoes. 
  • Your body breaks protein down into amino acids, the LEGO blocks of all living things.
  • Your body can make most amino acids; these are known as non-essential amino acids.
  • But there are aminos your body can’t synthesize; these are essential amino acids (EAA).

Here’s a handy chart from Wikipedia:

plant based protein

*Conditionally essential amino acids are ones your body can synthesize on its own, except under “special conditions.” Like prematurity in infants or severe catabolic distress where it may not.

Are You Down with EAA?

Protein is in (almost) everything you eat. But there are differences in the protein you consume. And this has to do with the amino acid makeup within the food you eat. Some foods have higher levels of certain amino acids and lower levels of others.

So why does this matter? 

The protein you ingest from food stimulates protein synthesis throughout your body. Muscle protein synthesis is a fancy science word that means “muscle building.” And though protein does more than “building muscle” in your body, you (and I) don’t care about all that other stuff. We care about dat muscle building, brah. 

Studies [1,2,3,4] have shown that ingesting whey after lifting weights helps start muscle protein synthesis. Those studies also show that, compared to other animal-based sources, whey protein powder is the most effective at kickstarting your gains. Not to mention whey is the most cost-conscious source of protein you can buy (per serving it costs less than $1.)

Does that mean you can’t build muscle by consuming plant-based protein options? Not exactly. 

Essential amino acids affect the muscle-building process. And there’s one EAA that has more power to stimulate your muscle-building than any other, leucine.

Significant studies [1,2,3] have shown that for optimal muscle protein synthesis in the human body, you need to ingest 2.7g of leucine. Overall, plant-based proteins lack sufficient amounts of “some” essential amino acids compared to whey (or meat or eggs) — one of these being leucine. But some plant-based sources do carry significant amounts of leucine. 

One study found that the leucine content of corn is higher than whey. And the leucine content of potato is slightly higher than what’s in casein or egg. Does this mean that corn protein or potato protein are the best plant-based options for building muscle? Possibly, but also probably not. 

plant-based protein
Chart is from this study.

Essential amino acids are responsible for muscle protein synthesis. And because many plant-based proteins are lower in essential amino acids they may not have the anabolic capacity of animal-based protein. 

plant-based protein
Chart is from this study.

So even though leucine is important to starting the muscle protein building process, all EAAs play a role in that process as well. This means a couple of things for plant-based proteins.

  1. For a wide array of EAAs, you’d want plant-based protein powders that employ multiple sources. Like potato, corn, soy, and rice vs single sources.
  2. And because of the wider differences in amino acid profiles, plant-based protein powders require larger serving sizes to match the same level of EAAs as whey.

HOLD UP!

  • I wanna clarify something real quick. “Diet” wise, everyone should be more plant-based. But being more plant-based doesn’t mean being vegan/vegetarian. Eating more vegetables is good for everyone. And if 50-60% of your plate is covered in veggies at all three meals, you’re eating a plant-based diet. So when you hear the phrase “plant-based” don’t assume it means becoming vegan/vegetarian. In fact, for better overall health, making sure your plate(s) is mostly plants is a good idea. But adding 6-8 ounces of steak/chicken/pork beside those veggies is cool too. (Also eat some fruit as well.)

Getting Down to Brass Taxes on Plant-Based Protein

So we’ve answered the first question of whether plant-based protein can build muscle. It can. But is plant-based protein worth the hype? Well, that depends on how you define the word “worth.”

If not consuming animal-based products is a moral thing for you, then it’s obviously worth it. If you fret about how your choices could affect future generations, it might be worth it for you. 

But if it’s a straight-up “how much of my hard-earned money am I gonna have to spend on plant-based protein,” or, “is this another one of those ‘diet fads’ I fall for like I do every year,” then I’m gonna tell ya now, it’s not worth it. 

Frankly, plant-based protein powder isn’t worth it from a monetary perspective. 

In general, plant-based protein powders have fewer than 25 servings. There are some larger options you can buy, but their servings per container are much smaller than their whey counterparts.

*I found one, SunWarrior, which claimed to have 30 servings. But their protein and amino acid levels on the label are based on 1.5 servings. That serving size gives you about 20 servings in the whole container. And PS: that 1.5 servings does not net you the necessary 2.7g of leucine. Totally not worth $36.*

Nearly every plant-based protein powder I looked at on Amazon, or that I found on other sites, had anywhere from 15-25 servings and cost ~$25 to $38 or more.  Meaning, the cost per serving for plant-based protein powders I found ranged anywhere from $1.30 to above $2 per serving. 

Compare that to a 5-pound tub of Optimum Nutrition that you can get on Amazon. That tub of protein runs you $49.99 and has 74 servings, which comes out to 67 cents per serving. 

And let’s say you have two scoops a day to hit your protein goals. With whey protein like Optimum, that means you spend $1.34 per day, which is nearly the cost of one scoop of plant-based protein. So I’m not gonna do any more math here because you can clearly see that plant-based is gonna cost ya more per serving.

Note: if you’re in the UK or even Canada, you’re not gonna get protein at these prices. I’ve been into GNCs in both countries, and holy cow are you guys paying a ton for protein powder.

Plants vs. Animal: Who Wins?

So is plant-based protein worth the hype? 

If you want optimal doses of essential amino acids at a cost-effective price, stick with whey protein.

But if you’re making a conscious choice to avoid or lessen your reliance on animal-based products, you do you, bro. I’m not judging anyone. 

All I want to do is give you the facts. 

Plant-based protein powders can stimulate muscle protein synthesis as much as whey. But make sure you choose one that combines multiple plant-based sources, gives you sufficient levels of EAAs (specifically leucine), and be aware you’re gonna pay a lot more per serving.

Bonus tip for vegans/vegetarians: make sure you’re supplementing with creatine as well since you can’t get that from plants. It’s important for cognitive function and aids in improving your ability to build more muscle. It’s the only supplement outside of reading more books that I urge all my clients and readers to consume.

But for those who aren’t avoiding animal products, plant-based protein probably isn’t worth the hype. If you want to diversify your amino portfolio, then totally use some plant-based protein powders.

Oh, and when it comes to types of dairy-based protein powder, stick with whey. It’s the most cost-effective and has all the amino acids you need to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Everything else is kind of a waste of money.

Above all, make sure to eat a wide array of meat, plants, whole grains, and fruits. You’ll get every EAA you need from meat and an even wider array of amino acids from the grains, veggies, and fruit you eat too.

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