Battle of the Proteins: Analyzing Different Protein Sources and Options, Measuring Protein Intake, Plant Based Protein Considerations, and More!

by | Apr 18, 2023 | Featured | 0 comments


Out of all of the supplements that exist in the sports nutrition world, protein powders are considered a cornerstone, and with good reason. One of the foundational aspects of sustainably achieving fat loss, muscle gain, or really any fitness or performance goal is getting enough daily protein. Protein powders aren’t magic; they simply help facilitate this goal. 

However, as I browse through the fitness space on social media, I continually see misinformation or conflicting information around certain forms of proteins. You’ll hear some people say that whey is inflammatory, it’ll wreck your gut, and shouldn’t be used, while others are still saying all plant-based protein powders won’t build muscle. The truth is that since everyone is an individual with individual health circumstances, some forms might be fine for some people, but disagree with others. 

Today, we’re going to be demystifying many different types of protein powder; talking about high level things around which might be best for hypertrophy and performance outcomes, touching on potential shortcomings of studies in this area, and then we’ll dive into a general pro/con analysis of different protein types. Not necessarily specifically from a muscle growth standpoint, although we’ll cover that too, but around which proteins might be better for specific client contexts; i.e. those with potential gut issues, or sensitivities to dairy. Let’s start out with a few common questions I get around protein powders. 

Protein Q&A, General Considerations, and Why Studies can be Misleading

A very common question that I see floating around in the space is how much of one’s daily protein should be coming from powders. This is of course an individualized question based on gastric tolerance; some people do just fine with 1 or 2 scoops a day but once they start taking in 3-4 they get some gastric issues. 

Barring those types of circumstances, I generally let beginner clients get up to 50% of their daily protein from a powder, trying to work it down a bit from there as they get used to the lifestyle. Of course, there may be other situations where more experienced individuals would have to go that high, like a physique athlete pre-contest who’s calories are too low to feasibly get in the protein they need without going over their caloric limit. In other cases though, we’re missing out on a lot of quality micronutrition if we’re constantly getting that much of our protein from a powder. 

Another common question I hear a lot is probably a question that everyone has had on their mind at some point: Which protein source is the best for hypertrophy and performance?

Hypertrophy and MPS vs. Outcomes

I don’t mean to burst your bubble if you were expecting a huge battle here, but the short of it is that current research indicates pretty much any of them are solid in terms of outcomes data if certain criteria are met, but let me explain what I mean when I say that.

When you’re looking at scientific literature, there’s a lot of ways to measure the effects of protein intake. The two most common ways are looking at acute muscle protein synthesis (MPS) rates after ingestion and then looking at outcomes data, meaning putting cohorts through a resistance training program and supplementing X protein vs Y protein and seeing which led to greater increases in hypertrophy and performance. 

The first thing to realize is that MPS studies are not equal to studies that actually test outcomes. MPS is just one factor in muscle building. If you just look at MPS studies, whey consistently elicits the highest acute response compared to other protein sources. 

When you look at actual hypertrophy outcome studies that compare protein powders, they elicit largely the same results over the course of a resistance training study, even in the more controlled studies.

For example, there are many studies where other variables like the rest of the diet, sleep, etc, aren’t controlled. It’s quite expensive to rigorously control a study; giving someone all their meals and making them live in a facility to monitor sleep isn’t exactly feasible in the majority of studies. The researchers generally just tell participants to maintain their current dietary practices, and they might have them log their food a few days a week to get a representative sample of what they’re taking in. 

However, even in the studies where they make sure calories and protein amount of the rest of the diet are controlled, we still see similar outcomes in terms of whey vs. casein vs. egg vs. plant based, provided that plant based blend does have a complete amino acid profile and a decent amount of leucine. 

Which brings up another point: You do have to make sure there’s a good amount of all of the essential amino acids and leucine. This is mainly going to apply to plant-based proteins, which require blends to achieve this. Usually a rice/pea blend provides a complete profile. I’ve also seen pea/yeast protein blends recently that look fairly complete. 

Really, the protein powder market has tightened up a lot in the past several years thanks to increasing consumer savviness. In the 90’s and early 2000’s, we had a lot of issues with amino acid spiking and other potential impurity issues, and I’d venture to say that 80% of plant-based powders that weren’t soy based at the time didn’t have a complete blend. The overall quality of powders on the market overall has increased substantially, but there’s still a few things we have to watch out for that we’ll talk about later, particularly around plant-based proteins. 

In any case, back to the MPS vs. hypertrophy outcomes conversation. There are also issues with the outcomes studies as well. Usually these are just 6, 8, or 12 week studies. We know muscle building is a fairly slow process, so even though significant differences aren’t seen in those time periods, we may start to potentially see some if these studies were drawn out longer, say 6 to 8 months or so. Perhaps we wouldn’t, I’m not sure, there aren’t any very long, well-controlled RCTs looking at this stuff. 

The take-home is that in all likelihood, any protein powder that contains all of the essential amino acids and around 2-3g of leucine per serving would work, and this is most quality powders out there these days regardless of type. 

However, maybe, just maybe, if we favor the proteins that have the highest leucine content as well as highest bioavailability, like whey, we might see the tiniest fraction of a difference in our gains over the course of a year, probably 1% or under, but that’s yet to be determined.

One additional note before we get into a pro/con and comparison conversation. I’ll be talking about collagen protein here too, but for the purposes of hypertrophy, collagen simply doesn’t make the cut because it lacks the correct amino acids for a robust hypertrophy response. 

Battle of the Proteins – Pros, Cons, and Situational Aspects

Whey Protein

Lets start out with probably the most well-known protein powder out there: whey protein. Yes, it’s fast digesting and is best known for being the “best” for consuming post workout thanks to this. Again, consider the discussion we just had as far as MPS vs. outcomes data. It seems not to matter a huge amount in the grand scheme of things. 

In any case, let’s discuss different forms, the main one’s being concentrate vs. isolate vs. hydrolysate. 

Most people in the industry opt for a whey isolate because of its superior macro profile, higher percentage of protein per scoop, and its a good medium in terms of price between concentrate, which is cheaper, and hydrolysate, which is more expensive. 

However, a lot of people aren’t aware that whey concentrate has a lot of unsung beneficial properties, so let’s go over a pro/con for concentrate vs. the other forms. 

Concentrate – An Unsung Hero?

If you’re an individual that tries to eat the least processed diet, whey concentrate would fall into that category. It is the least processed of the three, and its basically just liquid whey thats had the liquid evaporated from it along with a minor filtration process. 

The main con here is that it’s a smaller percentage protein and has slightly more fats and carbs in it, so if someone is in a situation where their calories are lower, then they might want to opt for an isolate. However, concentrate retains all or most of the micronutrients that liquid whey contains. These include things like immunoglobulins, alpha lactalbumin, several different lactoferrins, and many others.

These particular fractions have shown numerous health benefits in studies. For example, a-lactalbumin has decently strong ace-inhibitory activity, meaning it can potentially help high blood pressure or hypertension. Some isolates and hydrolysates may have a bit of alpha lactalbumin present as well, depending on the manufacturing process, but concentrate has more. 

A whey concentrate that is around 80-85% protein will have around 11-20% of it as immunoglobulins as well, which have immune system modulating properties. Many animal studies have looked at whey concentrate immunoglobulins and the immune response, and we generally see a more anti-inflammatory profile of immune cell type and activity after consumption.

For example, a mouse study showed reduced levels of the plasma (interleukin) IL-1α, IL-1β, IL-10, (tumor necrosis factor) TNF-α, ROS (reactive oxygen species), and cholesterol after they were treated with whey protein concentrate. Isolate did show efficacy here too, but not as much, but that was probably through a different mechanism, which we’ll go ahead and address. 

Another great thing about whey – in all of its forms, not just concentrate – is that it has been shown to significantly improve glutathione levels in the body. Glutathione is one of our body’s own master antioxidants and increasing our own bodies production is very powerful for inflammation. Whey is very high in both cysteine and glutamate; two amino acids necessary for the production of glutathione, and cysteine is generally considered to be the rate limiting amino acid for synthesis. So in that other mouse study I was just talking about, the whey isolate group that saw positive anti-inflammatory effects probably did so because of increased glutathione, whereas concentrate has the benefit of the immunoglobulins plus the glutathione raising effect. 

Both animal and in vitro studies have also shown that whey concentrate can improve intestinal permeability and the mucosal immune profile in the gut as well. In the same vein, there are a few human studies looking at whey concentrate on psoriasis outcomes, and those that took the whey did have significantly improved psoriasis symptoms. 

Another potential con about whey concentrate though, is that if someone is sensitive to dairy, they’re most likely going to be sensitive to concentrate since it does contain more dairy components. Even though I listed out a lot of potential benefits there, if you know your gut gets bloated and you can’t stop passing gas after consuming concentrate, then it’s either probably not for you, or you have a lesser quality brand. There is less of a chance that someone would be sensitive to isolate or hydrolysate, since many of the other dairy fractions have been removed. 

Isolate and Hydrolysate

As far as isolate vs. hydrolysate, this one’s really splitting hairs. Hydrolysate boasts a higher protein percentage, but that’s about it. It usually tastes a lot worse too and is significantly more expensive. Unless you’re very calorie restricted and need the higher protein % per calorie, it’s probably best to skip pure hydrolysate. 

That wraps the discussion with whey. The take home here is that all forms are great and beneficial. If you’re quite calorie restricted, then an isolate and hydrolysate would be the way to go. You’ll still get the additional glutathione-raising benefits. If you don’t mind the extra few grams of fat and carbs, and aren’t sensitive to dairy, concentrate is totally viable as well for the extra micronutrients, and your wallet will thank you too. 


Casein protein has been another popular supplement that was originally marketed as the “Pre-bed” protein, since it has a longer digestion time, resulting in a “trickle” of amino acids into the bloodstream. This still remains true to some extent, but in actual data you still see a peak after 60 minutes of ingestion, with a slower fall off than whey. Overall though, blood amino acid concentrations dont get back to baseline till about 4 hours later. 

Conversely, if you actually look at the amino acid kinetics of a mixed meal of steak, vegetables, and a carb source, amino acid levels don’t reach baseline till 6+ hours, so even though its been strongly marketed as a slow digesting protein, a mixed meal with meat is still going to be digested slower. 

In any case, a major con with casein is that it’s one of the major portions of dairy that folks can be sensitive to. I’ve heard many anecdotes in the space that people who tolerate a whey isolate just fine get pretty bad digestive distress from casein protein. 

In terms of literature looking at the above, we can look at a study of hydrolyzed casein vs. micellar casein in individuals with IBS. The micellar casein elicited a robust increase in symptoms, whereas the hydrolyzed casein did not. Hydrolyzed casein isn’t exactly popular on the market yet, and is quite expensive in any case, so I would just say if you have gut issues, its best to skip casein altogether. 


Plant-based options can be a very viable alternative to dairy-based options if someone is needing to completely cut out dairy. As I mentioned earlier, about 10-15 years ago, you really had to be a label reader on these things to ensure they had a complete amino acid profile, but more companies are including the necessary pea-rice blend these days since more consumers are aware. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check the label; there are still many products out there that are trying to cut corners. As a reminder: Ideally we’d look for one that has 2-3g of leucine per serving. 

One concern that popped up several years ago is the degree of heavy metal contamination in vegan protein powders. The Clean Label Project tested a vast amount of protein powders of all kinds, and 75% of the plant powders tested had levels of lead, BPA, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic that were nearly double the amounts allowed according to guidelines. That study wasn’t entirely clear on the clean brands, but I’d encourage you to use third party sites like labdoor and consumer lab to check the purity of the product, or email and ask the manufacturer for a certificate. 

A question I’ve heard in the space amongst savvy folks is around the potential presence of anti-nutrients in plant protein powders that are normally found in plants. The good thing is that you dont necessarily have to worry about this. Early versions of pea and soy protein had decently high levels of phytate that came with it, but thanks to new processing methods including the use of microbial fermentation and enzymatic modification, any anti-nutrients present have been taken out.  

Let’s address pure soy protein really fast because there’s a lot of myths or lore floating around about it. It is considered a complete protein source, yes, but is generally lower in leucine than other sources. Pea/rice blends in the correct ratios can get closer to whey in terms of leucine content than soy by itself. 

The main concern I hear people talking about is feminizing effects in males, and this has largely been debunked, so you don’t necessarily have to worry about getting gynecomastia from eating soy protein in reasonable amounts. 

The phytoestrogens in soy can potentially be beneficial for postmenopausal women as well, although studies are somewhat conflicting on that topic. 

One last con about plant proteins is the taste. It’s pretty darn hard to get a plant protein blend to taste awesome. There are some brands out there that have done it, but its usually best to go the chocolate route or something with alot more flavor to it than vanilla, since that will generally mask the poor taste of protein itself. The best tasting, highest quality plant blend that I’ve come across is Legion’s Plant+ (Code XYZ).


The last one we’ll address in full is going to be egg protein powder. One of the pros here is that it boasts the second highest bioavailability when compared to whey, but again, in terms of outcomes data, this may not seem to matter quite as much in the context of an overall protein-rich diet. 

Egg protein powder was one of the first true protein powders developed in the mid 1900’s, and remained the earlier bodybuilders protein of choice for its superior quality back in the day. Its superior bioavailability is pretty much where the pros end, though. 

As far as cons, we’ll start with basics . The taste and texture of egg protein isn’t exactly pleasant for most. Since it’s basically just powdered egg whites, people describe it as rather slimy once reconstituted, particularly if it’s pure egg protein and not a blend.

Egg white is also another common intolerance that those with gastrointestinal issues or autoimmune disease can have, so for many in that population, egg protein is going to be out.

Pure egg white protein is also prohibitively expensive. Just doing a google search for a quality product now, just 1 lb of egg white protein will run you around 40 bucks. 

Egg white also has a protein in it called avidin, which binds biotin, which is a B vitamin, and prevents its absorption. Under most circumstances, this wouldn’t really cause biotin deficiency, but if someone is consuming a lot of egg white protein on a daily basis over a long time period, there might be some biotin issues that surface. 


Im not going to go in depth here because I do have a comprehensive podcast about collagen for applications such as skin and joint health. If you want to check that out, its episode 378 in the feed. 

In short though, collagen protein does not contribute to muscle building and hypertrophy. However, certain forms of collagen may be beneficial for joint health, particularly UC II, which comes in capsules and is active at just a 40mg dose, so it doesn’t necessarily come with calories like normal collagen powder. There’s also decent data around collagen di- and tri-peptides for skin health. Sadly, there’s little to no data for hair health. 

Another benefit of collagen is that it is high in the amino acid glycine, which is a pretty important player in the methylation cycle and can facilitate good quality sleep. It can buffer excess methyl groups to prevent overmethylation, and glycine is something we should have in balance with methionine anyway, and most of us are getting too much methionine as a ratio to glycine. 


Thus concludes the battle of the proteins! While this topic has had a lot of air time in the health and fitness space, I hope you learned something new; maybe around the whey protein subfractions or potentially around some of the plant protein aspects. 

The short of it, again, is that most protein powders, provided they have all the essential amino acids and leucine content of around 2-3g per serving, are going to be much the same in terms of outcomes. With products like whey, casein, and egg, you wont have to worry about that as much since its baked into their normal makeup, but you may have to be a little more savvy with plant based proteins, although most popular brands do contain the right profile these days. 

If you’re a coach recommending powders to your clients, it’s imperative you monitor their response from a gastric standpoint and other symptoms. If your client begins to consume a dairy-based protein and has gastrointestinal symptoms, eczema flares, brain fog, or other symptoms, then its going to be a good idea to have them switch.


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Volume 9 – 2022 |

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