Being the first to market, whey protein has been the long-reigning champion of sport nutrition and not surprisingly proponents of whey have ever since doubted the effectiveness of plant-based proteins for building muscle. However, a third study to date (this one published in EC Nutrition on April 2018) is helping to prove that protein from plant sources may be just as good as animal-based protein. (Update: As of December 2020, a fourth study has also been published looking at the effects of a lower dose of plant vs animal-based whey protein in college athletes.)
The Power of Protein
Decades ago, carbs and fat had their fair share of time under the diet fad limelight (and not necessarily in a good way), but now attention has shifted toward protein though under different circumstances. In fact if you haven’t noticed lately, no one is trying to go “low-protein” given the hundreds of current food products touting ‘high protein’ or ‘x times more protein.’ The benefits of this macronutrient are both unique and multidimensional, benefiting nearly all body systems. Protein is the building block of:
- Hair, skin and nails
- Antibodies for our immune system
- DNA, by which all types of new cells are made
- Enzymes which control things like digestion and metabolism
- Hormones like insulin
- and more!
Plant Protein vs Whey
In the fitness and bodybuilding community, it’s a common misconception that plant proteins can’t build muscle. The main reason cited for this is that plant proteins are incomplete proteins. In short, this means is that plant proteins are low in (but not missing) one or more essential amino acid (EAA) and specific amounts of each of the nine EAAs are needed to build new tissue. Whereas, proteins like whey are complete because they contain enough of each EAA to build muscle on its own.
However, what’s often overlooked with this notion is that plant proteins can be made complete by combining with other proteins. And they don’t even have to be consumed in the same meal (more outdated wisdom)–they can be consumed at any time in a 24 hour period. In other words, you can have oatmeal (grain-based protein) for breakfast and a cup of black beans (legume-based protein) and your body knows to combine the aminos from these protein sources to build muscle or new tissue since grains and legumes are complementary proteins. If you consume meat or dairy-based proteins, then those would also help to complete any plant proteins in your diet.
So while the amino acid profiles of plant proteins like rice protein, pea protein and hemp are different than whey protein, it does not mean they are obsolete–and they can certainly help to build muscle. If vegan bodybuilders aren’t enough proof, there are a couple of clinical studies which may help to support plant protein works just as good as whey.
The Science: Rice vs Whey Protein
While the first and second studies looking at rice vs whey protein were completed on college athletes, the third study comparing plant vs animal protein recruited professional MMA (mixed martial arts) athletes. The purpose of the study was to look at the effect of supplementing with rice protein or whey protein while undergoing high volume and intensity training for six weeks.
The MMA fighters were divided into two groups and instructed to consume Growing Naturals’ rice protein or whey protein (75g protein total) with at least 1 25g serving being ingested after their first training session of the day. The protein powders were matched for protein, carb, fat and calorie content. Otherwise, subjects maintained their normal dietary intake.
Training consisted of two sessions per day, five days a week under the supervision of their coaches in a standardized manner, with one session on the weekend as well. In addition, they had two strength and conditioning sessions per week.
Body composition was measured at baseline and compared after a six week period. Measurements included fat mass, fat free mass (lean body mass), body fat% and body weight (i.e. mass).
After six weeks, results showed that there were no significant changes/differences within the whey group or the rice group individually. When comparing the whey to the rice group, there were also no significant differences for all measurements, though there was a trend in the rice group for lower body fat%.
The study concluded that both proteins supported body composition equally while undergoing high volume and intensity training. There was no benefit of using one protein source over the other. The full study is published in EC Nutrition.
Rice Protein Benefits
The results of this study on pro-athletes helps to substantiate the first rice vs whey study, but also helps to support the effectiveness of plant protein powders like rice protein for building or maintaining muscle mass. Despite rice protein having an incomplete amino acid profile compared to whey protein, it was nonetheless able to provide equal results to those subjects consuming whey protein. For those considering plant proteins, here are the advantages of rice protein over whey or other animal-based proteins:
- Naturally free of cholesterol and saturated fat
- Free of contamination from antibiotics or growth hormones which may be used in animals
- Plant-based and thus more eco-friendly
- Leucine in rice protein gets absorbed by the body faster than leucine in whey protein. Leucine is the amino acid known for triggering muscle protein synthesis (aka muscle building).
By: Scarlett Full, in house Registered Dietitian
Video: Why UFC Athlete Andre Soukhamthath Switches to Rice Protein