Even though top-notch athletes (including pro bodybuilders and Olympic athletes) are evidence that plant-based diets are sufficient for building insanely strong bodies, the sports nutrition community has long held whey protein as the highest standard for producing muscle #gainz.
But here’s some food for thought: Brown rice protein may be just as efficient as animal-based whey protein for building and maintaining muscle, according to a new study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
The researchers—dietitian Douglas Kalman, Ph.D., and dietitian and sports nutritionist Alison Escalante from Florida International University—assigned 11 healthy MMA athletes to supplement with three scoops per day of either Growing Naturals’ Rice Protein or NutraBio’s Whey Protein, with at least one scoop being ingested after the first training session of the day for a total of six weeks. The athletes continued to train (intensely) under the supervision of their coaches: two MMA sessions per day for five days a week and one session per weekend, plus two strength and conditioning sessions per week. They were asked to maintain their typical diet outside of the added protein supplementation.
The researchers measured the athletes’ body composition (lean vs. fat mass) before and after the test. They found that both the whey and rice protein resulted in statistically similar changes—meaning, the rice protein did just as good a job at maintaining and building muscle mass as the whey protein.
One of the reasons vegan or plant-based protein sources have been deemed inferior is because not all plant-based sources contain all the essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein that you need to get from food).
“In the fitness world, there has been a misconception that you can’t build muscle with plant protein because plant proteins are typically incomplete proteins (low in one or more essential amino acid),” says Scarlett Full, R.D.N., in a release. But, she continues, you can combine protein sources within a 24-hour period to “complete each other.” For example: When you eat two incomplete proteins with complementary amino acids (like rice and beans), they combine to create a complete protein. (Here’s more on incomplete vs. complete proteins.)
It’s worth noting that this study was only on 11 people—which is pretty tiny as far as studies go. Not to mention, the study was funded by a research grant from Growing Naturals, the rice protein powder brand. Still, previous research comparing plant protein and whey has been consistent. A 2015 study comparing pea protein and whey protein compared the muscle strength and thickness of 160 healthy adult men before and after a 12-week trial—and found there to be no difference between the whey and pea protein groups.
Both of these proteins have their place, depending on what you’re looking for. “Rice protein, because it’s plant-based, is great for those with dietary restrictions, allergies, or sensitivities, and because it’s lactose- and gluten-free, it’s less likely to cause inflammation,” says Lisa Booth, R.D.N., a registered dietitian and health coach for 8fit. “It contains all essential amino acids, but because it’s low in lysine, it’s not a complete protein.” As for whey: “It contains all essential amino acids and is easier for the body to absorb, but it’s not great for those who are sensitive to dairy.” At the end of the day, Booth suggests “a minimally processed, plain protein powder with a short ingredient list without added artificial sweeteners.” (If you want to skip the protein powder, also try these plant-based recipes for athletes.)
This isn’t just great news for vegans, but for anyone shifting into a more plant-based “flexitarian” diet, those giving up dairy because of skin or digestion issues, or people simply looking to eat in a way that’s better for the environment.
Science aside, the best part of the study might be that one of the athletes assigned to the whey group—Chas “The Scrapper” Skelly, UFC Featherweight—actually got jealous of his rice protein-drinking friends: “I have always used whey protein, but I’ve always had problems digesting it; my stomach hurts really badly and I feel sluggish,” he said in the release. “During this study, I watched my teammates getting the same results and saying they felt better than I did. Though I am a carnivore, hunter, and fisherman, this study changed my mind about protein supplements. Since the study, I’ve switched, and it does a lot better for me.”
Who knows—your whey-loyal bro or BF may be begging to try your vegan protein very soon.