Your questions answered – pea protein, whey protein & whole foods


Q: “Do you think pea based protein is superior to whey protein? If so, why?” asks Enlightened Eater reader, Ange D’Andre.

A:  Ange, whether one is superior to the other really depends on what you’re looking for in a protein powder.

Pea protein would be a better option for someone who is looking for a vegetarian or dairy-free protein powder. Whey protein, on the other hand, may contain lactose and if you’re lactose intolerant, it would be best to check the particular brand.

A number of studies have looked at them head to head in terms of their effects on muscle, satiety and ghrelin levels (a.k.a. the hunger hormone as it stimulates hunger) and impact on blood sugar readings.

While there are differences, most are not terribly significant.

But your query prompts a question from me. Why not eat whole foods for your protein?

While there can definitely be a place for protein powders – for example, for those whose protein needs are difficult to meet as in the case of body builders, the elderly or those who have been ill. But for the average person, even an athlete, eating whole foods offers many more advantages (besides all the nutrients contained).

For those looking to reap protein’s advantages for building muscle or what’s called muscle synthesis,  recent research points to benefits of eating whole foods over protein supplements. In an article entitled, Food-First Approach to Enhance the Regulation of Post-exercise Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis and Remodeling, the authors point to interactions between the protein in a food and other components of the food (called the food matrix).

They state,

The food matrix refers to the overall chemical dynamics of food, which includes how various food components are structured and interact. Emerging evidence seems to suggest there are potential interactions occurring within a food matrix (i.e., food synergy ) that modulate various metabolic processes (including muscle protein synthesis). In other words, the ingestion of specific whole foods, and the associated nutrient–nutrient interactions, possibly facilitates a stronger anabolic effect than the individual actions from each individual food component.”

(Anabolic is building versus catabolic which means breaking down)

In their study, amongst those foods assessed,  they tested whole eggs versus egg whites and found the whole egg had a stronger effect on muscle synthesis following exercise than did the egg white. They did point out that more research is needed, though.

There is also the question of contaminants in protein powders, including those from both plant and animal sources. (Read my post on the topic: Make ice cold smoothies without contaminants)

But back to the food matrix. There is a lot of research being conducted on this particular issue. There appears to be synergistic effects within a food which may offer a host of benefits. Stay tuned for more on the food matrix in the next little while.

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Categories: Fitness, Whole Foods, Your Questions Answered

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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2 Comments on “Your questions answered – pea protein, whey protein & whole foods”

  1. August 22, 2019 at 6:24 am #

    I’ve never really understood the protein powder fashion. I guess it has its uses for athletes and the sick. But otherwise, why not eat real food?

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