Best Proteins For A Dairy-Free Lifestyle

Whey protein is the gold-standard protein powder for those looking to increase lean body mass. But it’s not the best option for those who are following a dairy-free diet. 

So what protein powders should dairy-free dieters be choosing? Let’s dive in.

Dairy in Whey Protein

For those who don’t know, whey protein actually comes from cow’s milk. In fact, whey is the liquid byproduct of cheesemaking. 

During this process, the enzyme rennet is added to milk which causes coagulation of the product. This separates it into 2 different forms: the liquid form which is whey and the solid form which is the curd. 

In the making of whey protein powders, the liquid whey is pasteurized, and either concentrated or isolated into a powder form for supplementation [1]. 

Can I Take Whey on a Dairy-Free Lifestyle?

Because it comes from cow’s milk, those who have a milk allergy, or lactose intolerance, or who practice a dairy-free lifestyle for other reasons may wish to avoid this product. 

If you are lactose intolerant and still wish to consume whey protein, there are certain products that you can enjoy, such as whey protein isolate. 

Whey Protein Isolate 

Once processed, whey protein isolate contains little to no lactose and often results in minimal if any discomfort in those who suffer from lactose intolerance. However, there is no guarantee that those with lactose intolerance will not experience symptoms when taking whey protein isolate, so it should be used with caution in extreme cases.

Those who are following a dairy-free diet most likely will wish to steer clear of whey protein products because they are made from cow’s milk which is considered dairy. 

However, whether you choose to consume whey protein or not will depend on your reason for being dairy-free.

For example, someone may be dairy-free for a severe milk protein allergy in which case complete avoidance of dairy is highly encouraged. In contrast, someone who practices a dairy-free lifestyle for personal preference may opt to take whey protein powder as an exception depending on their goals and preferences. 

Dairy-Free Alternatives to Whey Protein

If you are living dairy-free but still want high-quality protein powder to help you fuel post-workout, consider the following options below.

Pea Protein 

Pea protein is an excellent, low-allergen, dairy-free option for those who want a protein powder comparable to whey. 

Made from yellow split peas, pea protein shares many similarities with whey protein including similar outcomes in muscle growth and body composition when taken in combination with resistance training [2].

While pea protein contains slightly lower concentrations of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), a type of amino acid believed to help stimulate muscle-protein synthesis, compared to whey protein, this can be solved by simply consuming a slightly higher dose [3, 4].

Egg Protein

Dairy may be off the list but eggs aren't. While not as popular, eggs are a rich source of high-quality protein. They also contain a rich source of the BCAA leucine, second only to whey protein [5].

However, egg protein typically comes mainly from egg whites and may not be a great option for those who are dairy-free due to a plant-based diet. Egg protein is easy to digest and is a great option for those who suffer from lactose intolerance or a milk allergy.

Rice and Seed Proteins

Other dairy-free alternatives to whey protein powder include rice and seed proteins such as brown rice protein and hemp seed protein. 

While both of these contain protein, they are not complete, meaning they are missing some of the essential amino acids required to make a complete protein source.

Because of this, rice and seed proteins may be seen as inferior options to whey protein, however, some research supports similar results in muscle growth when taken in combination with resistance training. 

Moreover, as long as you are consuming adequate protein in a variety of forms throughout the day, consuming a complete protein post-workout may not be as essential as once thought [6, 7, 8].

What is a Complete Protein?

There are 20 different amino acids which can be categorized into two different groups: essential and non-essential. There are 11 non-essential amino acids that our body can make on its own while there are 9 essential amino acids we are unable to make and therefore must get from our diet.

For a food to be considered a complete protein source, it must include adequate amounts of all 9 essential amino acids. Some examples of complete proteins include meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, eggs, and soy. 

Common incomplete proteins include legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds. These are plant-based sources of protein which are typically low in one or more of the 9 essential amino acids. For example, legumes are low in the amino acids methionine and cysteine.

How to Complete Plant Proteins?

Despite most plant proteins being incomplete protein sources, it is possible to make them complete. If you are following a plant-based diet, consuming plant proteins in variety, along with adequate amounts throughout the day, can ensure you are still meeting your protein needs.

Combining plant proteins can also make them complete. For example, many grains are low in the amino acid lysine and rich in methionine while many beans and legumes are rich in the amino acid lysine and low in methionine. Combining a grain and bean or legume, such as brown rice and black beans, creates a complete protein.

Can I Build Muscle Without Using Whey Protein? 

While whey protein powder is one of the most popular protein powders for muscle growth, it is possible to build muscle mass without it. Whether you choose to forgo protein powders completely or opt for one of the dairy-free options above, the most important factor in building muscle is consuming adequate amounts of protein throughout the day.

Protein is essential in muscle-protein synthesis as well as repair and recovery. Consuming a diet rich in protein from either plant or animal-based sources ensures you can build and repair properly post-workout. 

So if whey protein isn’t an option for you, or you simply wish to avoid any dairy products, don’t fret. You can still make progress in the gym and hit your goals.