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Beef Protein Vs. Whey Protein: Which Is Better?

The Latest Science Sheds New Light on the
Nutritional Advantages of Beef Protein and Whey Protein

The more questions scientists ask, the more answers that are uncovered that emphasize the importance of protein in a person’s diet. It's no secret that protein, whether from beef or whey or other sources, will help you maximize muscle hypertrophy, maximize fat loss while cutting calories, minimize muscle loss while cutting calories to get shredded, and even curb appetite and increase calorie burning.

But which source of protein is the best, most effiicient source? Is it beef protein? Whey protein? You'll find plenty of strong opinions in favor of both beef and whey protein, and we're here to help you sort the fact from fiction.

Protein Basics

Protein is required by the body for a number of key functions. Proteins are long chains of amino acids and in the biochemistry world, amino acids are referred to as action molecules. This is because proteins (and their constituent amino acids) primarily facilitate communication between cells. They also comprise many hormones that carry out an endocrine role, and every transporter and enzyme is composed of proteins. Currently, the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight each day (g/kg/day) (Murphy, Hector, and Phillips 2014, Kerksick and Kulovitz 2013), but people who exercise and train hard regularly require more protein. Most estimates for athletes suggest between 2x the current RDA or 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight each day (Murphy, Hector, and Phillips 2014). But as you will see, research keeps suggesting the required protein amount for optimal performance might be even higher.

Clearly, ingesting optimal amounts of high-quality sources of protein such as whey protein (Cermak, de Groot, and van Loon 2013) and protein sources found in egg and beef protein (Gorissen, Remond, and van Loon 2015) will help you stack the deck in your favor towards greater strength and muscle growth. Unfortunately, eating sufficient amounts of protein in the form of eggs, milk, steak, chicken, and tuna can be a challenge. This is where supplementation comes in handy.

Beef Protein Vs. Whey Protein:
New Science Gives One The Edge

The quality of a protein source is a commonly debated topic and while several different means exist to evaluate the protein quality, two protein sources, beef protein and whey protein, are getting a great deal of interest from the scientists, athletes and coaches who are interested in weight loss, fat loss, muscle growth and enhanced human performance. Whey protein is one of two proteins found in milk, with the other being casein. Beef protein is, as we know, cow-sourced, and until recently was consumed in the form of a big, fat, juicy filet or t-bone steak. Beef protein isolate is available as a supplemental form of protein, which has led many people to wonder which type of protein should they consume? Fortunately, supportive research exists for both types of protein with some of the initial work with beef protein being completed in 2007 that demonstrated a standard four-ounce serving of beef protein can instigate a robust increase in muscle protein synthesis (Symons et al. 2007).

Isolated versions of whey protein are often considered to be the highest quality source of protein due to their high concentrations of leucine and other essential amino acids. However, understand that mountains of data exist to support using whey protein as a dietary aid to facilitate greater gains in strength and fat-free mass (Cermak, de Groot, and van Loon 2013, Phillips 2014) as well as greater loss of fat and maintenance of fat-free mass while restricting calories while dieting (Longland et al. 2016, Hector et al. 2015, Phillips 2014). In this respect, a recent 2015 investigation directly compared the ingestion of beef protein to whey protein ingestion and first concluded that while both beef protein and whey protein both robustly increased muscle protein synthesis, whey protein exhibited an even greater anabolic response (Burd et al. 2015).

Research Supports the Efficacy of Whey
Protein for Body Composition Management

In the last five years, researchers have provided valuable data to demonstrate the efficacy of increasing the amounts of protein in the diet to facilitate fat loss and attenuate losses of fat-free mass. In 2013, Pasiakos and colleagues published an outstanding investigation that over a 21-day period had study participants create a 40% energy deficit (10% deficit from increased energy and 30% deficit from dietary manipulations). All 39 adults were split up into three groups whereby one group ingested protein at the current RDA, another group was at 2x the RDA for protein and a third group was at 3x the RDA for protein. All three groups lost significant amounts of weight after the 21-day intervention, but the two groups that ingested the highest amounts of protein lost significantly greater amounts of fat and less fat-free mass, approximately 64-70% of the lost weight was fat in the two higher protein groups (Pasiakos et al. 2013).

Restricting calories stimulates weight loss, but it also reduces energy expenditure rates and leaches fat-free mass which can challenge long-term weight loss and weight maintenance once caloric restriction ends. In 2014, Areta and colleagues reported that completion of resistance training in conjunction with whey protein feeding can rescue reduced basal levels of metabolic rate as well as stimulate increases in muscle protein synthesis (Areta et al. 2014). Later, a research group led by Hector also demonstrated that whey protein supplementation can help to preserve muscle protein synthesis rates after a feeding period as part of a short-term period of energy restriction (Hector et al. 2015). Finally, Wingfield and colleagues also reported that whey protein feeding before different bouts of exercise (treadmill running, resistance training or high-intensity intervals) can also help to increase energy expenditure rates and also maximize fat oxidation that occurs throughout and after completion of the exercise bout (Wingfield et al. 2015). Similar to the last study, a group of Australian researchers reported that whey protein ingestion can help to increase muscle protein synthesis after completion of combined bouts of cardio intervals and resistance training, a very common prescription of exercise for people who desire to maximize fat loss (Camera et al. 2015).

Finally and most recently, whey protein supplements were used in conjunction with a comprehensive exercise program consisting of weight training, intervals and other high-intensity exercise with an aggressive caloric reduction. Impressively, the authors were able to demonstrate the ability to actually increase slight gains in fat-free mass while shedding impressive amounts of body fat (Longland et al. 2016). Again, a key point is that the dietary protein intake in this group was 2.3 grams of protein/kg/day (nearly 3x the current RDA). Whey protein supplements were used in between meals to help the study participants achieve their dietary goals and the results are impressive.

Optimal Doses and Patterns of Ingestion
For Beef Protein and Whey Protein

Two other key considerations are what is the optimal dose of the protein being ingested and is there an optimal pattern to ingest protein? As mentioned previously, the leucine intake of the ingested protein source is a key factor, as the skeletal muscle appears to have a minimum threshold of approximately 3 to 6 grams of leucine to turn on skeletal muscle anabolism. Moreover, the essential amino acids are also critically needed to drive the process of muscle protein synthesis (Tipton et al. 1999, Volpi et al. 2003).

For this reason alone, whey protein is an excellent consideration as it routinely has been shown to have the highest amounts of these amino acids. A much more recent study examining beef protein, another high-quality source of protein, found that in older adults, approximately 36 grams of beef protein was required to significantly stimulate increases in muscle protein synthesis after a single bout of resistance training (Robinson et al. 2013). Two studies have been completed using whey protein to identify the optimal dose and the differences in their results highlights a key consideration for the person’s age. For example, in 2012 Yang reported that a group of men with an average age of 71 years required a 40-gram dose of whey protein (Yang et al. 2012) while a 2014 study published involving young, resistance-trained males again concluded that a 20-gram dose of whey protein optimally stimulated muscle protein synthesis after a single bout of resistance training.

In 2013, Areta and colleagues extended the above findings to an entire day. In this study, they assigned different groups of people to ingest the same 80-gram dose of whey protein, but in different patterns and individual doses over the same 12-hour study period. One group ingested eight 10-gram whey protein doses every 90 minutes, a second group ingested four 20-gram whey protein doses every three hours and a third group ingested two 40-gram whey protein doses every six hours. These authors determined that the greater anabolic environment was created when four 20-gram doses of whey protein were ingested every three hours (Areta et al. 2013). A recent 2016 investigation, however, reported that when examined over the course of an entire rugby preseason, increasing the distribution of protein did not afford any greater benefits than simply consuming larger, bolus-style doses of protein as is commonly consumed within traditional cultures (MacKenzie-Shalders et al. 2016). Certainly, more research is needed over the course of several weeks of training in various groups of athletes to determine if the extra hassle of eating more frequent but smaller doses of protein is effective.

Whether You Consume Beef Protein
Or Whey Protein, Timing Matters

A number of timing strategies surrounding protein have been researched with the thought that providing key nutrients at opportune times may support greater muscle growth. Most recently, protein ingestion at night was examined for its ability to facilitate improvements in strength and fat-free mass while completing several weeks of resistance training. In this study, the authors had 42 participants ingest a supplement containing nearly 28 grams of protein and 15 grams of carbohydrate each night before sleep. Several measures of strength and muscle mass were made over the course of the 12-week program and the authors found that when protein was ingested, greater increases in strength and fat-free mass and muscle fiber size occurred (Snijders et al. 2015).

While the milk protein casein has garnered the most attention for evening protein feeding, other sources of protein such as isolated whey protein that contain the highest amounts of leucine and the other essential amino acids are also likely important considerations. In addition to potentially stimulating greater increases in strength, a 2014 study by Madzima concluded that nighttime ingestion of whey protein elicits significantly greater increases in resting energy expenditure, a finding that may help with weight management and success with adhering to a restricted calorie diet (Madzima et al. 2014). Similarly, Res in 2012 suggested that protein ingestion before sleep may improve overnight recovery (Res et al. 2012).

For years, ingesting nutrients shortly after a workout was also considered to be a favorable timing strategy and because of its fast digestive profile, whey protein has been used as the cornerstone of this practice. However, other high-quality protein sources such as egg protein and beef protein can also be considered, but again all of the scientific research suggests that optimal dosing of leucine and the other essential amino acids is critically important to maximally drive muscle protein synthesis.

In 2006, Paul Cribb conducted one of the key investigations related to nutrient timing where he reported that when a group of research participants ingested nutrients immediately before or immediately after each workout, they achieved greater increases in both strength and muscle mass when compared to a group that followed the exact same exercise program and ingested the exact same nutrients in the morning or in the evening of each workout day (Cribb and Hayes 2006).

However, always consider that a number of factors go into determining your daily protein need and there is very little dispute that feeding with a hearty 20-25 gram dose of a high-quality protein such as whey protein or beef protein will increase muscle protein synthesis (Robinson et al. 2013, van Vliet, Burd, and van Loon 2015, Reidy et al. 2013, Witard et al. 2014, Yang et al. 2012).

Beef Protein and Whey Protein:
How Much is Too Much?

While we're on the subject, let’s put one myth to bed. Whether you're eating beef or taking a beef isolate supplement or drinking a whey protein shake, you probably can't take too much. Increased intakes of protein in otherwise healthy individuals have been deemed safe and in the past 5 years, a number of published studies and reports have indicated this is the case (Phillips 2014, Beasley et al. 2014, World Health Organization 2011). In fact, while several studies have merely flirted with protein intakes above the RDA (1.2 – 1.6 g/kg/day) (Pasiakos, McLellan, and Lieberman 2015), Jose Antonio and his group of colleagues have blown the doors off of the RDA. Their first study, published in 2015, had participants ingest through meals and supplementation a daily protein intake of 4.4 grams/kg/day while completing a resistance training program over an 8 week period. No, that is not an error, they had people consume over 5x the current RDA every day for 8 weeks.

Impressively, this higher intake led to a caloric surplus, but no increases in body fat were found after all participants were asked to continue following the same exercise regimen they had been completing (Antonio et al. 2014). Their next study recruited trained men and women and prescribed them to follow the same periodized resistance training program and consume either 2.3 or 3.4 grams of protein/kg/day; amounts that are 3-4x the current RDA, respectively. Again, both groups increased strength and improved their body composition while following a resistance training program even in the face of consuming an excessive amount of calories from protein. Of special note, no clinical indications of safety or adverse events were noted in the study (Antonio et al. 2015). Their final study could be considered a proverbial “nail in the coffin” as they required the same group of resistance-trained men to complete a crossover examination whereby in one arm they ingested their normal diet and in the other arm they ingested 3.4 grams of protein/kg/day. Again, no adverse event or clinical safety outcomes were presented and no unfavorable changes in body composition were found (Antonio et al. 2016).


In conclusion, optimal intake of high-quality sources of protein such as whey protein and beef protein are key considerations for athletes who train hard and want to maximize changes in their body composition. While other sources of protein exist, both whey protein and beef protein have accrued growing bodies of literature that are supportive of their ability to facilitate optimal recovery and adaptations to exercise training.

Due to its higher leucine and essential amino acid content as well as its ability to powerfully stimulate increases in muscle protein synthesis (Areta et al. 2013), whey protein continues to be a popular source of protein for athletes, bodybuilders and other physique competitors. Recent studies with beef protein have documented its ability to also stimulate muscle protein synthesis (Robinson et al. 2013). However, gram for gram, whey protein seems to offer a more effective and efficient means of nutritional muscle support, as compared to beef protein. And different flavor profiles and practical considerations have resulted in beef protein not being as popular as whey protein for active and athletic individuals.

Scientific References

Antonio, J., A. Ellerbroek, T. Silver, S. Orris, M. Scheiner, A. Gonzalez, and C. A. Peacock. 2015. "A high protein diet (3.4 g/kg/d) combined with a heavy resistance training program improves body composition in healthy trained men and women--a follow-up investigation."  J Int Soc Sports Nutr 12:39. doi: 10.1186/s12970-015-0100-0.

Antonio, J., A. Ellerbroek, T. Silver, L. Vargas, and C. Peacock. 2016. "The effects of a high protein diet on indices of health and body composition--a crossover trial in resistance-trained men."  J Int Soc Sports Nutr 13:3. doi: 10.1186/s12970-016-0114-2.

Antonio, J., C. A. Peacock, A. Ellerbroek, B. Fromhoff, and T. Silver. 2014. "The effects of consuming a high protein diet (4.4 g/kg/d) on body composition in resistance-trained individuals."  J Int Soc Sports Nutr 11:19. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-11-19.
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Areta, J. L., L. M. Burke, D. M. Camera, D. W. West, S. Crawshay, D. R. Moore, T. Stellingwerff, S. M. Phillips, J. A. Hawley, and V. G. Coffey. 2014. "Reduced resting skeletal muscle protein synthesis is rescued by resistance exercise and protein ingestion following short-term energy deficit."  Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 306 (8):E989-97. doi: 10.1152/ajpendo.00590.2013.

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Hector, A. J., G. R. Marcotte, T. A. Churchward-Venne, C. H. Murphy, L. Breen, M. von Allmen, S. K. Baker, and S. M. Phillips. 2015. "Whey protein supplementation preserves postprandial myofibrillar protein synthesis during short-term energy restriction in overweight and obese adults."  J Nutr 145 (2):246-52. doi: 10.3945/jn.114.200832.

Kerksick, C.M., and M. G. Kulovitz. 2013. "Requirements of Protein, Carbohydrates and Fats for Athletes." In Nutrition and Enhanced Sports Performance: Recommendations for Muscle Building., edited by D. Bagchi, S. Nair and C.K. Sen. Elsevier Publishers.

Longland, T. M., S. Y. Oikawa, C. J. Mitchell, M. C. Devries, and S. M. Phillips. 2016. "Higher compared with lower dietary protein during an energy deficit combined with intense exercise promotes greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss: a randomized trial."  Am J Clin Nutr 103 (3):738-46. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.115.119339.

MacKenzie-Shalders, K. L., N. A. King, N. M. Byrne, and G. J. Slater. 2016. "Increasing Protein Distribution Has No Effect on Changes in Lean Mass During a Rugby Preseason."  Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 26 (1):1-7. doi: 10.1123/ijsnem.2015-0040.

Madzima, T. A., L. B. Panton, S. K. Fretti, A. W. Kinsey, and M. J. Ormsbee. 2014. "Night-time consumption of protein or carbohydrate results in increased morning resting energy expenditure in active college-aged men."  Br J Nutr 111 (1):71-7. doi: 10.1017/S000711451300192X.

Murphy, C. H., A. J. Hector, and S. M. Phillips. 2014. "Considerations for protein intake in managing weight loss in athletes."  Eur J Sport Sci:1-8. doi: 10.1080/17461391.2014.936325.

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Robinson, M. J., N. A. Burd, L. Breen, T. Rerecich, Y. Yang, A. J. Hector, S. K. Baker, and S. M. Phillips. 2013. "Dose-dependent responses of myofibrillar protein synthesis with beef ingestion are enhanced with resistance exercise in middle-aged men."  Appl Physiol Nutr Metab 38 (2):120-5. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2012-0092.

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Snijders, T., P. T. Res, J. S. Smeets, S. van Vliet, J. van Kranenburg, K. Maase, A. K. Kies, L. B. Verdijk, and L. J. van Loon. 2015. "Protein Ingestion before Sleep Increases Muscle Mass and Strength Gains during Prolonged Resistance-Type Exercise Training in Healthy Young Men."  J Nutr. doi: 10.3945/jn.114.208371.

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Wingfield, H. L., A. E. Smith-Ryan, M. N. Melvin, E. J. Roelofs, E. T. Trexler, A. C. Hackney, M. A. Weaver, and E. D. Ryan. 2015. "The acute effect of exercise modality and nutrition manipulations on post-exercise resting energy expenditure and respiratory exchange ratio in women: a randomized trial."  Sports Med Open 2. doi: 10.1186/s40798-015-0010-3.

Witard, Oliver C, Sarah R Jackman, Leigh Breen, Kenneth Smith, Anna Selby, and Kevin D Tipton. 2014. "Myofibrillar muscle protein synthesis rates subsequent to a meal in response to increasing doses of whey protein at rest and after resistance exercise."  The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 99 (1):86-95. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.055517.

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Yang, Y., L. Breen, N. A. Burd, A. J. Hector, T. A. Churchward-Venne, A. R. Josse, M. A. Tarnopolsky, and S. M. Phillips. 2012. "Resistance exercise enhances myofibrillar protein synthesis with graded intakes of whey protein in older men."  The British journal of nutrition 108 (10):1780-8. doi: 10.1017/S0007114511007422.

Chad Kerksick received his PhD in Exercise, Nutrition and Preventive Health in 2006. Since that time he has conducted several studies examining the impact of exercise and nutrition and continues to conduct research in these areas resulting in over 70 peer-reviewed publications, 100 research presentations, two books and several books chapters. The information provided throughout this article are not to be construed as endorsements of ProSource or the products discussed. Further, the views discussed are those of Dr. Kerksick and not the university or any organization in which he is affiliated.

Use as directed with a sensible nutrition and exercise program. Read and follow all product label instructions and warnings thoroughly before use. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.