When you’re trying to build and keep muscle, you need a lot of protein — at least 0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight per day. Most athletes get the protein they need through a combination of a high-protein diet and protein supplements, usually protein powder. But the most popular option — whey-based protein powder — isn’t right for everyone.
That’s because whey is a milk product, and contains lactose, which you shouldn’t eat if you’re lactose intolerant. And, it’s an animal product, which isn’t suitable for vegans. Some vegetarians may wish to avoid or at least minimize eating dairy products, too. Fortunately, new research suggests that plant protein can be just as good as animal proteins for building and maintaining muscle mass.
Plant-based protein sources tend to be more nutritionally dense than animal-based ones, because they contain a wider range of other nutrients, including antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, fiber, and healthy fats. That’s not to say animal-based proteins don’t also contain nutrients in addition to protein, because they do — whey protein also contains calcium and omega-3 fatty acids, for example. But plant-based proteins are much higher in additional nutrition.
If you’re trying to eat healthy, a plant-based, vegan protein powder can help control your cravings with high levels of dietary fiber that control blood sugar, keep you feeling full longer, and support gut health. The antioxidants in plant-based protein sources can remove free radicals from your body, preventing cancer, diabetes, and other diseases. They may even help you stay looking young longer and extend your life. In addition to looking younger, you’ll also maintain higher energy levels and better health if you get most or all of your protein from plant sources.
Some plant-based sources of protein are particularly high in specific nutrients that it might be hard to get enough of if you don’t eat meat. For example, pea-based protein powders are high in iron, because peas are high in iron.
The main reason many bodybuilders and athletes are wary of using vegan protein powders is because many plant proteins are incomplete. That means they don’t contain the nine essential amino acids that make up a complete protein molecule. Your body needs complete proteins, and the most prevalent source of them is meat and dairy products, whose proteins are always complete.
However, there are also plant-based sources of complete proteins. You can comfortably assume that soy proteins are complete, and there’s evidence to suggest that pea, rice, and hemp proteins may also be complete. Other sources of plant-based proteins are incomplete, which is why vegetarians and vegans have to be studious about eating a range of plant products with different protein profiles. You can get some of your amino acids from one source of plant protein, and others from a different source, and your body can combine them together to make a complete protein. According to recent research, you don’t even have to eat the two (or more) kinds of plant protein at the same meal, as long as you eat them on the same day.
Many vegans and vegetarians use protein powder to supplement their diets and make sure they get enough protein, whether or not they’re interested in gaining muscle. When you shop for a vegan protein powder, make sure you’re getting one with complete proteins. Many manufacturers of vegan protein powder blend plant-based sources of protein together to make sure that their products offer the full range of essential amino acids. They might also use food fortification processes, similar to the process used to add vitamins and minerals to staples like flour and bread, to accomplish this.
Current research suggests that, as long as you’re getting complete proteins, your body doesn’t make a distinction between whether it’s from plant or animal sources — protein from all sources will help you build and maintain lean muscle mass and bone density, as well as regulating your metabolism and other important processes. Nuts, rice, beans, lentils, soy, and peas are all great sources of plant proteins.
As long as you’re getting enough protein, it’ll help you gain and keep muscle, whether it’s from animal sources or not. So, go ahead and have that vegan protein shake. The animal kingdom will thank you.