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December 27, 2021 10 min read

The largest criticism of a vegan diet usually comes down to the assumption that protein intake is hard to get on a day to day basis.

Although this isn't true, for those considering trying a vegan way of life can rest assured there is a simple and effective solution to this problem while you learn how to get sufficient protein from sources such as lentils and beans.

Vegan protein powders are not only popular with vegans and vegetarians—measuring up well to the classic whey protein powder—but they also offer benefits that those accustomed to animal-based protein can grow to appreciate as well.

After all, variety is the spice of life.

If the only protein powder decision you’ve ever made has come down to flavor, it might be helpful to see what other options are out there—without hurting your gains.

five plastic measuring cups of different superfood supplement powders

Types of Protein Sources

The most popular workout supplement out there, whey protein powder is the most tried and true way to increase your protein intake, and therefore, your muscle and strength development. It’s sourced from dairy, in the yogurt production process. It’s quickly metabolized in your body with a high degree of bioavailability, meaning that you get a big bang for your buck immediately. Casein protein is similar, but it takes longer to process.

And on the other side of things, we have the plant-derived protein powders.

These can be sourced out of anything from:

  • Peas
  • Hemp seeds
  • Brown rice
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Soy
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Chia
  • Sacha inchi

While whey protein powders offer a full range of the amino acids that make up protein, plant-based protein (except for soy) does not have the full range of amino acids. This is why plant-based proteins usually come mixed with two or more different sources, to give a full amino acid make-up.

Nevertheless, plant-based protein powders have been shown to be just as effective as their animal-based counterparts.

Why Plant Protein?

The main reason someone would choose a vegan protein powder is if they were vegan—that much is obvious. However, plant-based protein powders that also happen to be vegan aren’t just a good idea for vegans. There’s a variety of benefits to trying plant-based protein. And as an added benefit, you’re performance or development shouldn’t suffer. The one exception might be if you’re performing at the top levels of weightlifting or athletics, but even then, a vegan protein powder can still be a good option.

Dairy-Free Option

Lactose intolerance is a very common sensitivity, and since both whey and casein protein powder are sourced from dairy, they’re obviously a no-go for those who are lactose intolerant. This makes planted-based protein a terrific choice that packs a similar punch in terms of protein levels. And even if you don’t necessarily have this food sensitivity, some people still experience bloating or discomfort after consuming whey protein.

This usually comes down to the type of protein powder, since soy also causes discomfort for some people. Sometimes, using a whey protein that includes digestive enzymes is the way to go. However, some people will react much better to a plant-based protein powder that doesn’t instigate any digestive issues or allergens. And when you’re pumping iron or hitting the pavement, getting more comfortable is a sure-fire way to increase your performance, and therefore, your gains.

Different Nutrients

While animal protein is the clear winner when it comes to giving a full range of amino acids, it does fall short in other departments. For example, plant proteins also offer antioxidants, vitamins, and omega3 fatty acids—many of which aren’t found in whey protein. On the other hand, plant protein tends to contain more carbohydrates, while whey protein usually has more sugars and saturated fats.

When it comes down to looking at the nutrient make-up, it’s important to clearly outline your goals.

Let’s look at losing weight. Both plant-derived protein and animal proteins have shown similar results when it comes to weight loss, however, this weight loss is achieved in different ways. Part of the reason why protein-rich diets are so satiating is that they reduce the amount of the hormone ghrelin in your body, which is the protein that tells your body how hungry you are. On the other hand, plant proteins usually take longer to metabolize in your body, leaving you fuller for longer.

This is where your goals come in.

If you’re looking for a quick hit of protein before or post-workout, whey protein is more quickly metabolized and will better meet your needs. And if you want something that will leave you satiated for longer, plant protein can be a good choice. In this sense, it acts similarly to casein protein powder, which lifters take before bed because it’s slowly metabolized throughout the night. This allows for minimal muscle loss through the night when your body is effectively fasting.

Variety with Protein Sources

Gut health has become a major topic of discussion in recent years—and for good reason. It’s become increasingly clear that the microbes that live in our digestive tracts are extremely important for our overall health. They have a major effect on our general wellbeing, and if not taken care of, we can end up developing food sensitivities.

Probiotics such as yogurts and fermented foods are one way to keep your gut bacteria healthy, but that’s not going to cut it all by itself. A healthy gut needs variety.

Switching up your protein sources (and just generally eating a variety of foods) is necessary for keeping your digestive tract in tip-top condition. If you only ingest one type of protein from day to day, or month to month, you’re going to have suboptimal gut health. It doesn’t matter whether this protein comes from whole foods or supplements. Switching up your supplements to plant-based or vegan sources is one great way to ensure that you’re getting a good variety of proteins into your diet. Even if you’re a die-hard fan of a certain protein powder, your body will benefit from a little variety.

A Better Option for Recipes

There’s a plethora of recipes out there that call for protein powder in unique and tasty ways. A lot of these are recipes for baked goods, such as brownies and pancakes. However, not all protein powders can be used interchangeably in these recipes because of uniquely different properties. Plant-based protein tends to be thicker and usually absorbs water better than animal-based protein, which makes it uniquely useful for cooking and baking needs.

Whether or not you’re a maestro in the kitchen, plant-based protein powders give you a lot more options outside of the classic protein shake or smoothie. Not only can they be more tasty, but they can effortlessly boost your protein intake throughout the day without you noticing or having to put in extra effort.

What About Heavy Metals?

One of the largest criticisms surrounding plant-based proteins is their level of heavy metals. A plant-based protein powder will contain more heavy metals than a protein derived from whey or egg protein. This comes down to the naturally occurring heavy metals in our environment—in the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. Using plants as a protein base means that the heavy metals which naturally occur in plants will also carry over to the protein powder.

However, this isn’t necessarily a cause for major concern.

Although high dosages of heavy metals aren’t healthy, it’s close to impossible to avoid them entirely. There are regulations and initiatives which aim to limit the amount of heavy metals above a certain level, but it’s always best to do your research on a product before buying it. For example, the Clean Label Project is one such initiative that tries to expose manufacturers of supplements that push the boundaries of safe heavy metal intake.

Plant-Based Doesn’t Always Mean Vegan

While the term “animal-derived” protein powder often simply means those proteins taken from dairy (whey and casein), there are other ingredients that might not make a plant-based protein powder vegan as well. It’s important to check the ingredient list to see if you’re actually buying a wholly vegan protein powder.

For example, some vegans include honey in their list of animal-derived products, while other vegans do not. Since some protein powders might include honey, it’s good to double check. Protein powders can also be made from beef and eggs. Although you won’t necessarily see these ingredients in a plant-based protein powder, it’s good to be aware that there are more animal-derived protein powders than just whey or casein.

What to Look for in Vegan Protein Powder

We’ve seen what plant-based protein powder is all about, and some benefits that elevate it over your run-of-the-mill protein. However, all plant-based protein is not built the same. There are several key differences that will make or break a protein powder. Some of these things may be based on your personal preference, while others will be objectively worse or better.

For example, the flavor and texture is the biggest sticking point for most people. After all, if you don’t enjoy it, it’s going to be much more difficult to motivate yourself to supplement with it. In terms of flavor, you’re going to have to read reviews and experiment to find your favorites. And when it comes to texture, some people dislike the texture of certain plant-based protein powders since they’re chalkier. However, this will be different between brands and types of powder.

More importantly, you want to know what exactly is in the protein powder. Supplement regulation isn’t as stringent as medical regulation, and so it’s common to find plenty of fillers in powders. Sometimes these fillers are a benefit because they offer some other type of micronutrient or supplement (such as creatine), but other times they’re just there to bulk up the volume. These fillers can also significantly raise the number of carbs and sugars you’ll be ingesting along with the protein.

While this will largely depend on you and your goals with using a protein powder, most people should stick to the purer stuff. Sure—you might be upping your protein intake—but the carbs, sweeteners, and added sugars will hide any muscle definition that might’ve otherwise been. Flavor and filler content is important, but what matters most is the actual make-up of the protein powder. Unlike animal-derived protein that’s usually a choice between whey and casein, plant protein offers a much wider variety.

The Make-Up of Plant-Based Protein

As we saw above, there are 21 different building blocks of protein, called amino acids. Of these 21, there are nine that the body can’t produce for itself—otherwise known as the essential amino acids. Protein derived from animals is a complete protein, meaning that it’s going to give your body everything that it needs in terms of the 21 building blocks of protein. This isn’t the case with plant-based proteins, which means that some mixing and matching is usually necessary.

Soy protein is the only plant-based source of protein that allows for a complete amino acid profile, but some people have sensitivities. Otherwise, most plant-based protein is made up of brown rice, quinoa, hemp, peas, and chia seeds. Different sources provide various levels of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), but a lot of them are nearly complete protein sources. However, by mixing different sources together, it’s possible to get a full range of amino acids.

The rule of thumb is to mix a legume source with a cereal source. This is why pea protein powder (a legume), and brown rice protein powder (a cereal) are some of the more common protein blends out there. Pea protein is also commonly mixed with hemp protein powder, which is a seed protein. The best vegan protein powder is going to be a blend for full protein content and limited artificial sweeteners. This will maximize health benefits and keep your daily protein intake where it should be—especially if used as a meal replacement.

How Much Protein is Enough?

The recommended dietary allowance for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight for adults. This is the bare minimum required if you don’t want to experience negative effects on your health, so you should try to be comfortably above this level on most days. However, this isn’t an exact science and it will differ between individuals. For example, another method of measuring is calorie percentage. For adults, this means getting 10% to 35% of their daily calories from protein sources. Considering a 2,000 calorie diet, that means 200 to 700 calories daily from protein.

If looking at the bodyweight method, an adult weighing 165 pounds should eat at least 60 grams of protein daily. However, this changes a lot when comparing sedentary to active lifestyles. If you’re active on a daily basis—either at work or at the gym—it’s good to consume 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of your weight. Although you can eat more safely, there are increasingly diminishing returns on the higher end of the spectrum. Not only can too much protein be hard on the kidneys, but the excess calories from protein might also end up being stored as fat, if not used.

Once again, this is largely going to come down to the individual. If you have a specific goal in mind (such as bulking), it’s best to keep a food journal to keep track of your macros—at least for a while. This will give you a better idea of whether you need to change your protein intake or something else in order to achieve your health goals. A nutritionist or dietitian can also be invaluable when planning a diet—whether it’s high protein or not.

Muscular man drinking protein shake at crossfit gym

Fitting in More Protein

If you’re struggling to pack on muscle mass and develop strength, protein powder might be the key that you’re missing. While it’s relatively easier to eat more protein as an omnivore, vegans can also successfully use protein powders to increase their gains. Just including a protein shake once or twice a day between meals can be enough to significantly increase your daily calories, and therefore increase your mass and energy levels.

Opting for milk instead of water in protein shakes is a good idea for omnivores, but vegans can include the powder in fruit smoothies, for example. Adding protein powder into oatmeal or baking recipes is also a great way to up your protein intake in as effortless way as possible.

A Solid Nutrient Foundation for Solid Gains

When it comes to building muscle, protein reigns supreme. Without enough high-quality proteins in your diet, your gains will stall and both muscle mass and strength improvements will plateau. If you’re working out consistently and not experiencing the growth you’d expect, then chances are that you’re not getting enough protein.

With the right vegan protein powder, you can turbocharge your gains and obtain a higher level of overall wellness.

However, it’s important to take into account whether the plant-based protein powder is actually vegan. Other fillers should also be noted—if you’re looking for strictly protein, fillers will hamper your progress and you won’t be getting the same bang for your buck as with a purer powder.

Once you have a solid workout routine, a high-quality protein source (in a high-quality diet), and an optimal sleep schedule, only then you can elevate your wellness, strength, and physique on a consistent basis.