When you think of diets and protein, your mind automatically jumps to meat, right? It is the first thought to cross most people’s minds because all we’re ever taught is that chicken, fish and lean steaks are the best sources for protein.
But is this strictly true? Are they our only options, or are there other ways to encourage protein synthesis and boost natural muscle growth?
The good news is: yes there is!
Not only can grains, legumes and seeds be used to support protein synthesis. But for any vegans out there, you can now also use a range of organic plant based protein powders which can help you to body build and achieve the exact same gains as all your other gym mates – all whilst sticking to your principles. Brilliant!
What are proteins and their function?
The phrase ‘protein synthesis’ gets thrown around a lot within the bodybuilding community, but it is important, if you’re serious about achieving healthy muscle growth, development and recovery.
You could say, protein is at the center of all things ‘muscle’. Not only does protein act as fuel for your body; its amino acids play an important role in supporting protein synthesis. Meaning, if you want to benefit from increased muscle growth and recovery, you need to offer your body plenty of protein.
Dietary proteins consist of 20 amino acids, of which nine are considered essential or conditionally essential amino acids. This means, we have to consume them or their precursors – using foods or supplements – to ensure our bodies can function.
Once in our bodies, we are able to efficiently use or recycle these amino acids to create our very own protein. Now, the amount of dietary protein you need will depend on your body weight.
Supposedly, if you are moderately active you will need 0.8kg of protein per kg of body weight (per day). For athletes, you will need to consume around 1.4-2kg of body weight, as you will have a higher protein turnover.
This is where protein powders come in handy…
Forms of Protein Powders
Aside from whey powder, most protein powders come in the form of isolate, hydrolysate and concentrate.
Protein isolate is made up almost entirely of isolated amino acids, with very little fat, fiber or other substances present. As a result, Isolate is digested a lot more slowly – helping you to feel full for longer – and is typically less allergenic than other protein sources.
Protein hydrolysates are basically proteins that are soaked in water. These tend to be digested more quickly because the bonds between the amino acids have been cut and have undergone enzymatic activity.
This particular protein is very useful for assisting muscle repair following an intense workout, as it can increase the rate at which dietary amino acids are incorporated into your skeletal muscle protein.
As the name suggests, protein concentrates are high in protein, but are less concentrated than the ones listed above. This is because they have undergone less processing. But this is not a bad thing. In fact, this actually makes it the more attractive option as it is a more natural form of protein powder.
Plant-Based Protein Sources
Once upon a time, it was believed that you needed to eat all nine essential amino acids at the same time. This created a lot of problems with plant-based protein powders, as it was next to impossible to combine the plants in such a way as to get the full amount of protein required.
Luckily, we now know better…
Basically, as long as these essential amino acids are eaten throughout a 24 hour period, you can get all the protein you could ever need from plant-based foods.
And this is great news for vegans, as instead of dealing with protein powders derived from animal products – dairy, meat, eggs…you get the gist – vegan protein powders get all of their protein from things such as nuts, seeds, grains and legumes.
Now, the best tasting plant based protein powders use grains, legumes and seeds. They achieve this by removing almost all of the fat and carbs, before isolating their protein components.
Yet these three are not your only options. There are many other great vegan protein powders to choose from, that source their protein from the likes of soy, hemp, pea, rice and even peanut (yum).
However, before you go any further – if you want optimal levels of protein – it is important to know that Soy is the only one that contains all nine essential amino acids. The rest are sadly missing at least one amino acid, meaning you will either need to combine multiple plant based protein powders to get the full whack e.g. pea with rice, or you will need to mix the powder with foods.
Hemp protein powder with oatmeal is a great way to achieve this. Alternatively, you can add it to a smoothie e.g. try adding pea protein powder to a smoothie with nut butter. Yummy!
Either way, you don’t have to let this setback stop you from pursuing a vegan route. You can easily optimise protein synthesis without ever having to use animal-derived proteins.
If you’re still not convinced though, then here is a titbit of information for you…
Compared to their animal-derived protein counterparts, organic plant based protein powders contain fiber; are lower in fat, and are free from cholesterol. Add that all up, and vegan protein powders can basically help you to feel full and keep your calorie intake low – perfect!
How can you choose the best plant based protein powder for you?
Picking between them will greatly depend on your needs and preferences:
- Pea Protein
Pea protein powders are usually made from yellow split peas due to their high protein levels. For every 28g of unflavoured pea protein powder you take, you will receive 21g of protein and 100 calories. In fact, during a 12 week cycle, taking 25g of pea protein powder (twice a day and alongside weight training) can increase your bicep muscle size by at least 20% – this is nearly as much as whey protein. It can also help to lower your blood pressure levels and create the sensation of being full.
Like other legumes though, pea protein is low in essential amino acid methionine, but rich in BCAAs (such as leucine, isoleucine and valine). All of these can help fuel working muscles and encourage your body to produce more muscle protein.
Tip: Combining it with pumpkin seeds, quinoa, chia seeds, spirulina or chlorella, can make up for its lack of methionine.
- Hemp Protein
Taken from the seeds of the cannabis plant; with hemp protein powders they purposefully use cannabis plants that have been bred to only contain trace amounts of THC (so you won’t get high). It is a fantastic source of fiber, zinc, iron, magnesium and ALA (plant form of Omega-3 fat), as well as is rich in essential fatty acids (EFAs).
Admittedly, for every 28g of unflavoured hemp protein powder you take, you will receive 12g of protein (108 calories). In addition, it is low in essential amino acid lysine, so you will need to add legumes and quinoa to your diet to fill this gap.
NOTE: hemp protein is light and granular, and comes with a slight grassy flavour, so green shakes/smoothies are good choice for this one.
- Pumpkin Seed Protein
Before pumpkin seeds are made into powder, they high in both protein and healthy fats. This fat is removed during the powdering process which helps to reduce its calories.
For every 28g of unflavored pumpkin seed powder you have, you’ll receive 18g of protein and 103 calories.
Compared to the others, is it low in two essential amino acids threonine and lysine. However, it is still very nutritious and is high in anti-oxidants, magnesium, zinc, iron and other minerals; it has got strong anti-inflammatory properties, and it can lower bad cholesterol levels.
- Brown Rice Protein
Despite being low in lysine, brown rice is a great source of BCAAs which are essential for muscle building. In fact, some studies suggest brown rice protein powder can be just as good as whey protein for muscle growth (when used for weight training). This is probably due to it being a raw rice protein hydrolysate.
It has also got a low allergen profile, which makes it easier to digest and suitable for those with allergies to soy and dairy, or whom have got a sensitive stomach.
To help it become a complete protein, you can combine this powder with pea or hemp protein. This will make up for the loss of lysine. You can also try mixing it with foods, simple shakes and smoothies.
For every 28g of unflavored brown rice protein you take, you’ll receive 22g of protein and 107 calories.
In an 8 week cycle, taking 48g of this powder after weight training – three times a week – can help to increase bicep muscle thickness by up to 12%.
One problem with this powder though is the risk of potential contamination from heavy metal arsenic. For that reason, only use brown rice protein powders that have tested themselves for arsenic levels.
- Soy Protein
The only one of this bunch to be a complete protein, soy protein is high in BCAAS – which are essential for muscle strength and growth – as well as plant compounds that can help lower your blood cholesterol.
Just 28g of soy protein isolate powder will give you 22g of protein and 95 calories.
Now due to most soy being genetically modified in the US – and so few brands using non-GM soy – this type of protein powder has dropped in popularity in recent years. This has worsened due to concerns over potential health risks and the allergies it can cause. As a result, don’t use this powder on its own but with others.
- Sunflower Seed Protein
One of the newer vegan protein powder options on the market; it can provide you with high levels of BCAAs which can support muscle growth and repair. Like many of the others, it is low in lysine; however, it can be combined with quinoa to make it into a complete protein.
In just a 28g serving, you will receive 13g of protein and 91 calories.
- Sacha Inchi Protein
Taken from the sacha inchi seed, this is one of the pricier powders. Like many of the others listed above, it is low in essential amino acid lysine; however, this can easily be solved by combining it with other protein powders.
In fact, its effectiveness has been compared to soy protein powder. This is due to its high levels of arginine (which your body needs to make nitric oxide) which can help your arteries to expand, improve blood flow and lower your blood pressure. Similarly, the presence of ALA omega-3 fat in this plant based protein can help to keep your heart healthy.
In a 28g serving, you will receive 17g of protein and 120 calories.
- Chia Protein
Chia seeds are regularly used in smoothies, porridges and baked goods due to its high level of amino acids (although it is low in lysine) and its ability to enhance digestibility. In a powdered form, a 28g serving can offer you 10g of protein, 50 calories AND increased protein digestibility of up to 50% (compared to when it is consumed as a seed).
This protein also provides 8g of fiber per serving, and contains high quantities of vitamins and minerals, including biotin and chromium.
Plant Protein Blends
If you haven’t already guessed, aside from soy, most of these plant based protein powders produce better results when blended together. Maybe that is why some come already combined.
By selling them as a blend, you have got the instant reasurrance that you are receiving optimal levels of all the necessary amino acids in one product. There is no need to worry about portions, as they’ve done the job for you.
Common combos include:
- Pea protein (low in methionine) with rice protein (low lysine) – together they supply their missing parts.
- Quinoa protein is regularly combined with other plant proteins, as it contains all 9 essential amino acids.
- You’ll find some blended plant protein powders that have added flavours, sprouted/fermented plant proteins and enzymes. Enzymes in particular can help you to digest the product easier, whilst the use of sprouting and fermentation can help to increase the amount of beneficial plant compounds, vitamins and minerals available to your body. They can help to break down antinutrients which can affect the absorption of amino acids, minerals and other nutrients.
Best Tasting Plant-Based Protein Powder Smoothie
There is one thing we need to point out: the aftertaste of plant based protein powders is not for everyone. To fair, they can be pretty gross.
That is why spices, cocoa powder, citrus/orange peel or extracts such as vanilla or almond, are a must as they can help to improve the flavor.
Take this best tasting plant based protein powder smoothie –overflowing with hemp protein, peanut butter, chia seeds and almond milk; this smoothie can ensure you get all the essential amino acids you need in just one dose.
To make it all you need is:
1½ cups of unsweetened almond milk
1½ tbsp. of Chia seeds
2 tbsp peanut butter
3 tbsp Hemp protein powder
½ tsp Maca powder
1½ tbsp. Cocoa powder