Anyone who has decided to adopt a vegan diet understands there are some nutrition challenges that come with the lifestyle choice.
Even if you try and eat as many high-protein vegan foods as possible, like tofu and tempeh, there’s still a chance you’re not getting enough protein in your diet – especially if you’re active. That’s where a protein powder can be a vegan’s best friend.
“Protein is an important structural component for many body systems and is the building block for muscle. If you are training regularly then you are in a state of constant muscle breakdown and synthesis, so having the right variety of protein is essential to see results from your hard work,” explains Advanced Sports Dietitian Lisa Middleton.
But it turns out not all proteins are created equal, and that’s where selecting the right vegan protein powders can become tricky. You may have heard the term “high quality” protein, which relates to the composition of amino acids within a protein. Some proteins contain all the essential amino acids and are therefore considered to be high quality.
Often for vegans, plant-sourced protein powders tend to be lacking in one or more of these amino acids. No single plant-based protein will provide the same amino acid profile to the dairy-based whey or casein protein powders, so a combination of different proteins tends to work best. Side note: if you’re active, it’s important to make sure Leucine – a particular amino acid that stimulates muscle protein synthesis – is represented in your protein powder.
Here’s the breakdown:
Pea – high lysine, arginine and BCAA’s (including leucine), low methionine. Easily digested and reasonable amino acid profile for a plant protein. While peas are a high-FODMAP food, pea protein powder has been tested as low FODMAP.
Rice - low lysine, higher methionine and cysteine. The combination of rice and pea protein complements each other well in terms of amino acid composition. Rice protein powder is also low-FODMAP.
Hemp – good variety of amino acids, but limited in lysine. Easily digested, high bioavailability (greater than or equal to some grains, nuts and legumes). Pea and hemp is also considered to be a good combination.
Soy - has a high protein quality, however Lisa points out there are potential concerns regarding GMO and hormone impact. Soy protein isolate has had all the non-protein components, including carbohydrates and fiber, removed. The resulting product is almost all protein, making soy protein isolate a more pure protein than soy protein concentrate.
When selecting your product, check the label. Lisa says that the powder should be providing predominantly protein, but a little bit of carbohydrate/fat is okay.
“Ideally you are aiming for 20-25g (0.7-0.9oz) high quality protein and 2g (0.070z) of leucine per [serving],” she advises.
Brand-wise, Lisa recommends looking out for quality natural powders that include fillers or other ingredients with no nutritional value (she personally likes Aussie brand Bare Blends) and says you don’t need to spring for the “fortified” versions.
“Any nutrients, such as vitamins or minerals that are needed in higher amounts than a vegan diet will provide, should be added separately, according to individual need,” she says. If the person is eating a well-balanced vegan diet, they may not need a protein powder every day, though she warns “many vegans don’t plan well enough to get all their protein.”
“If their meals are well planned maybe they can do protein powder 4-5 times a week instead of daily.”
She also points out that timing is important: a breakfast smoothie is a good option (check out our Centr recipes for some great smoothie options,) or incorporate a post-workout shake for muscle recovery.
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