Just walk into any GNC or Whole Foods and check out their supplement section.
You may notice that vegan protein powder has a sizable amount of real estate on the shelves these days.
This is partly because so many public/famous people are announcing their transition to plant-based nutrition.
In fact, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the greatest bodybuilder of all time, recently made a statement about how we should try to go part-time vegetarian.
He also said, “I have seen many body builders that are vegetarian and they get strong and healthy.”
Wait, Arnold is on board? Ok, maybe there is something to this.
Despite a wide array of pro athletes and bodybuilders coming forward about going plant-based, there are concerns about the quality and quantity of protein one can get from plant foods.
One solution many vegetarians have turned to is the convenience of using vegan protein powder. In fact, it’s typical for vegetarian bodybuilders and athletes to consume up to 40-50 percent of their daily protein needs through these powders.
Of course the average person doesn’t need as much protein as an athlete, but it demonstrates in even the most extreme cases getting enough protein can be achieved. Not to mention, you don’t have to be a vegetarian to gain benefit.
But isn’t meat and dairy superior in terms of consuming quality protein?
An article in PubMed “The Skeletal Muscle Anabolic Response to Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Consumption” points out that, if we want more bang for our “plant-based protein buck”, we need address digestibility and amino acids:
“The possible lower anabolic properties of plant-based protein sources may be attributed to the lower digestibility of plant-based sources, in addition to greater splanchnic extraction and subsequent urea synthesis of plant protein-derived amino acids compared with animal-based proteins. The latter may be related to the relative lack of specific essential amino acids in plant- as opposed to animal-based proteins.”
The good news is that this is an easy fix. Simply eat multiple sources of plant foods. Or in the case of vegan protein powders, make sure they include live probiotics and enzymes (for digestion), and more than one kind of protein so that you can fully cover your amino acids.
PDCAAs: Vegan Protein Rankings
The most accepted way to assess the quality and bioavailability of protein is the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score. PDCAAS ranks proteins on a quality scale of zero to one.
The closer to one, the better.
1. Soy Protein
Soy protein is made from soybeans that have been dehulled and defatted. It digests at a moderate rate, like egg white protein, and contains greater amounts of the amino acids glutamine and arginine, which may help support immune function, digestive health, and brain function.
It’s a complete protein and considered the most effective plant-derived source for building or maintaining muscle. The scare about men growing breasts because of the estrogen is media hype. You would have to consume copious amounts of this stuff to affect your hormones in any significant way.
PDCAA Score: 1.0
2. Pea Protein
Pea protein is typically derived from the yellow pea, and is the most highly digestible of the plant proteins. This is a great alternative if your stomach doesn’t agree with soy (or dairy). However, it’s not a complete protein, so mix it with another vegan protein to complete its amino acid profile.
3. Hemp Protein
Hemp protein is made from hemp seeds, and isn’t the best for building muscle per se because of it’s low PDCAA score. That said, it offers other beneficial nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids and fiber. Hemp seeds are considered to be a “superfood” by many because of their nutrient density.
How to Choose a Good Protein Powder
When shopping vegan protein powders, look for a mixture of plant-based proteins on the ingredients.
This is optimal because multi-sourced proteins can better ensure the spectrum of amino acids needed for muscle growth. It also tends to provide more nutrients.
Some powders only use one source (e.g. soy, rice, etc.) versus brands like Garden of Life® (13 different sprouts) that use several sources.
About The Author: Chris Willitts is the founder of VegetarianBodybuilding.com and a contributing writer for Muscle & Fitness Magazine, Vegan Health & Fitness Magazine, and Natural Muscle Magazine. If you’re interested in his review of plant-based protein powders, check out this article: The 5 Best Vegan Protein Powders and PDCAAS Ratings.