What Are Plant-Based Proteins and Should You Use Them?

What Are Plant-Based Proteins?

Protein is an important component of the diet and is absolutely essential for health and wellbeing. For that matter, people are increasingly turning to protein to help them lose weight and to support a better body composition overall.

Likewise, many of the myths about protein are being debunked and research is finding that people often need more protein, not less.

But, where do you get your protein from? For many, the answer lies in animal-based options, including red meat (particularly grass fed), eggs and whey protein powder.

This begs the question, what are plant-based proteins?

After all, you may not want to rely on animal sources for your protein. And, you don’t have to either. Instead, there are some powerful options for plant-based proteins. These can work well for vegetarians, vegans or for anybody else interested in plant-based alternatives.

What Are Plant-Based Proteins?

If you don’t plan to rely on animal products, getting enough protein in the diet can be tricky. This is one of the ongoing challenges for vegetarians and vegans because their options for protein are constrained.

Chia Seeds

But, there are still good sources of protein out there.

For one thing, many veggies actually contain a significant amount of protein. Kale is one example of this, likewise, many types of beans can be a powerful choice.

Chia seeds have also become popular as a source of protein. These seeds are also nutritionally dense and offer a good source of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids (1).

In a similar way, nuts are a common option for protein, although you do have to be careful, as nuts are fairly calorie dense. Plus, it’s easy to over-consume them, especially if you’re not paying much attention.

There are many other specific foods that you can eat to get the protein you need and the site One Green Planet has a great list that can get you started. But, this is only one aspect of the discussion about plant-based proteins.

The other component is protein powders.

Generally speaking, this type of powder offers a concentrated option for protein, which comes from natural sources. There are many different options for plant-based protein powders, including soy, pea and hemp protein.

As part of this post, we’re going to take a look at some of these and how they stack up.

Plant-Based Protein Powders

Protein powders are an extremely popular way to add protein into the diet. For one thing, they are incredibly convenient, giving you the ability to add in protein without having to rely on a heavy meal.

These powders are frequently used as a way to increase protein intake and they are especially powerful for anybody wanting to increase muscle mass, lose weight or improve body composition overall. For that matter, this approach to protein can even be relevant for those trying to decrease age related muscle loss.

In many cases, people use these in conjunction with healthy smoothies, which also offers a great way to get various other nutrients into your diet. For that matter, all meal replacement shakes contain one or more forms of protein powder.

By far, the most popular option for protein powder is whey. There are many health benefits connected to whey protein powder and this is also the option that we recommend.

Nevertheless, whey comes from dairy. This means it is animal-based and also is a poor choice for anybody lactose intolerant. With this in mind, plant-based protein powders are a much better choice for many people.

But, what are the other differences?

Whey Protein versus Plant-Based Protein

Digestibility. Whey protein is quickly digested, which is one of the key advantages of whey. However, this is only true for people who can tolerate it. People who are lactose sensitive or intolerant are likely to experience poor digestion and may see little to no benefits from whey protein.

In contrast, plant-based proteins typically don’t contain allergens and are still quickly digested. This makes them more versatile and means that everyone is able to digest them in a similar way.

Portrait of strong sportsman lifting heavy weight in gym

Complete or Incomplete. Protein sources are often considered to be complete or incomplete, based on the number of amino acids present. So, a protein source with all 9 essential amino acids is complete, while others are incomplete.

This area is one of the biggest advantages that whey protein has, as it is considered a complete protein source.

At the same time, it has a range of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which also helps promote muscle development.

In contrast, plant-based proteins vary. Some are still high in amino acids (including hemp and pea protein) but others aren’t. Regardless, all plant-based proteins are incomplete to some degree or another.

Nevertheless, this isn’t a reason to avoid plant-based options entirely. Instead, our bodies do need variety and there are other places to get the remaining amino acids. As a result, incomplete protein sources do still offer many benefits to muscle development.

Ability to Support Muscle Building. Whey protein has a long history of being used to build muscle and a considerable amount of research backing it. The fact that whey is a complete protein source and contains BCAAs is also a considerable advantage.

As a general rule, plant-based proteins are inferior for muscle building and there isn’t as much research supporting them either. Nevertheless, they can still be effective, particularly if you are getting the remaining amino acids elsewhere in your diet (2).

For that matter, while plant-based sources may be inferior, the difference often isn’t that dramatic. This means you can still build muscle on plant-based protein sources and many people successfully do so.

Chocolate whey protein powder

Other Nutrients. Generally speaking, whey protein powder tends to contain more macronutrients than plant-based options. This includes carbohydrates and fat. For the most part, these macronutrients aren’t a bad thing and can even help with building muscles. Nevertheless, for people trying to lose weight, the additional nutrients could be a problem.

In contrast, plant-based protein sources are typically lower in fat, although they vary in carbs. Some can even have relatively high levels of carbs, although many brands eliminate most of the carbs as part of the manufacturing process.

But, there is a different pattern for vitamins and minerals. Most of the time, plant-based protein will have more of these nutrients. This stands to reason, as plants do contain a wide range of nutrients, some of which aren’t found in animals.

In both cases, there is considerable variation across brands and formulations. Often companies will also add in nutrients. This means that you cannot take anything for granted and do need to pay close attention to ingredients labels and the information that companies provide.

Additives. Again, different brands vary in their approaches and some will have more additives than others. But, as a general rule, plant-based protein powders tend to have fewer additives than whey.

Regardless, you can find whey protein with few to no additives, so whey doesn’t entirely lose out in this area.

At the same time, whey protein tends to be more heavily processed than plant-based alternatives. This is necessary because whey is sourced from milk. Still, for people who want the least processing possible, plant-based protein powders may be preferable.

Man drinking a shake

Side Effects. Most people are able to consume whey protein without any issues at all. However, others do find that the protein causes stomach problems and flatulence. In many cases, this is associated with dairy intolerance.

If you do experience side effects with whey, then plant-based protein powders can make more sense. These aren’t typically associated with side effects and most people find them easy to consume.

Overall then, which is best?

Honestly, there isn’t an answer. It all depends on what you want and need. I would always turn to whey protein myself, particularly as it is a complete protein source. However, plant-based alternatives have their advantages too and it’s easy to see why some people choose them.

Types of Plant-Based Protein Powders

So then, plant-based protein powders can be a great option in many situations. You could choose to rely on these as an alternative to whey or simply vary up what you use over time.

But, the next question is, which type of plant-based protein powder do you choose? There is a range of options out there and some are better than the others.

Soy Protein

Soy is, without a doubt, the most controversial plant-based protein powder on the market. For that matter, soy itself is the subject of considerable debate. Some people rely on it heavily as part of their diets. Others avoid it entirely and feel that it is damaging to health.

There are two main problems with soy.

Soy protein powder

The first is that it has a relatively high concentration of phytoestrogens (which mimic the function of estrogen). This is an area of considerable concern, because of a problem referred to as the estrogen epidemic.

You can read more about the problem in a post from Dr. Axe, but the general idea is that society is becoming dominated by estrogen, which may then have many negative long-term impacts on health.

Now, the area is highly controversial and not everybody agrees. For example, some sites claim that soy protein can have feminizing effects for men, while others say this isn’t the case at all. Likewise, some research suggests that soy protein may even promote health benefits – rather than having a negative effect (3). The site Free from Harm offers a good summary of this perspective. 

The second issue is genetic engineering. This is becoming a widespread practice in the United States for a wide range of crops. However, soy is particularly significant and most soy is genetically engineered.

Once again, the implications of this are controversial. There are many studies that suggest that genetically modified crops are safe. But, that research is typically short-term and often funded by the industry.

The truth is that we don’t really know – and we won’t know the long-term impacts of genetically modified food until it is too late.

Based on these two issues many people, myself included, actively avoid soy protein.

And, if you’re considering protein powder, there really is no reason to rely on soy anyway. Instead, you can get the same benefits from other plant-based protein powders, without the risks that come with soy.

Brown Rice Protein

Brown rice powder

Brown rice protein is a fairly common option. This type of protein tends to have more of the amino acid methionine than other plant-based powders but it is low in histidine, leucine and threonine.

Another consideration is that rice protein often doesn’t dissolve effectively in water. So, you end up with a somewhat grainy texture.

The source of the rice can also be somewhat problematic, especially as rice can take up heavy metals from the environment. In many cases, rice protein is grown in China, which could result in contamination.

But, there are some brands that focus on a high-quality product and ensure that there are no issues with contaminants. Indeed, if you choose a good brand, brown rice protein powder is often considered one of the healthiest options and may be just as effective as whey for muscle development (4).

There is also sprouted brown rice protein, which may offer additional benefits and a more appealing amino acid profile. Like many other plant-based proteins, this option is also gluten-free and dairy-free. As such, you don’t have to worry about allergens.

Pea Protein

This type of protein is much more obscure, although pea protein powder is increasing in popularity and will certainly continue to do so (5).

A key reason is the quality of the protein. Pea protein is often promoted as a complete source of protein and does contain BCAAs as well.

Pea protein powder

Technically speaking, the complete protein claim is correct but it is misleading. In particular, three of the amino acids present are low quality. So, the amino acid composition may be similar to protein from animals but it isn’t identical.

Nevertheless, the balance of amino acids in pea protein is powerful and makes this one of the best plant-based options overall.

One catch is that pea protein doesn’t mix well with water and often clumps. This happens because there are soluble fibers from pea present and these can swell and thicken with water.

The response may not be an issue if you are making smoothies using a plant-based milk (such as almond or coconut milk) but it can still be frustrating. To get around this, some brands mix pea protein powder in with other options.

Hemp Protein

Needless to say, hemp protein doesn’t have the psychoactive components of cannabis but it can be an appealing source of protein. It has some plant-based nutrients of note, particularly alpha-linolenic acid, which is an omega-3 fatty acid.

However, the taste of the protein is somewhat distinctive and can be difficult to hide. If you like the flavor, this probably won’t be an issue but many people don’t.

On a side note, hemp protein won’t actually make you fail a drug test or anything like that.

Pumpkin Protein

This is another plant-based option that has a distinctive flavor. However, unlike hemp protein, most people find the taste appealing. At the same time, the protein has no issues mixing with liquid and is a significant source of some minerals, including zinc.

Mixed Protein Powders

hemp and whey protein powder

One final thing to mention is that protein powders often consist of more than one type of protein. In some cases, companies will mix plant-based and animal-based protein, while others may combine various plant-based options.

Being aware of this is critical if you’re trying to avoid specific protein sources, like whey or soy. At the same time, the right combination can promote more health benefits.

A key example of this is pea and rice protein powders. These are often combined because they complement one another and give a better amino acid profile overall. Plus, this combination mixes better with water – which is particularly appealing.

Indeed, many people consider the mixture of these two protein sources to be the best possible outcome (6), mostly because of the amino acid profiles.

Blends of protein powder may also contain a range of different options, including some not covered in this list. For example, some brands include quinoa, pea, hemp and rice protein all in the same product. Doing so can work well, especially as the approach gives you access to a variety of nutrients.

Which Should You Choose?

Man with whey protein powder

There is no single answer for which source of protein is best, especially as they all vary in nutrients and amino acid composition. In many cases, people also choose to mix their protein sources over time.

This could mean relying on whey protein some of the time and plant-based sources other times. Likewise, you might change up the specific plant-based proteins you use.

Doing so gives you access to the most nutrients. The process can also stop you from getting bored with a single type of protein powder.

But, regardless of the specific type of protein, it’s critical to choose a high-quality product and brand. Likewise, it’s important to pay close attention to the ingredients label so that you can be sure about what you are getting.

One other aspect is to consider organic protein powders. In most cases, organic ends up being a better option for health and means there is a lower chance that your food will be contaminated in any way.

If you’re interested in whey protein powder, we’ve looked at the best low carb protein powders for keto in the past and you can check out that post for more information.

Additionally, the next post will take a look at the best organic plant-based protein powders. That information can help point you in the direction of the best products out there.

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