Best Protein Powders for Vegans
Protein supplements are becoming increasingly popular, especially amongst aspiring athletes. However, many protein powders are animal-based, making it difficult for vegans to choose the right product for them. This article will look at vegan-friendly protein powders and potential alternatives.
Protein powder is becoming increasingly popular with a growing audience who consume it for a variety of different reasons. Some supplement protein powder if they’re deficient or don’t get enough through their natural diet, although most people now use it because of the alleged effect it has on muscles and exercise.
Generally, we consume enough protein naturally in our everyday diet, although one of the main sources of this protein comes from meat, which may cause vegans to feel the need to supplement the nutrient, especially if they’re looking to build, strengthen and repair their muscles.
This article will look at the three main types of protein used in protein powders and their purposes, exploring what each of them claim to do and which are appropriate for vegans. Furthermore, we’ll also look at alternative options to using protein powder.
Why might vegans use protein powder?
Protein is an essential nutrient which is said to provide the body – in particular the muscles – with other essential nutrients, predominantly amino acids. These are believed to aid in the growth and repair of muscles, as well as strengthening and building them, and some protein powders are also said to improve and enhance exercise performance.
Vegans may particularly benefit from supplementing protein with shakes because they’re not getting the nutrients from meat and dairy products, like many omnivores do. However, this isn’t to say that vegans can’t easily consume an adequate amount of protein through their everyday diet, as we discuss later in the article.
Whey and casein protein powder
The most common types of protein used in protein supplements and shakes are whey and casein. Whey protein is said to be high calorie but easier to digest, which is why it’s favoured by athletes as it’s believed to be good for building and strengthening muscles when combined with high-intensity workouts.
In comparison, casein protein provides a higher amount of protein and is said to be very slow-digesting. Many meal replacement or weight loss shakes use casein protein because it’s said to fill you up and potentially suppress appetite whilst also providing nutrients from protein.
However, both of these proteins are animal-based and together make up 100% of the protein found in cow’s milk. Subsequently, these are obviously unsuitable for vegans, which may restrict their choses when it comes to choosing protein products and shakes.
While whey and casein may be the most common types of protein on the market, this doesn’t mean that vegans can’t still use protein shakes. There are other plant-based proteins that some companies used to target vegans and people who are lactose intolerant, and arguably the most popular plant-based protein used is soy protein.
Soy protein powder
Unlike whey and casein, soy protein is animal-based, and is therefore suitable for vegans, as well as people who are lactose intolerant and subsequently can’t consume dairy products.
Soy protein is made from soybeans, and is used as alternative to many dairy products used in cooking, such as soy milk. As well as being plant-based, soy protein is also said to be low in calories, and may have the potential to suppress the appetite.
Due to its low calorie content and claims to promote satiety, many people choose to use soy protein supplements as a weight loss agent or meal replacement. However, when combined with regular, high-intensity exercise it may contribute towards muscle gaining.
Soy protein can be purchased alone where it’s often labelled as ‘soy protein isolate’, or you can buy a soy protein based product such as a shake. There are lots of different types of shakes, and they’re often combined with other ingredients so that they target different areas.
For this reason, it’s important to read the ingredients and nutritional information to ensure that they’re vegan-friendly, as well as to see what the product’s claims are.
Pea protein powder
As well as soy protein powder, pea protein is another plant-based protein that is becoming popularly used in supplements and shakes on the market, and because it’s allegedly plant-based, it’s suitable for vegans.
Pea protein is extracted from the ‘Pisum sativum’ plant, although this is commonly referred to as the ‘garden pea’ or ‘yellow pea’. Pea protein is similar to soy protein in that it’s said to be low in calories and may subsequently aid in weight loss as well as providing the body with nutrients.
With claims of being gluten-free, low in carbohydrates and easy to digest, it’s said that pea protein may contribute towards appetite suppression, and it’s believed to easily dissolve in water.
There doesn’t appear to be any evidence linking veganism with protein shakes generally, although there are studies looking at both soy protein and pea protein.
The following study on soy protein used a sample of 20 obese men, and it compared the appetite suppressing properties of both soy protein and an animal-based meat protein.
Participants were put on a ‘maintenance diet’ for 3 days, and then they received a diet rich in either soy protein or animal-based protein for a further 2 weeks.
Results found that both the soy protein group and the animal-based protein group experienced a reduction in body weight and appetite, and there was apparently no significant difference between their results. This indicates that vegan alternatives such as soy protein may be just as effective as animal-based proteins.
A second study looks at pea protein, specifically compared to whey protein, which is arguably the most common type of animal-based protein used in shakes. The study explored each protein’s ability to promote muscle thickness during resistance training.
The placebo-controlled study used a sample of 160 males who were aged between 18-35 years old, and it involved them participating in a 12 week course of resistance training which focused on working the muscles in the upper limbs.
Subjects were randomly assigned to one of three groups; 53 participants made up the first group, and they consumed pea protein. The second group, consisting of 54 men, received whey protein, and the third group which contained the remaining 54 subjects were given a placebo.
Each group received the same dose which equated to two 25g doses every day for the total 12 weeks. Before, after and in the middle of the 12 week study, a series of appropriate measurements were taken.
Results revealed that, due to the mandatory resistance training completed by all participants, ‘a significant time effect for biceps muscle thickness’ was shown in all groups.
More specifically, they found that the weaker participants experienced a much more significant growth in muscle mass, and they indicated that the pea protein produced more significant results compared to those consuming the placebo.
While there was an evident difference between the pea protein group and the placebo group, there didn’t appear to be any noticeable difference between the pea protein group and the whey protein group.
This indicates that pea protein may be just as effective as the more popular whey protein, making it a suitable and essentially effective alternative for vegans.
However, they concluded that using these types of protein are likely to be most effective when combined with high intensity exercise or for those ‘starting or returning to training’.
Potential Side effects
Some people choose to use protein shakes if they feel as though their diet lacks protein, or the nutrients from it. This may be more likely in vegans because they don’t eat animal-based products such as meat or dairy, which are very high in protein.
Failing to consume an adequate amount of protein-rich foods may lead to protein deficiency, and the symptoms include a lack of energy, fatigue, weakness, headaches, diarrhoea, nausea, appetite loss, oedema, hair loss, a weakened immune system/increased risk of infection, skin or nail discolouration or increased sensitivity to the skin, causing cracking/flaking, dryness or rashes.
However, if vegans consume a healthy, balanced diet then they shouldn’t experience protein deficiency, and vegans can easily consume enough protein through their natural diet, without consuming animal-based products like meat and dairy.
Of course, while you don’t want to suffer from protein deficiency, it’s also important that you don’t focus too much on consuming protein either. Some say that by focusing too much on just consuming enough protein, you can neglect other nutrients and experience general nutrient deficiency.
Furthermore, people that supplement protein into their diet may be at risk of ingesting too much. Although the risk of side effects associated with protein are low because it’s an essential nutrient, excessive consumption is said to potentially lead to weight gain, especially if the source of the protein comes from high-fat dairy products.
In rarer, much more severe cases, it’s believed that extremely excessive consumption of protein could lead to a potentially life-threatening condition called ‘hyperaminoacidemia’, referring to the excess of amino acids in your bloodstream, which is said to subsequently result in abnormally high levels of ammonia in the body.
Alternatives to protein powders for vegans
Of course, protein supplements and shakes aren’t necessarily vital for vegans, as they can consume an adequate amount of protein naturally through their diet and subsequently should consume enough nutrients from it.
It’s said that meat-eaters should aim to consume lean, unprocessed protein and non-fat/low-fat dairy products, although this obviously doesn’t apply to vegans. However, there are plenty of vegan-friendly foods that are high in protein and can be consumed instead of protein shakes.
A healthier alternative to animal proteins for vegans include soy protein, as mentioned before, and these include green soybeans, tofu, roasted soy nuts. Furthermore, ‘plant proteins’ are also said to be nutritional sources of protein, and examples of these include beans and grains.
Examples of protein-rich grains include quinoa, spelt and amaranth, and examples of protein-rich beans include black beans, lentils, chickpeas and split peas, and it’s said that these can be used in a range of soups, dips and spreads, amongst others.
Some argue, however, that plant proteins may not be fully formed, and may lack the amino acids which are found in animal-based products. However, this may not be too much of an issue if these plant proteins are combined with other nutritional foods. For example, you could consume hummus on pita bread.
In conclusion, there are different options for vegans looking to use protein powders, whether it’s purely to supplement the nutrients, if it’s to aid in weight loss or if it’s to build and strengthen muscles.
While many protein shakes are made using animal-based proteins such as whey and casein, there are plant-based options as well, including soy and pea protein. Due to the growing demand in protein products, it shouldn’t be difficult to find a product that is suitable for you.
However, it’s important to read the nutritional information before buying a protein shake, especially if it’s mixed with other ingredients that may not be suitable for vegans. This will not only tell you if you can consume it, but it will also give you an idea of the areas that the product may claim to target.
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