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Is Vegan Protein Powder Less Effective?

There are a myriad of reasons as to why someone may choose to eliminate animal products from their diet. Some may do so due to ethical reasons, many choose to do so for health purposes, and some because they simply don't like the taste of meat.

No matter the reason, going vegan does come with a number of unique challenges -- one of which comes down to protein intake.

Adequate Protein Intake

Protein is arguably the most important compound in the human body. When you consume protein molecules, they are broken down into smaller compounds known as “amino acids” before being absorbed into your body.

These amino acids are then used to make the hormones and enzymes in your body, and the neurotransmitters in your brain. Oh, and they are also used to build and repair your tendons, organs, ligaments, skin and hair, and muscle tissue.

This means that you need to consume enough protein on a daily basis to maintain health and function, while also supporting muscle growth.

And especially when it comes to the growth of new muscle tissue, if you do not have adequate protein available, then this growth simply cannot occur -- and you end up leaving a lot of gains on the table.

With this in mind, if you are trying to optimise muscle growth, you need to consume enough protein.

How much protein?

Well, a meta analysis combining the results of 49 studies found that the minimal threshold to maximise muscle growth if you are performing weight training is 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, per day [1].

Just note -- this is the minimum.

Further research has indicated that going as high as 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight may have even more benefit [2] -- particularly for people who are currently cutting, and trying to maintain as much muscle as possible while maximising fat loss.

What might this look like in practice?

Well as an example, if you weigh 70kgs, you should be eating somewhere between 112 and 154 grams of protein each day.

Vegan Protein Intakes

The issue here comes down to the fact that most people in the western world obtain the bulk of their protein from animal sources -- namely milk, yoghurt, cheese, red meat, poultry, and eggs.

Which means that people following a vegan way of eating have a much harder time getting in an adequate protein intake than their carnivorous counterparts.

And before you ask -- yes, beans, grains, and legumes all contain some protein -- but on a gram by gram basis, they simply do not compare to animal sources.

Which is exactly why vegan protein powders are such a good option for people who don't eat meat. They can offer a simple and effective way to increase your daily protein intake without consuming any meat-based products.

But the question remains -- are vegan protein powders less effective than options like whey?

Vegan Protein Powders

There are three main types of vegan protein powders available on the market at the moment:

  • Soy protein
  • Rice protein
  • Pea Protein

And we are going to take a look at each of them.

1.   Soy Protein Powder

As you might expect, soy protein powder is made from soybeans.

To be a little more specific, soy protein is made from soybean flakes that have had their fatty components moved. They are then washed thoroughly to remove their sugar and fibre, before being dehydrated and turned into a powder.

Soy protein is arguably the most common vegan protein powders because it considered a “complete protein” source -- which ultimately it contains all of the nine essential amino acids that cannot be made in your body (and consequently must be obtained through diet), including the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), leucine, isoleucine and valine.

This is important because some of these nine amino acids are considered to be the most important for muscle growth.

Most soy protein powders contain around 90 grams of protein, 2 grams of fats, and 1 gram of carbohydrate per 100 grams of powder. Moreover, a serving of soy protein will be digested in about 3 hours [3].

For reference, most whey protein powders are digested within 60 minutes.

2.   Rice Protein Powder

Now onto rice protein powder.

Rice protein is another great vegan option that is most commonly derived from brown rice. This particular option has become increasingly popular over the last few years due to its high bioavailability, and the fact that it is digested in about 2 hours.

The one thing we need to be aware of when it comes to rice protein is the fact that it is one of the few protein powders on the market that is not considered to be a complete protein source, because it does not contain the amino acid “Lysine”.

However, I should note that it does contain all of the important Branched Chain Amino Acids, meaning it covers most of your bases from a pure muscle growth perspective.

One hundred grams of rice protein powder contains 80 grams of protein, 2 grams of fat, and 6 grams of carbohydrates [4].

3.   Pea Protein Powder

And finally we have pea protein powder.

Pea protein powder is another vegan protein powder that is considered to be a complete protein source. As a result, you can be confident that it provides your body with all of the nutrients it needs to build muscle.

It’s macronutrient breakdown is also pretty good, with pea protein offering up 67 grams of protein, 9 grams of fat, and 4 grams of carbs for every 100 grams.

Obviously this is not as good as whey, but that is to be expected.

In terms of digestibility, pea protein also takes a bit longer to digest than whey (around 2 hours), but is a little faster than soy. This makes it the perfect option to take either after or during a gym session [3].

Is Vegan Protein Powder Less Effective

As I have alluded to in the above section, vegan protein powders tend to be absorbed a little bit slower than whey protein powders. If we were to have an in depth look at their macronutrient breakdown, we would also see that they contain slightly less protein per serving.

However, this is not actually as important as some people would have you believe.

The most important factor for maximising muscle growth is your ability to eat enough protein on a daily basis. After this, the second most important factor is simply spreading out your protein intake at regular intervals throughout the day (i.e. 40 grams every 3-4 hours).

If you manage this effectively, the speed at which your protein is absorbed has very little impact on your results -- in fact, even making sure you slam a protein shake straight after your workout is unlikely to have any real effect if you are ticking these boxes.

With this in mind, vegan protein powders are no less effective than whey because they provide a very acceptable method of increasing your protein intake.

It is as simple as that.

The one caveat you should consider is that you are probably best off looking for a vegan protein powder that is derived from soy or pea, as these are the two that contain a full array of amino acids -- making them the best options.

Summary

While vegan protein powders are generally a little slower absorbing than many animal based protein powders like whey, this does not make them any less effective.

In fact, they still offer a great way to increase your daily protein intake and optimise the results of your training.

 

References

  1. Morton, Robert W., et al. "A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults." British journal of sports medicine 52.6 (2018): 376-384.
  2. Stokes, Tanner, et al. "Recent perspectives regarding the role of dietary protein for the promotion of muscle hypertrophy with resistance exercise training." Nutrients 10.2 (2018): 180.
  3. Hoffman, Jay R., and Michael J. Falvo. "Protein–which is best?." Journal of sports science & medicine 3.3 (2004): 118.
  4. Jäger, Ralf, et al. "Comparison of rice and whey protein isolate digestion rate and amino acid absorption." Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 10.1 (2013): 1-2.
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