Plant-based protein is making serious gains among today’s fitness enthusiasts.
Anyone who has ever had occasion to mention that they are vegan, vegetarian or plant-based will have come up against the question: “where do you get your protein?”
The most common criticism of an animal product-free diet is that it will be lacking in protein. This also perpetuates the idea that all vegans are pale, listless creatures who’d struggle to lift a packet of unsalted rice cakes. Of course, the belief that a vegan diet is lacking in protein, or any nutrients for that matter, is far from reality.
A plant-based diet comprised of fruit, veg, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and the occasional scoop of vegan ice cream provides all of the micro and macronutrients the body needs. Non-vegan nutritionist Rob Hobson confirmed this in an article for the Daily Mail.
“I firmly believe if done correctly, a vegan diet can be incredibly healthy – not least because it can provide lots of nutrient-rich, unprocessed foods,” he explained. “If you are following a well-balanced and varied vegan diet, then you should have no problem getting all of the nutrients required for good health.”
He added, “research shows people following a plant-based diet have healthier lifestyles than their meat-eating counterparts.”
Protein is an essential part of a balanced diet and is especially important for building muscle, say while strength training or during recovery from surgery.
In recent years, protein has become a major buzzword in the health and lifestyle sphere. Our understanding of protein and its necessity for building muscle has resulted in a whole generation of protein obsessives, tracking their intake on their phones and cramming in the protein shakes. Even typing the single word “protein” into a search engine returns dozens of websites proffering their magical powders. Protein drinks that promise to transform even the puniest weakling into a modern-day Thor. Hammer not included.
Protein is big business. The amino-rich substance is crammed into bars, cookies, powders and energy drinks, but what is protein and do we need to worry that we’re not getting enough?
What is Protein?
Protein is a macronutrient that is comprised of nitrogenous amino acids. These individual acids form chains. These chains are proteins. The composition and sequence of these amino acids determine the particular protein.
There are 20 amino acids, eight of which are essential. This means the body cannot synthesize them and therefore they must be included in a person’s diet. While eggs, dairy, and meat provide the essential eight, including lysine and tryptophan, these can also be obtained from a plant-based diet.
In the body, protein is used to build and repair tissues in particular muscles. But it is also used to make enzymes, hormones and other important body chemicals. Protein is also an essential component of the human body, our nails and hair are mostly protein.
How Much Protein Do We Need?
The Recommended Daily Allowance for protein is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. To work out your own protein RDA, simply multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36.
A woman weighing 150 pounds would require 54 grams of protein each day. If you’re a big breakfast person, you can pack this in with a single large serving of tofu scramble. Or you can easily ingest this amount over the course of the day with a balanced vegan diet, containing nuts, leafy greens, and seeds. Other vegan protein sources include chickpeas which are 19 percent protein and spirulina; this algae is a whopping 60 percent protein in its dried form.
The trend for over-consuming protein, (sprinkling protein powder into morning coffee) can lead to kidney damage, constipation and even increase the risk of some cancers. Not to mention, someone consuming vast amounts of animal protein is not someone you want to be stuck in a lift with.
Whey Versus Plant Protein
Most of the protein powders and supplements on the market are whey-based. Whey is a dairy byproduct, essentially the liquid drained from the fat solids during the cheese making process. Also a favorite with Little Miss Muffet. It is protein rich, but dairy protein is absorbed in the gut very differently to plant protein.
Whey is highly acidic, meaning it causes acid build up in the body which makes it hard for the kidneys to process and also triggers calcium to be released from the bones.
As explained by Charles Weller, founder of Ground Based Nutrition, “Whey protein is high in sulphur-based amino acids. This means that whey protein is acid forming which can cause significant calcium loss and weakening of the bones known as osteoporosis. Since over-consumption of whey protein leads to increased acidity and lowered pH of the blood, it is believed that this may give rise to various kidney disorders.”
Plant proteins such as soy, wheat, or pea, on the other hand, are alkalizing, and considerably more gut friendly.
Protein derived from plants also contains ingredients such as phytonutrients and antioxidants which benefit overall health. This is strongly contrasted to dairy, which not only contains undesirable substances such as saturated fat and residual hormones but according to extensive research is also linked to certain cancers. In 2018, celebrity breast cancer surgeon Dr. Kristi Funk told the Sunday Times, “It is crystal clear that the body’s cellular response to animal protein and fat is nothing but dangerous.”
What Kind of Protein is Best?
Protein is essential for both muscle repair and for muscle development. When we weight train, we experience tiny tears in our muscles which need to reseal. Protein chains rush to the source of the tear and perform a kind of zippering effect, which leaves the repaired muscle mass slightly larger than before.
Plants are an excellent source of muscle strengthening protein, just ask professional boxer David Haye or four times world record holder for marathon running, Fiona Oakes. In fact, many athletes are turning to a plant-based diet in order to boost their performance. For those concerned with the body beautiful, there is a whole new wave of vegan bodybuilders including Jon Venus who credits lentils with his sculpted physique.
For gym-goers, it is advisable to consume nutrients before and after a workout. Before an exercise session, it is sensible to stock up on carbohydrates such as rice, oats or fruit to prevent muscle glycogen depletion, and also include some protein to increase blood flow and avoid muscle breakdown during the regime. Post workout, a more protein heavy snack is recommended to avoid muscle exhaustion and help with the all-important muscle repair. If you’re interested in boosting your plant-based protein with minimal fuss, here are our top seven picks.
7 Top Vegan Protein Options
1. Ergogenics Plant Protein and Greens Powder
This company founded by nutritionist Ricky Mehta in 2006 is fully vegan and offers a range of fitness-boosting products. The Ergogenics Protein and Greens range comes in chocolate, vanilla, and mixed berry flavor and contains 12 protein-rich ingredients including hemp, spirulina, and wheatgrass. A single of this raw protein drink delivers 20 grams of protein.
It costs $34.99 for 420 grams, and you can buy it here.
2. Nutristrength Pea Protein Powder
This British company offers amino-rich pea protein powder in unflavored, coffee, or chocolate.
The powder is also sweetened with thaumatin, which is a basic protein from the pyramidal katemfe fruit of West Africa. A single glass bestows a sizeable 23.8 grams of protein upon the drinker.
It costs £26.99 for 500 grams, and you can buy it here.
3. Protein World The Vegan Blend from Holland and Barrett
This shake powder is made from quinoa, pea and hemp protein and comes in either vanilla or chocolate. With 25 grams of protein per serving, this is the most protein-dense powder of our selection.
It costs £14.99 for 600 grams, and you can buy it here.
4. Purition Wholefood Plant Nutrition
Purition is not a vegan company, but it does have an entire vegan range which comes in eight flavors including chai latte and chocolate orange. Vegan approved by the Vegetarian Society, the powder is made from hemp, pea and rice protein and hearty things like sunflower seeds. It delivers 14.6 grams of protein per serving.
It costs £22.95 for 500 grams, and you can buy it here.
5. My Protein Vegan Recovery Blend
Europe’s leading sports nutrition brand has a full “My Vegan” range containing pancake mix, cookies, and protein powders. The protein powders come from various sources including hemp, and brown rice, but the Vegan Recovery powder is made from faba bean protein Isolate and pea protein isolate. That’s the same stuff pioneering vegan meat company Beyond Meat uses in its popular burgers. The drink comes in chocolate, or banana and cinnamon and offers up 14 grams of protein.
It costs £24.99 for a kilo, and you can buy it here.
6. Tom Oliver Vegan Protein Bars
The labeling on these bars leaves the buyer in no doubt about its plant-based origin. Made from soy protein isolate and wheat gluten protein, the bars come in six flavors including chocolate coconut and chocolate caramel.
People wanting something to chew on will get 14 grams of protein per 55-gram bar.
It costs £39.99 for a box of 20, and you can buy it here.
7. Bounce V Life Protein Energy Ball
Made from rice protein concentrate, pea protein, and nuts, these toothsome spheres come in either cashew peanut or almond kale.
A 40-gram ball contains 9 grams of protein.
It costs £19.99 for a box of 12, and you can buy it here.