Sports Nutrition: The Case for Vegan Protein

Handsome muscular Caucasian man of model appearance working out training arms in gym gaining weight pumping up muscles bicep and tricep with dumbbells and on machines fitness and bodybuilding concept

Picture it: the clang of weights on metal, the gruff exhalations of those straining to hoist and heft, intermittent cries of frustration emitted like calls in the wild while building further muscles already toned, biceps already bulging, and everywhere mirrors to reflect and extend the scene of these beings in search of the perfect physical ideal, able to gauge their progress imagistically as they go and all such efforts to be followed up with a protein-shake to maximise the session…  An extremely stereotypical and out-of-date scenario granted, but for those who watch similar (less clichéd) scenes in the modern age, who remain on the peripheries as occasional users of the treadmill or – at most – the rowing machine, for those who (to put it bluntly) remain as ‘outsider’ to this described environment: for them, all the above can seem just that – extreme.  Yet, consider then how might be received the request that those described go vegan…

For them, veganism can seem extreme; so extreme in fact that for some the concept is too much to even contemplate.  For those who simply can’t fathom or overcome the considerable lifestyle change veganism requires, there is a (begrudging) halfway mark.  Reducetarianism claims to significantly reduce the consumption of animal products, the Reducetarian Foundation stating that life isn’t black and white, it isn’t “all or nothing” – by a small change here and a baby step there, enacted by people across the globe, meaningful amelioration of the environmental situation will be seen.  Methods which lend themselves to this ethos of ‘reduction’ of animal product consumption include ‘Vegan before 6’ and ‘Weekday Vegetarian’ in addition to the usual Meatless Monday endeavours.  It’s all a matter of balance. 

The campaign Vegan for a Week, however, encourages “Plate Up for the Planet.  Taste the Future.  Go Vegan.”  That ‘plating up’ lends itself to an alternative to traditional, scarily cholesterol-dense means of bulking or ‘beefing’ up (the latter expression highlighting just how ingrained in society the concept of ‘manly man’ and meat consumption is).  Indeed, throw the question of protein at a vegan and when they reply you’ll find yourself wondering how you ever got enough as a meat eater!

Certainly, for the dads among our readers, the next time you consider a ‘juicy’ piece of steak or a hamburger, think of teen pop sensation, Billy Eilish’s Instagram post on cruelty at a cattle farm in the States: the undercover footage showed workers violently kicking and punching calves, dragging them to be burnt and branded, the dead ones piled in a heap in the corner: if you’ve teenage daughters (or, indeed, sons), what reason – or excuse – can you give for such mindless brutality in order to give you a moment of taste?  Protein sources really do exist elsewhere.

To return to those muscle-building beings: vegan protein powders are, in short, amazing.  Not everyone accepts that protein must necessarily be supplemented on a vegan diet, but if you’re relatively physically active it can be a good idea.  For those looking in particular to build muscle, it is crucial.  This supplementation is often in the form of a smoothie, which is where vegan protein powders come into play most efficaciously (though their labels might simply suggest a spoonful mixed into a glass of water).  Blend away and choose from the best of them: pea or rice, hemp or algae.  Buckwheat and sunflower seeds are also good sources.  If smoothies aren’t your thing, however, they can instead be palatably enjoyed as a topping to cereals.

Our muscles are most absorptive of protein between 1hr and 2hrs after exercising.  Nonetheless, against established wisdom is the newer thinking that pre-session protein boosting is of benefit as well.  What matters the most is the type of protein you are supplementing with.  It is well-known that plant-based proteins are not in and of themselves complete, as they don’t contain all of the necessary amino acids (which support protein synthesis within our bodies).  The key is variety (spice of life and all that, right?). 

Although protein powders come from seeds are roughly double the price of those come from grains or legumes, by having a little of each you ensure you consume the spectrum of plant-based sources of protein.  Besides blending powders, enzymes are also sometimes added in, and a new trend is for sprouting or fermenting plant proteins recently.  Invest a little time in deciding on the best for you. 

Plant-Based Protein Powders: A Rough Guide

PEA

Come from the yellow split pea (rather than the greener cousin we’re rather familiar with in British cuisine), per 28g of this powder you can expect to derive 21g of protein and approximately 100 calories.  Pea protein is low in the amino acid methionine, but rich in BCAAs (branched chain amino acids; i.e. leucine, isoleucine, and valine).  BCAAs fuel our muscles and stimulate the production of our own muscle protein.  Animal and human studies also suggest that pea protein might help to lower blood pressure and aid weight loss through satiety.

A study conducted over the course of 12 weeks with a participation of 161 ‘young men’ provided the men with 25g of pea protein powder twice daily immediately after weight training.  In the weakest of the participants, there appeared to be a 20% increase in the thickness of their bicep muscles.  In the placebo group of these, only an 8% increase was observed.

HEMP

Again, not a complete protein because of its low levels of the amino acid lysine, hemp is however brilliant for providing necessary fibre, iron, zinc, magnesium, and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid; the plant-based form of Omega-3s).

Per 28g of hemp protein powder, you can unfortunately only expect to get about 12g of protein and around 108 calories.  Nonetheless, if combined with quinoa or legumes, you are looking at a veritably simple answer to a complete protein ‘meal’.

PUMPKIN SEEDS

Renowned as a high protein and healthy fat snack generally, the powdered form of pumpkin seeds removes that fat and leaves the benefit of the protein.  Per 28g of powder, you can expect to glean 18g of protein and approximately 103 calories.

Also high in magnesium, zinc, iron, and other minerals, pumpkin seeds have been part of multiple studies on liver disease and cholesterol maintenance.  In a comparative study with casein (milk protein), rats being given the pumpkin seed factor in their diets evidenced improved markers in their liver health, while exhibiting a 22% reduction in LDL (bad cholesterol) and interestingly a 48% increase in blood antioxidant activity.  This powder is one of our personal favourites.

BROWN RICE

A number one competitor to traditional whey protein, 28g of brown rice protein powder provides roughly 22g of protein and 107 calories.

In an 8-week comparative study between the muscle-building effects of whey and brown rice protein powder, the participants (again, ‘young men’) were given 48g of brown rice protein powder three days a week immediately after weight-training.  They showed a 12% increase in bicep muscle thickness, directly equivalent to that of other participants’ gain from whey protein.

Take caution that you choose a powder that has been tested for arsenic levels (a common contaminant problem with rice products).

SOYA

Unusual for plant-based protein, soya is a complete protein. In 28g of powder, you will find 22g of protein and only 95 calories. Soya also contains plant compounds which lower bad cholesterol. A win-win? We think so.

SUNFLOWER SEEDS

Although a good source of BCAAs, per 28g of sunflower seed protein powder you should only expect to derive 13g of actual protein and 91 calories. To make this powder complete, protein-wise, it is often blended with quinoa powder, which directly improves lysine levels.

CHIA

Despite its popularity, chia can also be deemed a little bit of a marmite food; perhaps for good reason, the powdered form thought to improve its actual digestibility, meaning more amino acids can be absorbed.  Whatever the case, 28g of chia powder will only provide roughly 10g of protein and around 50 calories.  Nonetheless, therein will also be 8g of fibre (always a good thing), together with the minerals biotin and chromium.

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