Pea Protein on a Vegan Diet: The Ultimate Guide
Protein provides amino acids that provide the “building blocks” of all cells, tissues, and organs within the body. So, getting enough protein in the diet is critical to feeling and functioning at your very best.
It is commonly suggested that people following a vegan diet don’t get enough protein, but that’s not entirely accurate. A healthy and varied vegan diet can easily provide the protein and amino acids that you require.1,2 However, many people, whether vegan or not, simply don’t get enough protein to thrive.
For example, the average daily intake of protein is around 100 g for males, and 70 g for females.3,4 While this is higher than the recommended daily intake of 0.8 grams (per kilogram of body weight) per day, it is well below the recommended levels for both performance and for offsetting the risk of age-related muscle loss. Analysis of eating patterns in the United States has suggested that people should actually be more aware that they may be under-eating protein, and to certainly not reduce their protein intake, especially as protein intakes decline as we age, just when we often need more to preserve muscle mass.5
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Can protein supplements help?
Protein powders aren’t magical, and they’re certainly no better than whole food. However, they can help to incorporate some extra protein into your diet, especially at times when you’re short on time.
Some benefits of protein on a vegan diet include:
Protein powders are convenient. Many people struggle to have good quality meals, consistently. Protein powders can provide the base for simple, effective, nutrient-dense meals when preparation time is short or when you are struggling for meal ideas! Many of my clients use protein smoothies (with healthy fats, veggies, and berries added) as convenient, nutrient-dense meals.
2. For use in and around training
Many athletes benefit from protein before, during, or after training. Eating whole food may not be ideal or palatable during these times, and protein powders offer a convenient, easy-on-the-gut option for peri-training (around training) meals.
3. Bolstering the protein content of the diet easily
As mentioned above, many people don’t get the protein they require to perform at their best or to meet specific needs like increased protein intake during dieting. If the rest of the diet is robust and nutrient-dense, an easy fix can be to simply add a shake or two during the day.
Benefits of Protein Supplementation on a Vegan Diet
Protein for a healthy heart
Higher protein diets may also be good for our cardiometabolic health. Increased dietary protein has a small, beneficial effect on blood pressure, reduces triglycerides (one of the most important markers of poor cardiovascular and metabolic health), and reduces body fat stores.6,7
Protein for healthy ageing
Protein is especially important as we age. Age-related muscle loss is common and is a contributing factor to falls and bone and joint injury. It’s also likely that muscle loss increases our risk of metabolic disorders like diabetes. In older adults, high-protein nutritional supplements are associated with lower hospital admissions and fewer health complications.8 Older adults also retain more lean mass and lost more fat mass during weight loss when consuming higher protein.9-12
Bone loss is also a concern as we age. As we get older, our bones can become more brittle and less dense. Higher protein diets have been shown to reduce this bone loss and improve the strength of our bones as we age.10,13,14
Protein for immunity
Protein and one of the amino acids that we derive from protein, glutamine, help the body to retain immunity and reduce infection.15
Protein for body composition, strength and power
For those dieting, or even those who are just habitual under-eaters, an increased protein intake of up to 2.5 g per kilogram of body weight can help to offset muscle loss improve body composition (muscle to fat ratio) resulting in a leaner you.16 This level of protein is around 3 times higher than the recommended daily allowance of 0.8g per kg body weight! In healthy adults, over the long term, protein helps to increase lean muscle and help to improve strength and power.9
Protein for muscle soreness
For weekend warriors training for sports, or at the gym, protein taken after training might reduce soreness.17
Why you Should Choose Pea Protein
High-quality pea protein isolates provide a hypoallergenic, plant-based supplement option. Pea protein isolate contains all the essential amino acids and meets the criteria for completeness, according to the National Institute of Medicine’s daily amino acid requirements.18 It is also extremely well absorbed with a nearly 90% digestion and absorption rate,19 it is easy on the tummy, and performs equal to the purported gold standard protein whey, for the development and retention of muscle tissue.20 Pea protein may even be more satiating (helping you to feel fuller and more satisfied for longer) than other proteins, and so, can offer additional benefits for regulating eating and for aiding body fat loss, including:
1. It’s high in protein, low in carbs, and with no added sugar.
The most important thing to look for in a protein powder is protein! Many protein powders contain too much sugar, extra carbohydrates, or filler ingredients that reduce the overall protein content. It’s well known that when total protein content is high enough, other factors like the amino acid composition are less important.
2. It’s free from anti-nutrients.
While not the bogeyman that some say, anti-nutrients (such as trypsin inhibitors, saponins, and phytic acid) can reduce protein digestion and absorption and promote gastric upset for some people. So, the ideal situation is to find a protein free-from these.
3. It has high digestion and absorption rates.
If you can’t digest and absorb protein, you can’t use it! Choose a protein that has good digestion and absorption rates so that you know that you can utilize the protein that you’re taking in. It’s often claimed that plant-based proteins are poorly absorbed. This is a myth. In fact, pea protein exhibits absorption rates of over 89%.19
4. It’s high in muscle supporting BCAAs.
There is no need to supplement with additional BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) or to add them to a protein powder if you are getting enough from your diet and from naturally occurring BCAAs within a quality protein powder. The gold-standard of plant-based protein, pea protein isolate, contains nearly 4 g of BCAAs per 25 g serving.
5. It’s functionally complete.
Because we eat a mixed diet, we don’t always need to eat complete proteins. We will, in general, get enough of what we require over a day or days. The most important thing is to get enough protein overall, and enough of the essential amino acids (EEAs) and BCAAs. However, to ensure the best nutrient support, you should choose a protein that is complete (contains all 9 essential amino acids) to cover your bases and ensure that you’re getting the aminos you need.
6. It’s free-from common allergens.
Some of the most common allergens include soy, dairy, wheat, eggs, shellfish, and certain nuts. Intolerances can also be ‘dose and frequency’ dependent, so, in other words, you might be completely fine eating some eggs, or drinking some milk, or eating a little tofu, but could suffer ill-effects if you frequently supplement with an allergenic protein. Pea protein is considered one of the most hypo-allergenic proteins available.
7. It’s sustainable.
Dairy-farming, as currently practiced (especially with factory-farmed, grain-fed cattle) is less ecologically sustainable than plant-based food production.21
If you follow a vegan diet and are concerned about meeting recommended daily protein intake, pea protein can be a tummy-friendly and convenient way to meet your protein macros.
Craig WJ, Mangels AR. Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109(7):1266-82.
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University of Otago and Ministry of Health. A Focus on Nutrition: Key findings of the 2008/09 New Zealand Adult Nutrition Survey. Wellington; 2011.
Moshfegh A, Goldman J, Cleveland L. What we eat in America, NHANES 2001-2002: usual nutrient intakes from food compared to dietary reference intakes. US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. 2005;9.
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Altorf – van der Kuil W, Engberink MF, Brink EJ, van Baak MA, Bakker SJL, Navis G, et al. Dietary Protein and Blood Pressure: A Systematic Review. PloS one. 2010;5(8):e12102.
Santesso N, Akl EA, Bianchi M, Mente A, Mustafa R, Heels-Ansdell D, et al. Effects of higher- versus lower-protein diets on health outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2012;66(7):780-8.
Cawood AL, Elia M, Stratton RJ. Systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of high protein oral nutritional supplements. Ageing Research Reviews. 2012;11(2):278-96.
Pasiakos SM, McLellan TM, Lieberman HR. The Effects of Protein Supplements on Muscle Mass, Strength, and Aerobic and Anaerobic Power in Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review. Sports Medicine. 2015;45(1):111-31.
Genaro PdS, Martini LA. Effect of protein intake on bone and muscle mass in the elderly. Nutrition reviews. 2010;68(10):616-23.
Kim JE, O’Connor LE, Sands LP, Slebodnik MB, Campbell WW. Effects of dietary protein intake on body composition changes after weight loss in older adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrition reviews. 2016;74(3):210-24.
Kim JE, Sands L, Slebodnik M, O’Connor L, Campbell W. Effects of high-protein weight loss diets on fat-free mass changes in older adults: a systematic review (371.5). The FASEB Journal. 2014;28(1 Supplement).
Hannan MT, Tucker KL, Dawson-Hughes B, Cupples LA, Felson DT, Kiel DP. Effect of dietary protein on bone loss in elderly men and women: the Framingham Osteoporosis Study. Journal Of Bone And Mineral Research: The Official Journal Of The American Society For Bone And Mineral Research. 2000;15(12):2504-12.
Bell J, Whiting SJ. Elderly women need dietary protein to maintain bone mass. Nutrition reviews. 2002;60(10 Pt 1):337-41.
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Helms ER, Zinn C, Rowlands DS, Brown SR. A Systematic Review of Dietary Protein during Caloric Restriction in Resistance Trained Lean Athletes: A Case for Higher Intakes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2014;24(2):127-38.
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Gausserès N, Mahe S, Benamouzig R, Luengo C, Ferriere F, Rautureau J, et al. [15N]-labeled pea flour protein nitrogen exhibits good ileal digestibility and postprandial retention in humans. The Journal of nutrition. 1997;127(6):1160-5.
Babault N, Païzis C, Deley G, Guérin-Deremaux L, Saniez M-H, Lefranc-Millot C, et al. Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. Whey protein. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2015;12(1):3.
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