That got your attention, didn’t it?
Look, I’m not suggesting that whey isn’t a great protein, or that casein or other animal-derived proteins aren’t great, because, let’s face it, they are. Bu there might be some good reasons to use a plant-based protein instead of whey or other proteins, sometimes or even all of the time.
Protein powders are, quite rightly, the most popular sports supplement on the market, and while it’s true that protein powders aren’t anything magical, despite what some say, they are convenient, easy-to-use, and a cost-effective food. They allow us to support performance when we’re on the go, busy, or at times (like before or after exercise) when we may not feel like a meal or are unable to prepare one.
Optimize Your Protein Intake
Optimizing protein intake is critical for muscle-gain,1 reducing soreness after training,2 and reducing muscle loss and improving fat-loss while dieting.3, 4, 5 Taking in sufficient protein is also important for cardiometabolic health, and general health,6 helping to modulate blood pressure and other cardiac risk factors.7, 8 So, if you’re not consistently taking in the optimum amount of protein for your goals, you might want to consider a protein supplement.
Traditionally protein supplements were either whey (most commonly) or casein. Now, of course, there are many other types of protein available; ranging from soy to rice, beef, and cricket. But overall, the most common supplemental protein is still good ol’ whey protein, either as isolate or concentrate.
There are many positive effects of whey protein. It can help to reduce diabetes risk factors, inflammation and oxidative stress,9 improve muscle retention and fat loss, and reduce fat mass and cardiovascular risk factors.10, 11, 12
Some of these effects might result from simply taking a high-quality protein supplement. On the other hand, dairy overall is associated with a host of positive outcomes in observational research including improvements in lean mass and increased improved fat-loss. 13, 14, 15, 16, 17,18
Dairy products are also associated with reduced rates of diabetes, 19, 20 and reduced insulin resistance.21
So, you’d expect for dairy proteins to be at the top of my list for supplements, right?
While dairy is fine for most people, it is also a common allergen, and there appears to be a rising incidence of milk protein intolerance and allergy.22
And this is where the rubber hits the road. If you notice any gastrointestinal effects from your current protein (bloating, pain, cramping) or you have systemic effects that could be related to a combined or isolated milk protein allergy, such as eczema, headaches, or ‘brain fog’ after taking protein, you might want to try a plant-based protein instead, to see if there is any improvement.
It makes sense if you are doing this, choosing a low-allergen, extremely high-protein supplement that has been demonstrated to be as effective as whey for muscle accretion.
Pea protein isolate fits the bill. Pea proteins have an amino acid profile that compares favorably with the recommended amino acid pattern proposed by the Institute of Medicine of the United States National Institutes of Health,23 and in an evaluation of pea protein isolate vs. whey protein, both protein-types elicited nearly identical increases in muscle thickness when compared with placebo.24
Some factors to consider when choosing a plant-based protein:
It should be high in protein, low in carbs, and with zero 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 fillers 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.
It is 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 anti-nutrients.
There are high digestion and absorption rates with plant based supplements. 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 more than 89%.25
They are high in 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 4g of BCAAs per 25g serving.
Plant proteins are practically 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 nine essential amino acids) to ‘cover your bases’ and ensure that you’re getting the aminos you need.
It is 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.
Plant proteins are sustainable. Dairy-farming, especially as currently practiced (i.e. factory-farmed, grain-fed cattle) is less ecologically sustainable than plant-based food production.26
You Don’t Have to Hate Meat
I ain’t no dairy hater (what would I have my cookies with?), and I ain’t got no beef with beef (burger, get in my mouth!).
But, you might want to try a plant-based protein like pea protein isolate to see if you get better results than from your current protein. There is nothing to lose, as the research thus far shows equal performance results when compared to whey and if you don’t notice anything, you can always go back to whey, or another protein. On the other hand, if you do notice reduced side-effects, your gut, brain, and the people around you (come on, you know what I’m sayin’ here!), will thank you.
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2. Pasiakos SM, Lieberman HR, McLellan TM. Effects of Protein Supplements on Muscle Damage, Soreness and Recovery of Muscle Function and Physical Performance: A Systematic Review. Sports Medicine. 2014;44(5):655-70.
3. 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.
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16. Zemel MB. Role of calcium and dairy products in energy partitioning and weight management. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004;79(5):907s-12s.
17. Abargouei AS, Janghorbani M, Salehi-Marzijarani M, Esmaillzadeh A. Effect of dairy consumption on weight and body composition in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled clinical trials. International journal of obesity (2005). 2012;36(12):1485-93.
18. Chen M, Pan A, Malik VS, Hu FB. Effects of dairy intake on body weight and fat: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012;96(4):735-47.
19. Tong X, Dong JY, Wu ZW, Li W, Qin LQ. Dairy consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus: a meta-analysis of cohort studies. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2011;65(9):1027-31.
20. Gao D, Ning N, Wang C, Wang Y, Li Q, Meng Z, et al. Dairy products consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2013;8(9):e73965.
21. Rideout TC, Marinangeli CP, Martin H, Browne RW, Rempel CB. Consumption of low-fat dairy foods for 6 months improves insulin resistance without adversely affecting lipids or bodyweight in healthy adults: a randomized free-living cross-over study. Nutr J. 2013;12:56.
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25. 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.
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