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A bowl of protein powder.

If you’ve ever stood in front of a store shelf overwhelmed with all of the protein powder options, you’re not alone.

I find that for most clients who are starting a new chapter in their health and wellness plan, a boost in daily protein intake is a great first step to support overall health, metabolism, and vitality. And using a protein powder offers unmatched convenience for our often time-starved schedules.

That being said, the ever-growing list of options — ranging from whey to casein to collagen to vegan, all with various add-ins and features — can seem confusing, and clients often need guidance about where to start.

While each offering does have its ideal usage, plant-based, vegan protein powder is one option that most of us could benefit from including in our rotation.

Why Should I Use Vegan Protein Powder?

Even if you’re not following a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, you might find you still benefit from incorporating vegan protein powder into your routine.

Rotating protein can support a healthy gut.

The topic of digestive and gut health is growing in popularity among health and nutrition circles, and for good reason: Your digestion is key to optimal health.

While there are several supplements that support gut health and eating strategies to optimize digestion, one of the best habits to start with is rotating proteins. In other words, try not to consume the same type of protein — whether that be from food or supplement forms — day in and day out for months on end.

Switching up your protein sources can potentially help minimize the development of adverse food reactions and sensitivities that can result from diet repetition, not to mention that variety in your nutrition plan yields a more diverse intake of nutrients.

While you might have a go-to protein powder that you’re used to, it’s best to take a break once in a while and switch it up. Incorporating a vegan option is beneficial for many, as it may not be something you regularly consume if you’re a meat eater.

It’s a dairy-free option.

Cow dairy is one of the most common food sensitivities, and as a result, there’s a growing trend of dairy-free eating. Deciding whether dairy is good or bad for your body is personal and requires experimentation and notice of your reaction, inflammation, and symptoms when consuming. (If you’re curious if it’d be beneficial for your body to go dairy-free, you can use a short-term elimination diet to help determine what’s best for you.)

However, a lot of dairy-based foods, such as milk and yogurt, are rich sources of protein, and popular dairy alternatives, such as almond milk or coconut milk yogurt, don’t hold a candle to their regular dairy counterparts when it comes to protein content.

As a result, those who are going dairy-free usually need to supplement with extra protein. Since whey and casein are both sourced from dairy, vegan protein is the next best option.

You might feel less bloated.

It’s worth noting that some people might initially experience bloating or discomfort when incorporating any kind of protein powder into their plan. It’s common to think that the protein itself is the issue, but that’s rarely the case, especially if their digestive enzymes are adequate and they’re breaking down foods optimally.

In most cases like this, it’s the type (or quality) of protein powder that may be causing an issue. Anecdotally, I’ve seen this happen quite a bit with clients using soy-based protein powders — likely because it’s a common food sensitivity and allergen. Their symptoms are usually resolved when they switch away from supplements that contain soy protein isolate to other options that might be less inflammatory.

And for those who have trouble tolerating whey protein, discomfort can sometimes be alleviated by using a grass-fed whey protein concentrate with digestive enzymes (such as bromelain and papain) added or by switching to an ultra-pure, whey isolate with less lactose. But for some, the nature of the whey protein itself can cause bloating or gas.

In that case, a high quality, soy-free, plant-based vegan protein powder usually is the ticket, providing a convenient way to increase your protein intake without an increase in digestive symptoms.

It can provide similar benefits to other protein powder options.

Some critics will argue that plant proteins are not worth supplementing because they are generally less digestible than animal proteins. While the sentiments about digestibility and lower bioavailability (AKA, absorbability) of certain nutrients are true, studies show that plant protein supplementation still provides impressive benefits.

In studies comparing pea protein to whey protein, pea protein supplementation demonstrated similar increases in muscle thickness as whey protein supplementation in those who strength train. In a small trial of 15 men, it was shown that using either pea protein isolate or whey protein isolate had similar positive impacts on appetite control, daily calorie intake, and daily calorie burn.

Incorporating pea protein with fiber (such as in our Vegan Protein Plus All in One Shake) has also demonstrated a positive effect on healthy blood-sugar control, which is pivotal for achieving and maintaining optimal health. Based on the research, this benefit may not be specific to pea protein, but is likely the result of an overall higher protein, higher fiber nutrition approach.

It performs better in certain recipes.

There are a lot of genius ways to use protein powder outside of relying on shakes alone. But if you’ve ever tried to swap out collagen, whey, or vegan protein powder called for in a recipe for another one that you had on hand, you’ve likely learned the hard way through a recipe fail that various protein powders behave differently in cooking.

Since plant-based protein is generally thicker and absorb liquids better than whey or collagen proteins, certain protein-enriched recipes rely on the properties of vegan protein to turn out correctly. I’ve also found when a thicker consistency is needed, it’s best to go with pea protein blends (such as blended with rice protein, chia protein, or chlorella protein) so they don’t taste as chalky as some other plant-based options, like hemp protein.

When I’m looking to boost my protein intake creatively, I love using vegan protein to make protein-rich treats such as breakfast brownies, black bean brownies (you can’t taste the beans, I promise!), chocolate truffles, or baked oatmeal.

Even during times when I’m using whey protein for my daily shake routine, I love the variety that these vegan protein treats can provide. 

Choosing a Vegan Protein Powder

As with most supplements, it’s no surprise that all of the plant-based protein options on the market are not created equal in terms of ingredients and sourcing.

There are 21 amino acids, or protein building blocks, that the body needs to function. Of those, there are nine amino acids that are essential, meaning your body can’t make them and they must be obtained through diet or supplementation.

Animal proteins are called “complete proteins,” as they contain all nine essential amino acids. Some plant sources, such as soy, are also complete proteins. (Note: Soy is a common food sensitivity, so may not be right for everyone. For more, read “The Pros and Cons of Eating Soy.”)

A lot of plant-based foods, such as rice, beans, peanut, and wheat, are considered “nearly complete,” which means they may be either missing or very low in one of the essential amino acids, such as leucine, sulfur-containing amino acids, or lysine.

When choosing a vegan protein powder, it’s ideal to find one that contains complementary plant proteins so that it provides a more robust amino acid profile — especially if you’re heavily relying on protein powder to meet your protein needs. Studies have shown that combining a cereal source (such as rice) and a legume source (such as pea) is a good approach to enriching the nutrient content of plant-based protein powders.

The plant-based Life Time Vegan Protein powder is mindfully designed to mimic the amino acid profile of whey protein — a well-researched animal protein sourced from dairy — through a combination of rice protein concentrate and pea protein isolate. Similarly, Life Time’s Vegan Protein Plus All in One plant-based shake mix, often used as a vitamin-and-mineral-rich snack replacement, is sourced from pea, chia, and chlorella proteins to provide a robust amino acid profile rich in essential and branch-chain amino acids.

Both formulations are designed to provide a rich source of all nine essential amino acids to your fuel health. 

What About Heavy Metals?

Vegan protein haters will sometimes cite that vegan proteins contain high amounts of heavy metals when compared to whey protein or egg proteins.

While this is true, it’s important to take this information in context. Heavy metals exist naturally in the environment, and we can get exposed to them through the air, our water, and even produce (from the plants absorbing it in the soil). This, however, is no reason to stop breathing, hydrating, or eating vegetables. Since vegan protein powders are made from plants, some naturally-occurring heavy metal exposure can be reasonably expected.

The Clean Label Project was an initiative by a consumer advocacy group that exposed certain supplement manufacturers with higher levels of heavy metals and contaminants in their products — above and beyond what would be expected from natural sources and production.

The Clean Label Project did not include Life Time’s products in their study. However, Life Time practices quality control for heavy metals on every batch of products produced, while many manufacturers control costs by a practice called “skip-lot” testing, which typically only tests every third, fourth, or fifth batch, for example.  

This ensures that Life Time’s offerings are within all acceptable limits for both raw materials and final product; any supplement that would test out of spec would not end up on the shelf or be available for purchase or consumption. We have rigorous quality testing for a reason: We value safety and efficacy and want to be sure that every supplement offering is one you (and we, for our own use) can trust.

Wrapping Up

Whether you prefer an eating style that is omnivorous or plant-based, using vegan protein powder can offer convenience and specific benefits to your nutrition plan. 

As with any supplement or product that you use regularly, start first by prioritizing quality and sourcing above anything else to ensure that what is on the label is actually in the container.

From there, aim to choose plant-based protein supplement options that not only are a rich source of all nine essential amino acids, but also that are low allergen and soy-free, and naturally flavored and sweetened — and that are great tasting.

“Vegan Diets, The Raw Truth.” BrinkZone.Com, 5 Jan. 2019, https://brinkzone.com/vegan-diets-the-raw-truth/.
Babault, Nicolas, 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, vol. 12, Jan. 2015, http://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-014-0064-5.
Mollard, Rebecca C., et al. “Acute Effects of Pea Protein and Hull Fibre Alone and Combined on Blood Glucose, Appetite, and Food Intake in Healthy Young Men--a Randomized Crossover Trial.” Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism = Physiologie Appliquee, Nutrition Et Metabolisme, vol. 39, no. 12, Dec. 2014, pp. 1360–65, http://doi.org/10.1139/apnm-2014-0170.
“Vegan Protein May Be As Effective As Whey for Building Muscle, Says New Study.” Shape, https://www.shape.com/healthy-eating/diet-tips/vegan-protein-effective-whey-building-muscle. Accessed 30 June 2020.
Hoffman, Jay R., and Michael J. Falvo. “Protein – Which Is Best?” Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, vol. 3, no. 3, Sept. 2004, pp. 118–30, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3905294/.
US EPA, ORD. “Regional Screening Levels (RSLs) - What’s New.” US EPA, 10 Sept. 2015, https://www.epa.gov/risk/regional-screening-levels-rsls-whats-new.
Ho, Marco H. K., et al. “Clinical Spectrum of Food Allergies: A Comprehensive Review.” Clinical Reviews in Allergy & Immunology, vol. 46, no. 3, June 2014, pp. 225–40, http://doi.org/10.1007/s12016-012-8339-6.
Tessari, Paolo, et al. “Essential Amino Acids: Master Regulators of Nutrition and Environmental Footprint?” Scientific Reports, vol. 6, May 2016, http://doi.org/10.1038/srep26074.
Berrazaga, Insaf, et al. “The Role of the Anabolic Properties of Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Sources in Supporting Muscle Mass Maintenance: A Critical Review.” Nutrients, vol. 11, no. 8, Aug. 2019, http://doi.org/10.3390/nu11081825.
Hawley, Aubree L., et al. “The Short-Term Effect of Whey Compared with Pea Protein on Appetite, Food Intake, and Energy Expenditure in Young and Older Men.” Current Developments in Nutrition, vol. 4, no. 2, Jan. 2020, http://doi.org/10.1093/cdn/nzaa009.

Keep the conversation going.

Leave a comment, ask a question, or see what others are talking about in the Life Time Training Facebook group.

samantha-mckinney-life-time-training-registered-dietician
Samantha McKinney, RD, CPT

Samantha McKinney has been a dietitian, trainer and coach for over 10 years. At first, her interests and experience were in a highly clinical setting in the medical field, which ended up laying a strong foundation for understanding metabolism as her true passion evolved: wellness and prevention. She hasn’t looked back since and has had the honor of supporting Life Time’s members and nutrition programs in various roles since 2011.

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