8 Benefits of Vegan Protein Powder

No whey? No problem! With the popularity of plant-based diets, brands are offering more vegan protein powder options. Protein powder is usually associated with athletes and bodybuilders, but you may not realize it provides additional benefits beyond the gym.

As a vegan registered dietitian and certified personal trainer, I’ll discuss the top benefits of vegan protein powder, how these benefits can differ based on the protein source, and how best to incorporate protein powder into a healthy diet.

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Types of vegan protein powder

Before we get into the benefits of vegan protein powder, it’s important to understand the different types that are available. Vegan protein powders can be made from an incredible range of plant-based foods, and their benefits can differ slightly based on the protein source.

 A few of the most popular bases for plant-based protein powders include:

  • Soy protein – Soy is a high-quality source of plant protein, containing all nine essential amino acids in proportions similar to that of whey protein. While the concept of “complete” and “incomplete” proteins is somewhat outdated, soy is typically considered one of the few complete plant proteins.
  • Pea protein – Made from yellow split peas, pea protein is easy to digest and is soy-free. It isn’t considered a complete protein on its own, so pea protein is often combined with other plant protein sources like quinoa, pumpkin seeds, and watermelon seeds to make the amino acid profile closer to that of soy and whey.
  • Hemp protein – Made from hemp seeds, hemp protein is another soy-free option. Hemp protein powders usually provide less protein per serving than soy or pea protein powders. They also contain a small amount of omega-3 fats.
  • Powdered peanut butter – sold under the brand name PB2, this peanut protein powder is low in fat while retaining a deliciously strong peanut flavor.

Besides the protein source, protein powders can also differ based on the level of processing. For example, protein isolates are more processed than protein concentrates. This extra processing helps remove more fats and carbohydrates, resulting in a protein powder with a higher protein content.

So a serving of protein powder made from pea protein isolate, for example, will be higher in protein and lower in carbs and fat than pea protein concentrate.

RELATED: Pea Protein vs. Soy Protein: How Do They Compare?

Benefits of vegan protein powder

Protein powder can support your health and wellness goals in many ways. I’ll discuss these benefits below and how they may differ based on the type of protein powder consumed.

1. Helps build muscle size and strength

If you’ve been lifting weights to build muscle and gain strength, you’ll also need to eat more protein than normal. Protein provides us with amino acids, small molecules used by the body to build muscle cells.

Contrary to popular belief, plant-based protein is effective for building muscle mass1. Soy, pea, and blends of complementary plant proteins (such as pea + brown rice protein) are the highest in leucine, an amino acid that is especially important for stimulating muscle growth. 

Hemp protein, on the other hand, tends to be significantly lower in leucine2. This doesn’t mean that it won’t help you build muscle, just that you may need to consume more of it to get the same benefits.

RELATED: Should Vegan Take Creatine?

2. Helps make meals more balanced

Have you ever had a fruit smoothie or bowl of plain oatmeal for breakfast and felt hungry again an hour later? This probably happened because these meals didn’t contain a good balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates.

A fruit smoothie made only with fruit, while delicious and nutritious, contains mostly carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are necessary for a variety of body functions, but we also need to include good sources of protein and fat at mealtimes. Protein powder is an easy, convenient way to add protein and balance the macronutrient content of lower-protein meals. 

3. Helps with fat loss

High-protein diets can help with weight loss3 in multiple ways:

  1. Protein is filling. Using protein powder to add protein to your meals or snacks will help you feel full and satisfied throughout the day, which can help you stick to your calorie goals.
  2. Higher-protein diets help you burn more calories. It takes more energy for the body to digest and utilize protein than carbohydrates or fat, which effectively raises your metabolism. This helps you burn more calories at rest.
  3. If you’re also lifting weights while trying to lose fat, the protein from your meals can be used to maintain your muscle mass rather than being used for energy. In other words, eating a high-protein diet while lifting weights in a calorie deficit can help you burn fat without losing excessive muscle mass.

4. Boosts protein intake when appetite is low

Older adults, cancer patients, and surgical patients are examples of people who need more protein than normal to support healthy aging, maintain muscle mass, and support wound healing. At the same time, these groups of people often have poorer appetites which can prevent them from meeting these increased protein needs.

When your appetite is poor, it’s often easier to drink something than to eat a meal. Using protein powder in high-calorie fruit smoothies or blending them with non-dairy milk to make a simple protein shake is an easy way to boost your protein intake without having to eat a larger amount of food. 

5. Good source of iron

Most vegan protein powders are rich in iron, a mineral required for the production of red blood cells and the prevention of iron deficiency anemia. If your doctor has diagnosed you with an iron deficiency, protein powders are a helpful way to easily boost your iron intake.

As an example, Orgain Plant-Based Protein Powder contains an incredible 4.9 milligrams of iron per serving in the vanilla flavor. This is 25% of your daily iron needs in a single serving!

6. Easy to digest

Since vegan protein powders are lactose-free, people with lactose intolerance can digest them much more easily than whey protein. They’re also dairy-free, making them appropriate for people with dairy allergies. 

7. Better for the environment 

Plant-based proteins are associated with significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions2 than animal proteins, making them a much more sustainable and environmentally-friendly choice. Considering the amount of water required to irrigate crops grown for animal feed, plant proteins intended directly for human consumption require far less water to produce. 

8. Better for animal welfare

Whey is a byproduct of the cheesemaking process, making it intricately linked with dairy production. Unfortunately, conventional dairy farming is fraught with ethical concerns4. Examples of these issues include:

  • Early separation of calves from their mothers
  • Tail docking
  • Repeated, forced impregnation of dairy cows
  • Dehorning
  • Health issues such as lameness and mastitis
  • Inadequate pain management

Fortunately, choosing vegan protein over whey protein powder is an effective way to avoid supporting these harmful practices.

RELATED: Hemp Protein vs. Whey Protein: Is Hemp Effective?

Aren’t protein powders too processed to be healthy?

Because protein powders are highly processed versions of whole plant foods, many people worry they’re unhealthy. After all, wouldn’t it be better to eat more whole, protein-rich foods like edamame, chickpeas, and quinoa?

There’s no question that basing your diet on a variety of whole plant-based foods is important. These foods are rich in dietary fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and anti-inflammatory phytochemicals, so we should certainly strive to include them in our meals.

This is also why, if needed, protein powders should be used to supplement our diets, not to replace nutrient-dense whole foods. Protein powders are a valuable tool for people with increased protein needs who may struggle to get enough from food alone, such as older adults, cancer patients, surgical patients, athletes, and people trying to build muscle.

Yes, protein powders are processed foods, but this doesn’t automatically make them unhealthy. They’re simply a more concentrated source of protein meant to supplement a healthy diet. If you’re worried about the addition of artificial sweeteners or other food additives, protein supplements that don’t contain these ingredients are available.

RELATED: The 16 Best Sources of Protein for a Vegan

Do I need a blend of plant proteins?

If you’ve been vegan for any length of time, you’ve undoubtedly heard that plant proteins are “incomplete” proteins and that you need to combine different plant proteins to get all nine essential amino acids, or else risk protein deficiency.

In reality, plant proteins tend to be only slightly low in certain amino acids. Beans, for example, are slightly lower in methionine, while grains are slightly lower in lysine when compared to animal proteins, but they aren’t “deficient” in them. Some plant proteins, like soy and quinoa, are considered “complete” proteins on their own.

In the context of a regular diet, these differences are insignificant. In fact, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics5 states that as long as you include a variety of different plant foods throughout the day and week, there’s no need to combine complementary plant proteins at every meal.

That said, choosing a complete protein (like soy) or a protein powder made from a blend of complementary plant proteins could be helpful if your goal is to build muscle. This is because blends, such as pea and brown rice protein, are often higher in muscle-stimulating leucine than pea or hemp proteins on their own. 

Older adults trying to build or maintain muscle may especially benefit from choosing these protein blends, considering it’s often harder for them to build muscle due to the anabolic resistance that develops as we age.

Protein fruit smoothie in a glass

Ways to use protein powder

Now that you’re familiar with the benefits of protein powder, let’s discuss some ways to incorporate it into your diet:

  • Blend vanilla, cinnamon, or chocolate protein powder in fruit smoothies or smoothie bowls (use high-protein plant-based milks for an extra protein boost)
  • Blend with iced coffee and non-dairy milk for an iced protein coffee
  • Mix in oatmeal, overnight oats, breakfast quinoa, chia pudding, and sweet grits
  • Use a milk frother to blend protein powder or PB2 in non-dairy milk for your cereal
  • Mix in non-dairy yogurt and top with your favorite fruit
  • Mix unflavored protein powder into creamy soups and stews, mashed potatoes, or savory grits
  • Try recipes for protein pancakes, cookies, mug cakes, and waffles
  • Blend with non-dairy ice cream for a protein milkshake

Summary

Vegan protein powder is a helpful tool for boosting protein intake, building muscle, getting enough protein with a poor appetite, and losing body fat while retaining muscle. It’s also more environmentally friendly and doesn’t pose the same ethical concerns as whey protein. 

Of course, protein powders are best used to supplement a healthy, balanced plant-based diet. 

Choosing a blend of complementary plant proteins isn’t necessary if your goal is simply to get more protein. However, if your goal is to build muscle, choosing a complete protein source (like soy) or a blend of complementary plant proteins, like pea and brown rice, is recommended.

The scientific information in this article was accurate at the time of publishing but may change over time as new research becomes available.

References

  1. Hevia-Larraín V, Gualano B, Longobardi I, et al. High-Protein Plant-Based Diet Versus a Protein-Matched Omnivorous Diet to Support Resistance Training Adaptations: A Comparison Between Habitual Vegans and Omnivores. Sports Med. 2021;51(6):1317-1330. doi:10.1007/s40279-021-01434-9
  2. Nichele S, Phillips SM, Boaventura BCB. Plant-based food patterns to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and support muscle mass in humans: a narrative review. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2022;47(7):700-710. doi:10.1139/apnm-2021-0806
  3. Moon J, Koh G. Clinical Evidence and Mechanisms of High-Protein Diet-Induced Weight Loss. J Obes Metab Syndr. 2020;29(3):166-173. doi:10.7570/jomes20028
  4. Croney CC, Anthony R. Invited review: ruminating conscientiously: scientific and socio-ethical challenges for US dairy production. J Dairy Sci. 2011;94(2):539-546. doi:10.3168/jds.2010-3627
  5. Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(12):1970-1980. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.025

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