Protein. What is it good for? Well building muscle obviously! That’s right protein, undoubtedly the most popular health supplement powder in the world, chances are even your mum has thought about trying some. But what about for those lovely vegans?
For years meat and milk protein have ruled the roost, with Whey being the undisputed king of proteins. But for vegans Whey, Casein, Beef, and Egg protein are all out of bounds. They need a plant based alternative. Vegan proteins have arrived with a bang, more and more are popping up all the time promising to transform your body, but can you see the same results as with meat or milk based proteins?
What is Protein?
Before we delve into the ins and outs of types of protein, it’s important to take a look at exactly what a protein is. A protein is a macronutrient made up of a number of different amino acids. The more amino acids you can get in your body the better, as different ones help with different functions.
The specific amino acids found in protein work to build and maintain muscle in the body, making them a go to supplement for the health conscious. There are 20 total amino acids, with nine of those being essential amino acids that we need to get from our food. Proteins which contain a sufficient amount of 20 of these amino acids are referred to as ‘complete’ proteins like protein and are generally considered higher quality.
The impact of protein on muscle growth and muscle mass is massive (pardon the pun) and is a major reason why protein shakes and protein based snacks have become so popular. Different proteins offer different benefits, with some nutrients only found in meat for example, but there will always be one for your goals.
Vegan Sources of Protein vs Meat
We’ll take a further look into vegan protein, but it’s important to look at whether there is any real difference between meat based proteins and plant based protein powders. The main types of non vegetarian/vegan proteins are Meat, Milk, and Eggs. Each have their own benefits but for the sake of your time we’ll look at the most popular, Whey protein.
Whey Protein comes in three forms, Whey Concentrate, Whey Isolate and Hydrolysed Whey. Whey Concentrate has a protein content of around 80% and tastes the best. Isolate has a content of around 90% as it strips away some lactose and fat, resulting in a slightly more bitter taste. Hydrolysed Whey has been pre-digested slightly, meaning it will absorb into the body quickly. As already mentioned this is a complete protein.
Vegan protein powders on the other hand usually are a mix of three types of three different types of plant protein. Pea, Soy, and Rice. Now not one of these proteins is regarded as a complete protein on its own, but combine the three in one powder and you have a complete protein. This means vegan protein still provides the same amino acid profile as a Whey, just in different amounts.
Of those three Soy is the closest to Whey in that it comes in the same three forms, concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysed, so no difference there either. If we look at protein content they are actually very similar per serving, meaning any plant based powder with good sources should have the same protein content of around 22g per serving.
The amino acid profile is where there is some difference. Leucine is the amino acid most associated with muscle growth and is what makes whey so popular, giving out the most leucine of any protein. Plant based proteins can’t get close to the amount whey has in it, but you could get some extra in food or supplements.
So looking at it on the whole, milk based protein does have a few more benefits over vegan/vegetarian protein powders, but with some supplementation from other aspects of your diet, you can make that difference up.
Is Vegan Protein Healthy?
This question stems from questions over a vegan diet as a whole. Many (wrongly) believe that a vegan diet doesn’t provide the same amount essential vitamins and minerals as with meat based diet. This frankly isn’t true, although a vegan diet does require a little bit more effort.
Vegan protein is perfectly healthy when consumed as part of a balanced diet alongside consistent exercise. It comes from natural sources and will provide all of the same benefits of any other protein. So if you are a vegan don’t be scared off by vegan protein powder, it is a great way to get extra protein into your diet from natural sources. Brown rice is a great protein source!
The other thing to consider alongside vegan protein powders is essential vitamins and minerals. Lacto Ovo Vegetarians get the best of both worlds here as eating dairy is a great source of vitamins. Omega-3 is a great example of a vitamin vegans can struggle with. The main way to get omega-3 fatty acid is through food. Sources include fatty fish and animal food. Not great for vegans, which is why supplementation is so important.
Can You Build Muscle Being Vegan?
The crux of the issue is that question, how to gain muscle as a vegan? As we’ve mentioned above the main way to build muscle is by consuming more protein and working out more (with an emphasis on the working out bit!)
A few years ago, before the revolution we’ve enjoyed in nutrition and vegan nutrition the key issue for most plant-based eaters was mostly a question of education or the lack thereof. Consuming a vegan protein powder is a great way to do it alongside any other protein based snacks such as protein bars.
As long as you’re committed and are putting in the hours in the gym, alongside a balanced diet and extra protein you should be more than able to build muscle even on a plant based diet. Is it better than meat based protein? Probably not, but it isn’t far away.