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A Complete Guide to Plant-Based Protein

Posted by Adam Bloom on

Since protein itself is such a crucial part of a healthy diet, many people are supplementing their protein with protein powder. Even with all the traditional protein powders available, some people have opted to rely on plant-based protein powder. 

The question becomes, how do we evaluate and choose the best plant-based protein powder?

While there are many protein powders that promise to be packed with superfoods, most of these things are packed with junk fillers. Good plant-based protein powders deliver all the protein necessary for not only good health but also to pack on muscle.

People choose plant-based protein powders for a variety of reasons. Lactose intolerant people can find problems with things such as casein and whey that are used in other protein powders. Dairy proteins can also raise insulin levels, and that is dangerous for many people. Others choose plant-based protein powders for ethical and environmental reasons. 

Many plant-based protein powders contain all the basic building blocks necessary for nutrition and for muscle growth. Soy protein, in particular, provides a complete source of dietary protein since it contains all essential amino acids. 

This guide will give you the basics of everything you need to know about plant-based protein powder.

What is Plant-Based Protein? 

Proteins are made up of chemical building blocks called amino acids. As we digest food, proteins are broken down into these amino acids which then provide the basis for muscle and bone growth, hormones, and even neurotransmitter function. 

There are 22 amino acids, and our bodies cannot make 9 of them. These 9 amino acids are called essential amino acids and we must get these amino acids from other sources. Meat and dairy have historically provided these amino acids, but as we have become more aware of how these meats and dairy products affect our bodies, we have become conscious of the fact that we can also derive these essential amino acids from plant-based sources. 

Plant-based protein consists of amino acids and proteins derived exclusively from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and seeds. Some herbs and spices also contain proteins and amino acids. 

A diet that consists largely or exclusively of vegetables, legumes (beans), and nuts and whole grains has the potential to provide all the dietary protein necessary for health and muscle growth. It is not necessary to define yourself as vegetarian and derive your protein from plant-based sources. Rather, it simply means that you get the bulk of your protein from plants rather than from dairy and meat. 

Plant-Based Protein Benefits

Plant-based diets in general and plant-based proteins, in particular, have been shown to have demonstrable benefits. One of the most prominent benefits of plant-based proteins is cardiovascular health.  

Boosting cardio-vascular health translates into a boost for healthier muscles and bones. Athletes can especially benefit from plant-based proteins. However, these benefits are not limited to athletes. Increasing plant-based protein through diet or supplements helps maintain muscle growth and can delay age-related muscle loss. This ensures better health and even greater autonomy as we age.  

Studies have shown that patients who have experienced cardio-vascular problems made astounding recoveries after relying on plant-based protein. Many of these patients were able to avoid invasive procedures like coronary artery bypass surgery and arterial stents simply by switching to plant-based diets and plant-based proteins. 

You can also reduce your caloric intake as you switch to plant-based proteins. Relying on plant-based proteins cuts down the number of calories you consume while it boosts the nutrient profile of your diet. This makes for an overall healthier balance for health and fitness. 

Best Plant-Based Protein Foods

Because medical science has become acutely aware of the benefits of plant-based proteins, there has been widespread research on which foods provide the best source of proteins. Whereas a simple diet of beans and rice was once the primary recommendation, we now know that there are a vast number of foods that provide significant amounts of the essential amino acids necessary for overall health and fitness. 

Here is a list of the best sources of plant-based proteins:

  1. Tofu, tempeh, and edamame. Soy proteins are among the best plant-based proteins available. Soy contains all essential amino acids. 

A half cup of tofu contains 10 grams of protein. The thing to remember about tofu is that it essentially takes on the flavor of anything you cook with it. It is an extremely versatile food.

Tempeh, another food made from soy, contains 15 grams of protein per 1/2 cup. Like tofu, it will take on other flavors. Tempeh is also filling. 

Both tofu and tempeh also contain high amounts of calcium and iron which makes them a great substitute for dairy products. 

  1. Lentils. Red and green lentils contain significant levels of protein. They are also high in fiber, and other nutrients like iron and potassium. 

A ½ cup portion of cooked lentils contains nearly 9 grams of protein. Since lentils can be added to so many things like stews, salads, soups, they are an easy addition to your diet. 

Add rice with your lentils and give them an additional protein boost.  

  1. Chickpeas. These are high in protein. A ½ cup serving provides more than 7 grams of protein. 

Chickpeas can be eaten raw or cooked. They fit nicely in stews and soups, and they are good raw in salads. 

Humus is available just about anywhere these days and is really just a simple raw chickpea paste. Add it to sandwiches or use hummus as a substitute for butter and you have a powerful protein boost. 

  1. Peanuts and Almonds. Simply snacking on peanuts and almost provides a great source of protein. Peanuts contain 20 grams of protein per ½ cup, and almonds pack over 16 grams per ½ cup. 

Just by keeping peanuts or almonds around for snacks ensures that you have an excellent source of plant-based protein.  

  1. Chia Seeds. These are low in calories and high in Omega-3 fatty acids. The fatty acids are known as one of the essential fats necessary for the production of proteins from essential amino acids. 

Chia seeds contain about 2 grams of protein per tablespoon. With the Omega-3s they provide essential nutrients for cell growth and for enzyme regulation in our bodies. 

Available at most supermarkets and specialty food stores, you can add chia seeds to cereal, smoothies, or just sprinkle them on yogurt. 

  1. Hemp. A recent addition to plant-based proteins, hemp protein is approximately 98 percent digestible. Unlike many animal proteins that cannot be completely broken down by our bodies, hemp is almost completely accessible.

You will find hemp proteins with the protein powders and protein supplements.

Plant-Based Protein vs Whey Protein

Both plant-based and whey protein make great protein supplements for increasing muscle and for overall fitness. Whey proteins generally contain all the proteins and amino acids you need. Plant-based protein supplements can also contain all necessary proteins and amino acids, but not all of them do. 

Whey concentrates generally contain the most biologically active proteins. These are considered ideal for athletic performance. 

Some plant-based protein supplements can provide the same level of performance. Generally, plant-based protein supplements and powders that contain brown rice, soy, hemp, and pea protein are considered the best. 

While whey proteins are considered the most effective, recent studies have shown that a combination of whey and rice protein yield the same gains as plain whey protein. 

In the final analysis, choosing between whey protein and plant-based protein comes down to a matter of personal choice. The science suggests that you can see the same gains from plant-based proteins as you can from more common whey proteins. 

The choice between plant-based protein and whey protein really depends on doing your due diligence and checking the source of plant proteins to choose the ones that provide the maximum nutrition. 

Can You Build Muscle with Plant Protein?

The simple answer to this question is yes. 

One study showed that the only factor that determined muscular growth was the amount of protein you consume, not the source. 

In the study, two groups were given controlled amounts of protein, one whey, the other plant-based. In side by side monitoring, both groups demonstrated the same amount of muscular growth and overall muscular-skeletal health. 

The science suggests that plant-based proteins are just as effective in building muscle. 

Is Plant-Based Protein Healthy?

It is a fact that animal and dairy proteins contain things like vitamin B-12 and high levels of iron that are simply not present in plant-based proteins. On the other hand, plant-based proteins contain nowhere near the levels of cholesterol and saturated fats found in meat and dairy proteins. 

Athletes have generally turned to whey proteins in order to build muscle. But as we have seen, plant-based proteins can offer the same muscular benefits. 

Plant-based proteins are by and large just as healthy as any other source of protein. Medical science would suggest that plant-based proteins provide the best source of protein for overall cardiovascular health.

Doctors recommend a balance between both protein sources. The iron and B-12 you derive from whey is essential. While the lower saturated fat content of plant-based protein is better for general fitness. 

The Pros and Cons of Plant-Based Protein Powders

As we have seen, the choice between whey and plant-based protein powders can mostly come down to a matter of personal preference. However, there are some pros and cons to consider as we evaluate plant-based protein powders.

Pros

  • Plant-based protein powders are generally lower in sugars, cholesterol, and saturated fats. They are just better for heart health.
  • Plant-based protein powders are much easier to digest, especially for people with lactose intolerance. 
  • Many of the brown rice and soy protein powders contain just as much protein as any animal-based protein powders. 

Cons

  • Plant-based protein powders generally do not contain the same levels of certain nutrients like vitamin B-12 and iron. 
  • Animal proteins contain all essential amino acids. Plant-based protein powders can contain these essential amino acids but do not always contain them. 
  • Some plant-based protein powders do contain fillers like added sugar. Check the labels to be sure.

Again, the choice between whey and plant-based protein powders really comes to a personal choice. But bear in mind that fitness and health experts recommend a balance of the two. 

Best Plant-Based Protein Powder

Sorting through the vast amount of plant-based protein powders can be a chore in itself. Choosing the best depends largely on your fitness goals. 

For building muscle, one of the top-rated plant-based protein powders is NF Sports Plant Based Protein. It is all-natural and vegan. NF Sports contains the highest performing protein available It packs 30 grams of protein, is lactose-free, and comes in several flavors.

Vega-Sport contains one magic ingredient the other plant-based protein powders do not: leucine. This is one of the essential amino acids that are essential for muscle protein synthesis. 

Also from NF Sports is the Post-Workout recovery Drink Mix. This is made with vegetable-based BCAAs and great for general workout recovery and all-natural fitness. This is one of the top all-around fitness and health plant-protein powders. It packs all the protein and essential amino acids. 

Wrapping things up

Whether you are looking to put on some serious muscle or just looking to get healthy and maintain overall muscular-skeletal fitness, plant-based protein powders have emerged as a legitimate alternative to whey and animal-based protein powders. 

It is true that many people have come to believe that the only sure-fire way to bulk up is with the traditional whey protein powders. However, we now know that plant-based protein powders can provide the same benefits as any other type of protein supplement.

Plant-based proteins tend to be better for you in terms of cardiovascular health. They are much lower in lactose and cholesterol. 

Whey protein powders often contain fillers that are mostly just sugars and other things that provide no real benefit. 

What is more, plant-based protein powders are just as widely available as any other protein powder. People have simply become more aware of the sources of their food and the sources of nutrition supplements. This has led to a higher demand which, of course, has put plant-based protein powders at the forefront with all the other sports and nutrition supplements.

In the final analysis, plant-based protein powders provide the same benefits as traditional protein powders, and they may well be better for your overall health.

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