Protein isn’t just for muscle growth! This macronutrient nourishes the entire body – from supporting a healthy immune system, balancing hormones, aiding healthy weight, supporting digestion & detoxification as well as giving you that ageless glow!
Protein is the most satiating of all the macronutrients – meaning it keeps you fuller for longer than carbs or fats! I ensure I’m consuming protein with every meal, and if I’m after a snack: choosing a protein-rich option will keep me satisfied for hours.
Natural whole foods are the best sources of protein – found in the likes of organic eggs and chicken, wild caught fish, nuts, seeds, beans, Greek yoghurt & grass-fed meats – however the right protein powder can be a (deliciously) convenient way to get protein on the go.
For those with sensitive digestion, lactose intolerance or specific dietary choices (e.g. vegan), plant-based proteins are a great choice! I personally use plant-based proteins as I find they don’t irritate my digestion & keep me really full!
However: not all protein powders are created equally. It can be confusing to pick the right one for your needs & health.
My tip: ignore all the marketing hype on the packaging, and instead beeline for the ingredient list. Do you recognise all the ingredients? If its low in sugar and void of thickeners, fillers & artificial flavours – you may be have a winner!
Do plant-based sources really provide enough complete protein?
Short answer: Yes!
Plant-based protein can most definitely provide adequate protein and if you choose the right type or blend – you can hit all 9 essential amino acids!
Plant-based foods like peas, rice & sunflower seeds aren’t packaged with protein the same way animal products are, so food processors are utilised to remove most of the fat and carbohydrates to isolate the protein for protein-rich powders.
Amino acids are the chemical compounds that make up protein and there are 2 kinds:
(those your body cannot make on its own, and hence must get from your diet alone!) .
(those your body can produce).
All animal sources of protein are complete proteins, as they contain all 9 essential amino acids.
Despite some claims, most plant proteins are not complete. This means, they do not contain optimal levels of all 9 essential amino acids. However, by combining 2 or more plant-based protein sources, a complete protein can be made! Just because you have to combine some plant-proteins to make a complete one, this does not mean plant-based proteins are less powerful or adequate - you just need to be conscious you are getting all those amino acids!
Debunking some of the popular plant-proteins:
1. Pea protein
When I think of “pea protein”, I immediately envision bright green peas – however pea protein powder is actually made from their higher-protein cousins: yellow split peas!
A ¼ cup (28 gram) serving of unflavoured pea protein powder packs around 21 grams of protein, racking in at around 100 calories – however this is highly dependant on the brand. Pea protein, like other legumes, is low in the essential amino acid methionine. However, it is remarkably rich in essential BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids) leucine, isoleucine and valine - which all help to fuel working muscles and stimulate your body to make muscle protein.
Studies have shown that muscle gain experienced with pea proteins is similar to those of whey (milk) protein. Additionally, studies have shown that pea protein may lower blood pressure and promote feelings of fullness.
2. Brown rice protein
Whilst this protein type is quite cheap, easy to find and has great studies to support its muscle regenerating properties, there is high potential for contamination with the heavy metal arsenic – so I would highly recommend choosing a brand of rice protein powder that tests for arsenic levels.
A ¼ cup (28 gram) serving has around 107 calories and 22 grams of protein. Whilst it’s low in the essential amino acid lysine, there is an ample amount of BCAAs to support muscle growth.
3. Hemp protein
Hemp protein is derived from seeds of the cannabis plant, however won’t get you “high” like marijuana as hemp contains no, or small trace amounts of THC (the euphoric compound).
A ¼ cup (28 gram) serving of unflavoured hemp protein has around 12 grams of protein and 108 calories. Whilst this is around half the protein of pea protein, hemp protein also delivers high levels of fibre, iron, zinc, magnesium and alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) – the plant form of omega-3 fat.
Hemp is low in the essential amino acid lysine, so it’s not a complete protein. However, if you combine it with legumes or quinoa, this gap is filled.
Note: if you eat legumes or quinoa in your natural diet, you are filling this gap! A well balanced diet will make any of these “incomplete” plant proteins complete. However, if you’d rather peace of mind – stick with a complete protein or a “complete blend”.
4. Soy protein
Soy protein is a complete protein – which is rare for plant proteins! It’s also rich in BCAAs to support muscle strength and growth.
Concerns surrounding soy proteins:
The majority of soy protein is genetically modified – especially if sourced from America. Solution: search for a brand of non-GM soy.
Soy’s link to increased risk of breast cancer due to its role as a xenoestrogen. Food for thought: Recent study reviews have noted that past concerns about soy safety were based on animal study results that do not necessarily apply to people. I would advise you to monitor your own response and choose a protein that makes you feel good!
Soy is a known irritant that may cause digestive discomfort for those with food sensitivities or sensitive digestion
A ¼ cup serving of soy protein isolate power has around 95 calories and 22 grams of protein.
5. Plant protein blends
The advantage of blending plant proteins is that optimal levels of all essential amino acids can be reached in a single product! A common example of this is a combination of pea and rice protein - the pea protein supplies lysine, which rice protein is low in; whilst rice protein supplies methionine, which pea protein is low in!
Quinoa is another of the few plant foods that contain sufficient amounts of all 9 essential amino acids – making it a complete protein! It’s also rich in magnesium, B vitamins, iron, fibre, potassium, calcium, vitamin E & phosphorus. This is also blended with other plant proteins.
Do you need fancy add-ons?
You may see some plant protein powders bragging about fancy add-ons like enzymes, or special ‘sprouted’ or ‘fermented’ proteins. These all simply aid digestion of the protein – so you may benefit from this if you have a weak or sensitive digestive system!
Sprouting and fermentation may increase amounts of beneficial plant compounds, vitamins and minerals whilst helping break down anti-nutrients. AKA: they’re not essential, but if you have a sensitive digestive system you may love them!
How to make your protein
1. On-the-go: Shake it
If you’re too busy to blend up a smoothie or you’re on the go simply add a scoop of your protein powder to a shaker bottle with either water or your choice of milk and some ice!
2. For a delicious meal: Blend it
For the best flavor & texture – make a smoothie with your protein. My must haves are:
FROZEN fruit (makes it super creamy & thick)
Almond or coconut milk
A few ice cubes Other goodies include: a handful of greens (you can mask the flavour!), a dollop of nut butter, flax or chia seeds, cacao powder (for chocolate flavour), maca powder (for hormone balancing)
3. For fun: Bake it
Yes, you can bake with protein powder! I like to use a plant-based protein when baking, and do not recommend using whey protein when baking with heat, as the whey will make the product dry and tough. In raw treats with zero heat – go for it! Another tip when cooking with protein powders: don’t over-mix! This will toughen your end-product as well.
I love protein powder in bliss balls, they’re a super yummy way to kick up my protein intake when I’ve been a bit slack!
Written by Nutritionist student and health enthusiast, Yasmin Jackson.
Published by Femina & Co.
Follow her IG: @knowrish
Follow us: @feminandco