If you exercise and eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, you may benefit from adding extra protein to your diet. Although many plant-based foods are a decent protein source, you have to eat a lot of them to get enough protein if you work out intensely. That’s why some people turn to protein powders and protein shakes.
It’s best to get protein from whole food sources rather than a processed powder, but there’s a convenience factor with powders and protein supplements. When you’re pressed for time, adding protein powder to non-dairy milk is a quick way to get protein after a workout. The problem is many protein powders are dairy-based, and that’s not acceptable if you’re eating a vegan diet. Plus, some people are lactose intolerant and have digestive symptoms when they consume dairy. Others have milk allergies that make it hard to consume a dairy-based protein powder.
If you don’t consume dairy for one of these reasons, you still have options. What are some vegan protein powder alternatives? Let’s look at some of the available choices and the pros and cons of each.
Hemp Protein Powder
Hemp protein is growing in popularity because it’s rich in protein and fiber but also contains omega-3s, a type of fatty acid with other potential health benefits. Studies show that omega-3s reduce inflammation and are beneficial for heart health.
What makes hemp protein a standout from other plant-based protein sources is that it contains all the essential amino acids your body needs but can’t make. There are nine amino acids you must get through diet and hemp contains all of them, although it is low in the amino acid lysine.
Hemp is also a good choice if you suffer from food allergies. Hemp protein is less likely to cause an allergic reaction relative to other forms of protein. A quarter cup of hemp protein powder has around 15 grams of protein per serving and is easy to digest.
Soy Protein Powder
Soy protein is another dairy-free protein popular with bodybuilders and non-bodybuilders, with an ounce having 28 grams of protein. However, soy protein is somewhat controversial since it contains compounds called phytates that reduce mineral absorption. There’s also concern that substances in soy called goitrogens may worsen thyroid function in people who have an underactive thyroid. However, the evidence that this is a problem is weak. If you have a thyroid problem, it’s best to talk to your health care provider before consuming large quantities of soy or soy protein powder.
On the plus side, soy protein has health benefits too. Studies suggest that soy may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. One drawback is that studies show that it is not as effective at building muscle as whey protein powders made from dairy.
Pea Protein Powder
Like hemp protein powder, pea protein contains all the essential amino acids your body needs but can’t make, although it has low levels of one amino acid, methionine. Another benefit of pea protein is how easy it is to digest. Its protein content is like that of hemp with around 15 grams of protein per quarter cup of powder.
Research also shows that pea protein may have other health benefits, including reducing blood pressure and lowering cholesterol. According to research, pea protein is as effective as whey protein in building muscle mass. A study found that men who weight trained and consumed pea protein for 12 weeks gained a similar quantity of muscle as those who took whey protein, a dairy-based protein.
Brown Rice Protein
Brown rice protein has the disadvantage of not being a complete protein; it lacks some essential amino acids your body needs but can’t make. It’s also higher in carbohydrates than the other forms of protein mentioned. One benefit is that brown rice protein is hypoallergenic, making it an option for people with food allergies. Being gluten-free, it’s also safe for people with gluten intolerance. However, brown rice is relatively high in inorganic arsenic, a toxin linked with cancer. It’s best to limit the number of brown rice products you consume daily. One way to do this is to vary the type of protein sources you get and not rely only on protein powders.
Plant Protein Powder Blends
Another product suitable for vegans are blends of plant protein powders, such as pea and brown rice or hemp and brown rice. By combing different powders together, it optimizes the number of essential amino acids you take in. Manufacturers try to make powders that have combinations of powders that supply the body’s needs for amino acids and optimize muscle growth.
The Bottom Line
Even if you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet or want to avoid dairy, there are non-dairy protein powder options available to you. Of course, you can also get protein from whole food sources and that’s the healthiest way. However, nothing beats a protein shake made from protein powder when you’re on the go or pressed for time. Plant protein powders have the added advantage of containing more fiber than dairy-based protein powder, and that helps you stay fuller longer.
Research your options and make sure the brand you buy doesn’t contain large quantities of fillers, added sugar, or artificial sweeteners. It’s also safest to buy a product that has undergone third-party testing for purity since some research shows some protein powders contain heavy metals. But if you do your homework, you can see there are lots of options for protein powder if you eat a vegan diet.
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- MayoClinic.org. “Soy: Does it worsen hypothyroidism?”