Author: Maria Fischer • Fact checked by: Tara D. Thies • Oct. 6, 2020
People often associate high-quality protein with meats and other animal products, but there are tons of plants that provide sufficient amounts of protein.
Following a vegan or vegetarian diet doesn’t necessarily mean you have to struggle to get the nutrients your body needs. A 2018 study published in the journal Amino Acids was able to identify a number of plant-based proteins that provide a complete spectrum of essential amino acids similar to most animal-based protein sources. In fact, the Harvard University T.H. Chan Schools of Public Health actually recommends getting your protein from plants whenever possible, as plant-based sources of protein is “a win for your health and the health of the planet.”
The key is to make sure that you’re consuming specific plant protein sources, so no essential components of protein are missing. Certain plant foods contain significantly more high-quality protein than others — one of them being peas.
Pea protein is the protein extracted from yellow split peas. The protein is isolated from the ground yellow peas, which forms a protein powder.
Not only is pea protein a high-quality protein and a great source of iron, it’s also naturally vegan, hypoallergenic and one of the more easily digested plant-based proteins. Pea protein does not contain any of the top food allergens such as peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, fish, shellfish, cow’s milk, wheat and soy, which makes it an attractive option for people with dietary restrictions.
Pea protein is a favored choice for protein supplementation because pea protein contains all nine essential amino acids. The nine essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. These essential amino acids cannot be made by the body, and as a result, they must come from food. Of the nine essential amino acids, pea protein is particularly high in leucine, isoleucine and valine. These three amino acids, known collectively as branched-chain amino acids (BCAAS), promote muscle growth. Pea protein also has high amounts of iron and arginine, which promotes healthy blood flow and heart health.
However, despite containing all nine essential amino acids, pea protein is not officially a complete protein. That’s because it’s an inadequate source of methionine and cysteine. A complete protein provides at least 25 mg/g of methionine and cysteine, and pea protein only delivers around 11 mg/g. If you choose to supplement with pea protein, you’ll need to get proper amounts of methionine and cysteine from other protein sources, such as brown rice protein.
One of the most common types of protein to use for protein supplementation is whey protein. Whey is the by-product of cheese production. During cheesemaking, special enzymes are added to heated milk that cause the casein in milk to change to a solid state and separate from a liquid substance. That liquid substance is the whey protein. The whey protein is then washed and dried into a powdered form to become the supplements you mix into your protein shakes or add to your favorite recipes for a protein boost.
Whey protein is especially popular among people who are looking to build muscle, as it provides protein and amino acids that serve as building blocks for increased muscle growth. Whey protein is also quickly absorbed, so the body is able to utilize the protein fast.
A 2018 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition looked into how much protein in a single meal can be used by the body for muscle-building, and researchers determined whey is a “fast-acting” protein: Whey’s absorption rate has been estimated at roughly 10 grams per hour. At this rate, it takes just 2 hours to fully absorb a 20 gram-dose of whey. A commonly recommended protein powder dosage is 1–2 scoops (around 25–50 grams), so if you consumed 20 grams of whey protein powder around the time of your workout, that means your body would be able to utilize that protein within two hours of exercising. This absorption rate allows whey protein to be particularly effective at increasing muscle growth when consumed around the time of a workout or resistance training, as muscle protein synthesis is usually maximized shortly after exercise. Whey protein also increases the release of anabolic hormones that can stimulate muscle growth.
For the reasons above, whey protein tends to be athletes’ go-to protein source when taking supplements for muscle building. But for many people who are dairy-free, vegan or have any type of dietary restriction, there’s a clear downside to whey protein: The lactose and animal products in whey protein makes it a non-option.
But is pea protein a plant-based option that’s comparable to whey? Many studies say yes: In a 2015 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, male participants between the ages of 18 and 35 followed the same 12-week upper-body lifting program. One group supplemented with 25 grams of pea protein twice a day, and another took the exact same amount of whey protein. Each 25 grams of protein from pea protein delivered around two grams of leucine, compared to 2.65 grams for whey, but both fell right in the middle of the optimal leucine range. Researchers recorded biceps muscle thickness at the beginning and end of the study, and at the end of the 12 weeks, both groups showed identical increases in biceps muscle thickness. Both pea protein and whey protein types also showed greater results than placebo. As long as you’re getting sufficient leucine from your pea protein supplement, current research suggests a plant-based protein supplement like pea protein can help you build muscle mass in a similar (if not equal) way to whey.
We’ve discussed pea protein’s role in building muscle, but what about weight loss? Studies have found that pea protein helps people feel fuller for longer, making it easier to keep those sugar and carbohydrates cravings in check and reduce overall calorie intake (which then leads to weight loss over time). Research has found that protein in general helps people feel fuller for longer than carbs or fat, but one study published in Nutrition Journal determined that compared to whey, pea protein showed an even stronger effect on food intake and satiation when consumed before a meal. If weight loss is your goal, choosing to supplement with pea protein is probably your best bet.
Bonus: People who go with pea protein usually don’t experience the gas or bloating like they would with whey, thanks to pea protein’s digestibility and lack of allergens.
In addition to aiding with weight loss, there are many other health benefits of pea protein. As mentioned above, pea protein is especially rich in iron, and since approximately 10 percent of American women are iron-deficient, consuming pea protein powder is often viewed as a great way for women to increase their intake of this nutrient. Pea protein powder can also reduce some of the risk factors for heart disease, like elevated cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Food Science found that pea protein hydrolysate — a partially digested protein powder that contains smaller proteins — significantly lowered blood pressure levels in animals after three weeks. A similar three-week study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry that used human participants found that people who consumed pea protein hydrolysate every day had lowered systolic blood pressure.
A 2012 study published in the European Journal of Nutrition also showed protein hydrolysates of yellow pea seed have antioxidant, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties — all vital for the prevention of inflammatory-related diseases.
Additional research shows that pea protein could help delay or prevent the onset of kidney damage in those with high blood pressure. Researchers in Canada tested the effects of pea protein on rats with a severe type of kidney disease called polycystic kidney disease. They found that blood pressure in the rats fed pea protein hydrolysates was reduced by 20% compared to control rats after 8 weeks of feeding.
That said, it’s important to note these studies were conducted using pea protein hydrolysate. Yellow pea protein concentrate is commonly used in pea protein powders, and more studies are needed to show whether pea protein concentrate has these same health benefits and effects to the same degree as pea protein hydrolysate. Although pea protein concentrate may contain other compounds of peas, it still has a high protein content and is great for supplementation.
Thinking about making the switch from animal protein to a plant-based protein like pea protein? Gainful can help you get started on your journey.
With so many different options on the market, choosing a protein supplement can be overwhelming, but Gainful makes it easy to find a personalized protein powder that’s perfect for your needs. Start by taking Gainful’s quiz, where you can select your dietary restrictions (gluten-free, dairy-free or anything in between), preferences and overall wellness goals. Then Gainful takes care of the rest, tailoring a protein powder specifically for you. We’ll help you figure out if pea protein is right for you, or if you should go with another source of protein (or maybe a blend of two!).
Switching to a plant-based diet is often a major change for most people, but with Gainful, you’ll never have to do it alone: Each subscriber has unlimited access to a personal Registered Dietitian, who’s on-call to answer any questions you may have about your protein or vegan protein powder in general. Your R.D. is there to explain what sets pea protein apart from whey protein, as well other protein like soy protein and hemp seed protein.
There’s a Gainful protein powder that fits your lifestyle — new, old or aspiring.
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