By Michael Martin
Play a game of word association with "vegan," and "healthy" might come up rather quickly. "Muscular" might not. But that could change, and sooner than you might think. As plant-based lifestyles catch on for more Americans, vegan protein powders derived from plant sources such as peas, rice, soy, and hemp have become increasingly popular for workout recovery.
And they're not just watered-down substitutes for whey, appealing only to those who abstain from eating animal products. Research has shown that vegan protein can produce similar results to other types of protein. Here's what you should know about the best vegan protein powder for muscle gain.
Get 21 grams of muscle-building pea protein in each scoop of LADDER Plant Protein
You can totally build muscle with vegan protein powder. A 2020 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine found that rice and whey protein yielded similar outcomes for body composition and performance. And pea protein has also been found to be quite effective versus a placebo (and on par with whey).
Just like whey, vegan protein contains BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids), a category of protein building blocks that are particularly important for muscles and the heart. Whey protein is renowned for being a complete protein, containing adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids. Most vegan protein sources aren't complete by themselves, but that shouldn't hold you back from trying them when you want to pack on some gains.
Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, a board-certified sports dietitian in Newtown, Pennsylvania who follows a plant-based diet, suggests combining pea protein with other plant-based proteins for a more complete amino acid profile.
To build muscle on a vegan diet, Jones recommends starting with 1.8 grams of protein per kg (equal to 2.2 pounds) of your weight in protein per day and adding 10% to that number in grams. Why add 10%?
"That's because the bioavailability of many plant protein sources is lower than animal sources," says Jones. This means you may digest and absorb slightly less amino acids in a plant food versus animal protein.
Although those studies we shared suggest that vegan protein powder can be just as effective as animal protein, there isn't conclusive evidence that vegan protein is better for packing on muscle.
Both whey and vegan protein powders provide protein to help you refuel and repair muscle after a workout. When choosing between them, it's mostly about personal preference, including dietary choices and allergies.
And no matter which protein powder you choose, don't expect it to do more than its share of the work.
"Protein shakes won't be what make or break your results," says Jones. "At the end of the day, it's all going to come down to total protein and energy intake, as well as the timing of your protein intake."
And there's still more to the equation.
"Eating enough calories, especially from carbohydrates, is important to fuel your exercise and maintain a high intensity during workouts," she adds.
But you might find vegan protein superior to animal protein if whey or casein tend to upset your stomach (in some people, they can cause gas or bloating), and, of course, if you're following a vegan diet.
Curious about the best vegan protein powder for muscle gain, but not sure how to integrate it into your diet? Try these four simple protein-packed recipes!
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.