Pea Protein on a Vegetarian Diet—Everything You Need to Know
Protein is essential for health as it provides the amino acids that are the ‘building blocks’ of all cells, tissue, and organs within the body. Getting enough protein in the diet is essential to performing and feeling at your very best. Pea protein is one of the leading proteins on the market today. Continue reading to learn about the benefits of pea protein for a vegetarian diet.
A common misconception is the vegetarians don’t get enough protein in their diets. But that’s incorrect and a healthy and varied plant-based diet easily provides the protein and amino acids that you require,1,2 and a vegetarian diet that contains some eggs and dairy, which are high-quality protein sources, is even more replete in protein.
It’s fairer to say that a lot of people nowadays don’t take in enough protein to perform optimally, whether they eat meat or not. For example, the average daily intake of protein is around 100 g for males, and 70 g for females.3,4 Although this is higher than the recommended daily intake of 0.8 grams (per kilogram of body weight) per day, it is well below the recommended levels for both performance and for offsetting the risk of age-related muscle loss. Analysis of United States eating patterns has suggested that people should actually be more aware of under-eating, rather the over-eating protein, especially as protein intakes decline as we age, just when we often need more to preserve our muscle mass.5
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Can protein supplements help?
Protein powders aren’t entirely necessary IF you can take in the optimal amount of protein that you need from diet alone. But they can help to provide high-quality, affordable protein if you aren’t consistently taking in enough (and many of us aren’t) and provide a convenient source of protein at certain times when we might benefit from a protein ‘boost’ (like after intensive exercise).
Protein powders are convenient
Protein powders are convenient. Many people struggle to have good quality meals, consistently. Protein powders can provide the base for simple, effective, nutrient-dense meals when preparation time is short or when you are struggling for meal ideas! Many of my clients use protein smoothies (with healthy fats, veggies and berries added) as convenient, nutrient-dense meals.
Protein supplements are convenient before and after training
Many athletes benefit from protein before, during, or after training. Eating whole food may not be ideal or palatable during these times, and protein powders offer a convenient, easy-on-the-gut option for peri-training (around training) meals.
Protein supplements can help to boost the overall intake of protein
As mentioned above, many people don’t get the protein they require to perform at their best or to meet specific needs like increased protein intake during dieting. If the rest of the diet is robust and nutrient-dense, an easy ‘fix’ can be to simply add a protein shake or two during the day.
Benefits of protein supplementation
Protein for a healthy heart
Higher protein diets may also be good for our cardiometabolic health. Increased dietary protein has a small, beneficial effect on blood pressure, reduces triglycerides (one of the most important markers of poor cardiovascular and metabolic health), and reduces body fat stores.6,7
Protein for healthy aging
Protein is especially important as we age. Age-related muscle loss is common and is a contributing factor to falls and bone and joint injury. It’s also likely that muscle loss increases our risk of metabolic disorders like diabetes. In older adults, high-protein nutritional supplements are associated with lower hospital admissions and fewer health complications.8 Older adults also retain more lean mass and lost more fat mass during weight loss when consuming higher protein.9-12 Bone loss is also a concern as we age. As we get older, our bones can become more brittle and less dense. Higher protein diets have been shown to reduce this bone loss and improve the strength of our bones as we age.10,13,14
Protein for immunity
Protein and one of the amino acids that we derive from protein, glutamine, help the body to retain immunity and reduce infection.15
Protein for body composition, strength, and power
For those dieting, or even those who are just habitual under-eaters, an increased protein intake of up to 2.5 g per kilogram of body weight can help to offset muscle loss improve body composition (muscle to fat ratio) resulting in a leaner you.16 This level of protein is around 3 times higher than the recommended daily allowance of 0.8g per kg body weight! In healthy adults, over the long term, protein helps to increase lean muscle and help to improve strength and power.9
Protein for muscle soreness
For weekend warriors training for sports or at the gym, protein taken after training might reduce soreness.17
Why should vegetarians choose Pea Protein?
High-quality pea protein isolates provide a hypoallergenic, plant-based supplement option. Pea protein isolate contains all the essential amino acids and meets the criteria for completeness, according to the National Institute of Medicine’s daily amino acid requirements.18 It is also extremely well absorbed with a nearly 90% digestion and absorption rate,19 it is easy on the tummy, and performs equal to the purported gold standard protein whey, for the development and retention of muscle tissue.20 Pea protein may even be more satiating (helping you to feel fuller and more satisfied for longer) than other proteins, and so, can offer additional benefits for regulating eating.
Other key benefits include:
1. It’s actually vegetarian.
The most popular protein supplements are whey protein powders derived from dairy. While dairy is included in vegetarian (and vegan) diets, many whey proteins are created as a byproduct from the cheese-making process and use rennet, an enzyme from cattle, to separate the curds (casein) from whey, and are therefore not actually vegetarian.
2. It’s high in protein and low in carbs with zero added sugar.
Many protein powders contain too much sugar, extra carbohydrates, or fillers that reduce the overall protein content. It’s well known that when total protein content is high enough, other factors like the amino acid composition are less important and so it’s critical to make sure your protein supplement is actually high in protein!
3. It’s free-from anti-nutrients and allergens.
While not the bogeyman that some say, anti-nutrients (such as trypsin inhibitors, saponins, and phytic acid) can reduce protein digestion and absorption and promote gastric upset for some people. So, the ideal situation is to find a protein-free from these. Pea protein is also free from the common allergens of say, egg, and dairy, which many people do not tolerate well.
4. It has high digestion and absorption rates.
If you can’t digest and absorb protein, you can’t use it! While it’s often claimed that plant-based proteins are poorly absorbed, pea protein exhibits absorption rates of more than 89%.19
5. It’s high in muscle supporting branched-chain amino acids.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are critical to muscle growth and retention but there is no need to supplement with additional BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) if you are getting enough from your diet and from the naturally occurring BCAAs within a quality protein powder. The gold-standard of plant-based protein, pea protein isolate, contains nearly 4 g of BCAAs per 25 g serving.
6. It’s functionally complete.
Because we eat a mixed diet, we don’t always need to eat complete proteins. We will, in general, get enough of what we require over a day or days. The most important thing is to get enough protein overall, and enough of the essential amino acids (EEAs) and BCAAs. However, to ensure the best nutrient support, you should choose a protein that is complete (contains all 9 essential amino acids) to cover your bases and ensure that you’re getting the amino acids you need.
7. It’s sustainable.
Dairy farming, which provides most of the commonly available protein supplements, as currently practiced (especially with factory-farmed, grain-fed cattle) is less ecologically sustainable than plant-based food production.21
So, pea protein is the perfect addition to a vegetarian diet!
Craig WJ, Mangels AR. Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109(7):1266-82.
Young VR, Pellett PL. Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1994;59(5):1203S-12S.
University of Otago and Ministry of Health. A Focus on Nutrition: Key findings of the 2008/09 New Zealand Adult Nutrition Survey. Wellington; 2011.
Moshfegh A, Goldman J, Cleveland L. What we eat in America, NHANES 2001-2002: usual nutrient intakes from food compared to dietary reference intakes. US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. 2005;9.
Fulgoni VL. Current protein intake in America: analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2003–2004. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2008;87(5):1554S-7S.
Altorf – van der Kuil W, Engberink MF, Brink EJ, van Baak MA, Bakker SJL, Navis G, et al. Dietary Protein and Blood Pressure: A Systematic Review. PloS one. 2010;5(8):e12102.
Santesso N, Akl EA, Bianchi M, Mente A, Mustafa R, Heels-Ansdell D, et al. Effects of higher- versus lower-protein diets on health outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2012;66(7):780-8.
Cawood AL, Elia M, Stratton RJ. Systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of high protein oral nutritional supplements. Ageing Research Reviews. 2012;11(2):278-96.
Pasiakos SM, McLellan TM, Lieberman HR. The Effects of Protein Supplements on Muscle Mass, Strength, and Aerobic and Anaerobic Power in Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review. Sports Medicine. 2015;45(1):111-31.
Genaro PdS, Martini LA. Effect of protein intake on bone and muscle mass in the elderly. Nutrition reviews. 2010;68(10):616-23.
Kim JE, O’Connor LE, Sands LP, Slebodnik MB, Campbell WW. Effects of dietary protein intake on body composition changes after weight loss in older adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrition reviews. 2016;74(3):210-24.
Kim JE, Sands L, Slebodnik M, O’Connor L, Campbell W. Effects of high-protein weight loss diets on fat-free mass changes in older adults: a systematic review (371.5). The FASEB Journal. 2014;28(1 Supplement).
Hannan MT, Tucker KL, Dawson-Hughes B, Cupples LA, Felson DT, Kiel DP. Effect of dietary protein on bone loss in elderly men and women: the Framingham Osteoporosis Study. Journal Of Bone And Mineral Research: The Official Journal Of The American Society For Bone And Mineral Research. 2000;15(12):2504-12.
Bell J, Whiting SJ. Elderly women need dietary protein to maintain bone mass. Nutrition reviews. 2002;60(10 Pt 1):337-41.
Lesourd BM, Mazari L. Immune responses during recovery from protein-energy malnutrition. Clinical Nutrition. 1997;16, Supplement 1:37-46.
Helms ER, Zinn C, Rowlands DS, Brown SR. A Systematic Review of Dietary Protein during Caloric Restriction in Resistance Trained Lean Athletes: A Case for Higher Intakes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2014;24(2):127-38.
Pasiakos SM, Lieberman HR, McLellan TM. Effects of Protein Supplements on Muscle Damage, Soreness and Recovery of Muscle Function and Physical Performance: A Systematic Review. Sports Medicine. 2014;44(5):655-70.
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Gausserès N, Mahe S, Benamouzig R, Luengo C, Ferriere F, Rautureau J, et al. [15N]-labeled pea flour protein nitrogen exhibits good ileal digestibility and postprandial retention in humans. The Journal of nutrition. 1997;127(6):1160-5.
Babault N, Païzis C, Deley G, Guérin-Deremaux L, Saniez M-H, Lefranc-Millot C, et al. Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. Whey protein. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2015;12(1):3.
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