By Dr. Josh Axe
A completely vegan/plant-based diet is one that eliminates all animal-derived foods, which are also the highest protein foods — including all meat, fish, dairy and eggs. This can make it difficult to get enough protein overall from whole foods alone when on a vegan diet, although it’s possible with some careful planning.
Why should vegans use protein powder? Vegan protein powders can be great for those seeking a clean, plant-based energy source. Depending on the type, they can offer benefits such as providing a dense and convenient source of protein that can help with building muscle and supporting a healthy body composition and metabolism.
The best plant-based protein powders — such as those made with super seeds including sunflower, pumpkin, flax and hemp — are made from real foods and contain little additives or sweeteners, making them easier to digest and less likely to cause side effects such as gas and indigestion.
Below we’ll look closer at different types of popular plant-based protein products, and give you tips for deciding which is best for you.
Should Vegans Use Protein Powder?
Vegan protein powders come in handy for plant-based eaters because they make it easier to obtain the amino acids (the so-called “building blocks of protein”) that the body requires for general health. These protein powders are often made from seeds, grains and legumes via a process of isolating protein and removing most of the food’s fats and carbs.
Why are plant proteins beneficial? We all need a certain amount of “essential” amino acids/protein every day to facilitate functions such as building and repairing tissues, making enzymes and hormones, and keeping our bones, muscles, cartilage and skin healthy.
Can you build muscle with vegan protein powder? Yes, you can, assuming you also consume an overall healthy diet and stay physically active in a way that helps you build or maintain muscle mass. For example, combining a strength-training program with a healthy vegan diet that is supplemented with plant-based protein powder is a great way to work towards building more strength.
Something else that makes vegan protein powders attractive for those who avoid meat and other animal products is how easy they are to use. It’s as simple as adding a scoop to a smoothie or shake (such as before or after a workout), baking with your favorite flavor, or even stirring it into some hot or iced coffee, milk or plain water.
Best Vegan Protein Powders
Which plant based protein powder is best? This really depends on your goals, how well you tolerate different plant-derived ingredients, and your taste preferences. Of course, you should always consult with your healthcare professional prior to starting any new diet or lifestyle regimen.
Ideally, look for organic plant-based protein powder whenever possible, and check the ingredients label to avoid additives and thickeners like maltodextrin, xanthan gum or artificial sweeteners.
Here are some of the best plant-based protein powders you can choose from:
1. Seed-based protein
Ancient Nutrition’s Plant Protein+ powders are made with a unique blend of seven superseeds that are high in protein, as well as other essential nutrients. One serving provides 15 grams of protein and zero sugar, with 4 grams of carbs, making it suitable for people following a plant-based, paleo or low-carb diet.
Unlike many other vegan protein powder options on the market, these formulas are made without soy, pea protein or grains, making them a great choice for people looking to avoid those common allergens some people are sensitive to. You can choose from flavors including Plant Protein+ Vanilla, Chocolate or Berry, which taste great in recipes like smoothies, pancakes and muffins.
Plant Protein+ can help promote a healthy body composition and fat metabolism, while increasing muscle recovery. And because it also features ancient botanicals and adaptogens for additional mind-body support, it can help reduce stress-induced food cravings, promote a positive mindset, and support athletic performance, strength and neuro-muscular coordination.
Here are some of the highlights of the seven seeds used in this powerful vegan protein powder blend:
- Pumpkin seeds — high in protein plus healthy fats, antioxidants, magnesium, iron and zinc.
- Flax — loaded with omega-3 fats, plant lignans, fiber, B vitamins and copper.
- Hemp — has a complete amino acid profile, plus provides fiber, omega-3s and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA).
- Chia — great source of healthy fats, manganese, phosphorus, copper, selenium, iron, magnesium and calcium.
- Sunflower — high in vitamin E, folate, phosphorus, selenium and manganese.
- Watermelon — high in omega 3s and 6s, plus copper, manganese, potassium and magnesium.
- Sacha inchi — contains vitamin E, iron, calcium and healthy omega-3s, 9s and 6s.
Similarly, we also produce a plant protein formula for the ketogenic diet called Keto Plant Protein.
2. Pea protein
Pea protein powder, made from dried yellow split peas, is considered a complete protein because it contains all essential amino acids, plus it’s particularly high in branched chain amino acids.
It offers benefits such as helping to increase muscle thickness when paired with resistance training, supporting muscle recovery, and potentially helping with satiety and healthy weight management.
This protein powder can be a good addition to a healthy, low-calorie diet intended to promote healthy fat metabolism because it’s also high in fiber, which can slow digestion and modify levels of certain hunger hormones to promote fullness.
At the same time, two issues that some users have with pea protein is its taste profile and it may be more difficult to digest than seed-based plant protein powders.
3. Hemp protein
Hemp protein powder (derived from the Cannabis sativa plant, also known as hemp) is unique in that it not only provides protein, but also a hearty serving of fiber and healthy fats. This combination can help to optimize digestive health and support healthy blood sugar already in the normal range.
Hemp’s heart-healthy plant lignans and omega-3 fatty acids are also beneficial for supporting a healthy immune system, healthy cognitive function, and more.
4. Brown rice protein
Derived from brown rice, this vegan protein powder is a good source of certain amino acids, as well as vitamins and minerals such as iron and calcium. Adding it to your routine may help support a healthy body composition and exercise performance, plus it can help to control hunger and cravings due to its supply of protein and fiber.
Another potential benefit of brown rice protein powder’s fiber is that it can promote healthy cholesterol levels and support healthy blood sugar levels already in the normal range, making it a good choice for those looking to support general metabolic health.
However, one reason to generally limit your consumption is due to concerns over contaminants.
5. Quinoa protein
Quinoa protein is usually used in vegan protein blends (or “mixed plant protein powders” that contain ingredients such as pea protein, sunflower and pumpkin seeds), rather than on its own. It’s made from quinoa, which is actually a seed rather than a grain. Quinoa is a good source of nine essential amino acids, as well as iron and copper, plus it provides some fiber, too.
Potential benefits of quinoa protein powder can include helping to promote muscle strength, helping to maintain healthy blood sugar levels already in the normal range, and promoting fullness.
Related: What Are the Best Vegan Supplements?
Is vegan protein powder ever bad for you? This really depends on the specific type and what ingredients it’s made with, plus how well you’re able to digest it.
Can you build muscle with plant-based protein powder the same way you can with whey protein? You can, but plant proteins are often more slowly digested than other types of protein powders, including whey, due to their high fiber content, which potentially can change how rapidly they work.
Whey protein may be slightly more effective at promoting fast muscle repair and recovery immediately following exercise; however, all protein sources can ultimately help when it comes to fueling muscles. For most active adults, whey and plant proteins can be used interchangeably pre- or post-workout with a meal or as a supplement.
Does vegan protein powder give you gas? If you find that it does, check exactly what type you’re consuming; you may want to avoid having soy protein powder, or powders containing peas or grains, which can sometimes be more difficult to digest than seeds.
Another potential reason to skip soy protein is that it is among some of the common allergens that people want to avoid. It can cause some to experience bloating and other effects, although this isn’t always the case, plus it’s likely to be genetically modified, or GM.
If you’re using vegan protein powders to simply increase your protein intake or enhance muscle recovery and performance, stick to one serving per day or follow label directions for use.
Top 10 Plant Protein Foods
In addition to selecting plant protein powder for extra protein, here are the best plant foods with plenty of protein:
- nutritional yeast
- pumpkin seeds
- hemp seeds
- black beans
- Why is plant-based protein powder good for you? Vegan protein powder formulations can have benefits including offering support for: a healthy body composition, fat metabolism, increased muscle recovery, sexual function, a positive mindset, control of food cravings, and more.
- How can you spot the best vegan protein powders? We recommend looking for one made from real food sources (such as superseeds including pumpkin, flax, chia, hemp, sunflower, sacha inchi and watermelon) that contains little sugar and no fillers.
- Does plant based protein powder give you gas? If so, opt for one made with seeds rather than soy, peas or grains, which may be harder for some to digest.
Dr. Josh Axe, DC, DNM, CNS, is a doctor of chiropractic, doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist and author with a passion to help people get well using food and nutrition. He operates leading natural health website DrAxe.com and is co-founder of Ancient Nutrition, a health supplement company. He’s also author of the books Eat Dirt, Essential Oils: Ancient Medicine, Keto Diet and Collagen Diet.