Should you shake up your diet with this plant protein? A sports dietitian gives us the scoop.
As a runner, chances are you’re concerned about getting enough protein—and that’s a good thing, since it is a vital macronutrient for muscle building and recovery, not to mention maintaining strong bones and connective tissues.
As the popularity of plant-based eating continues to rise, protein sources from the plant kingdom have flooded the food market. From hemp to soy to rice, there are almost too many to keep track of for protein-hungry athletes.
There’s one source of vegan protein, however, that seems to have taken the lion’s share of popularity: pea protein. Sure enough, it’s making its way inside a ton of products including protein powders, dairy-free milks, ice cream and yoghurt, cheese puffs, energy bars, crackers, and veggie burgers as companies look to ramp up protein numbers to meet consumer demand for the macronutrient.
If you’re curious about this pea protein benefits and why it’s showing up everywhere, we’ve put together everything you need to know. Read on to learn more about pea protein and if you should blend more of it in your diet for a performance and health edge.
What is pea protein, exactly?
A bag of frozen green peas contains a surprising amount of protein, but it is even higher in split yellow peas, which is the core ingredient most often used to make pea protein powder. A 1-cup serving of cooked split peas delivers about 16 grams of plant-based protein.
The dried peas are ground into flour after which it is further processed so the protein can be separated from the starches. Isolates go through an additional filtration step, creating a product with roughly 90 percent of protein by weight, meaning fewer carbs. Depending on the brand, a pea protein powder can have 15 to 25 grams of protein in a serving. Companies have worked out ways to make sure it has a fairly neutral flavour profile and less grittiness. That makes pea protein an attractive choice for companies that want to hike up the protein levels in their products without imparting an earthy or bitter flavour or greatly impacting texture. Protein shakes made from pea protein are no longer like drinking sludge.
What are the pros and cons of pea protein?
Yes, you can build bigger, stronger muscles with pea protein. A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed a significantly great effect on muscle thickness in those who consumed pea protein vs. whey protein or a placebo. (There were no notable differences in strength and muscle size between the pea and whey groups.)
Another investigation discovered that people who consumed the same amount of whey or pea protein during a two-month high-intensity training program benefited equally concerning improvements in body composition, muscle thickness and strength, and overall performance.
According to Marni Sumbal, M.S., R.D., author of Essential Sports Nutrition, these outcomes make sense when you consider that tests show pea protein has high essential amino acid content as a percentage of its total protein. In contrast to non-essential amino acids that can be produced within the body, essential amino acids are the ones you must get from your diet daily. FYI, amino acids are the building blocks of muscle protein, cells and connective tissues.
“This includes significant amounts of leucine, an essential amino acid that plays a critical role in repairing and building lean body mass,” Sumbal tells Runner’s World.
A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition discovered that pea protein isolate has a digestible indispensable amino acid score (DIAAS), a method of determining protein quality based on the number of amino acids that are absorbed by the body and contribute to protein needs, which is nearly as high as milk-derived casein protein. This means it can certainly help meet the amino acid requirements of active athletes.
One concern is that it’s not quite a complete protein, since Sumbal says that it is low in the amino acids methionine and cysteine. But she stresses that assuming you eat a varied diet with other foods that provide these amino acids (such as chicken, turkey, yoghurt, cheese, eggs, sunflower seeds, and legumes), it is not necessary to consume complete proteins at each meal. Sumbal also points out that many protein powder brands will blend pea protein with other plant-based options, like brown rice, to create a complete protein with an optimal amino acid profile.
We still need to see what impact consuming pea protein could have on muscle repair, muscle-building, and performance metrics in endurance athletes, since most of the research out there has studied its impact on resistance training. But since runners typically have higher protein requirements than sedentary individuals, pea protein can help meet daily needs.
Just keep in mind that pea protein does not provide the levels of fibre, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that you would get from whole peas, according to Sumbal. However, pea protein powders you buy often do contain iron—up to 30 percent of the daily value of this important mineral for oxygen delivery in the body. It’s a form of iron that is less absorbable than that found in animal products, but Sumbal says this can be improved by consuming pea protein with vitamin C-rich foods, like berries, in a smoothie.
Sumbal does caution, however, that if you are getting a high amount of your protein from this source, it could be a tip-off that you are eating too many processed packaged foods that may also be high in added sugars, sodium, and unhealthy fats. “Despite the benefits of pea protein, it’s still recommended to prioritise whole foods in your diet.”
She also recommends checking your nutrition labels carefully, as you’ll want to choose a protein powder brand with the least amount of unnecessary fillers, added sugars, artificial sweeteners, or artificial flavours. Her recommendation is to use products that add ingredients like raw cacao, natural flavours, or dried fruit to enhance the flavour profile. “Ideally, the protein powder that works best for your body will taste good and will be easy to digest without discomfort such as gas and bloating.”
How can you incorporate pea protein into your diet?
If you’re going more plant-based and concerned about your protein intake to support training needs, you can look for the types of packaged foods you normally consume that are beefed up with pea protein. Pea-based milk can have up to 8 grams of protein per 1-cup serving (compared to 1 gram of protein in almond milk), while an energy bar made with pea protein can have more than 10 grams of protein. You can even try using brands of oatmeal that include pea protein to add a little more of this macro to your daybreak meal.
Pea protein powder, which is now available in most supplement aisles, is versatile enough that it can be used to boost protein numbers in more than your postrun smoothies. Stir it into oatmeal or yoghurt or use it to replace some of the flour in pancake and muffin recipes. Plain flavoured versions can also be blended into dips.
The bottom line
Pea protein powder is a high-quality protein that is an easy and effective way to boost your protein intake. Just remember that you should ideally consume protein-enriched packaged foods and protein powders as a small part of a whole-foods based balanced diet. Think of it as a little extra boost to your day.