The Importance of Planning When Switching to Vegan Protein Sources
There are tons of reasons to switch to a vegan diet: dramatically reducing your environmentally footprint, lowering your risk of heart disease, packing more fibre into your diet.
But as with any lifestyle change, it can be a bit of a challenge, especially at the beginning. This is where the need to plan a strategy comes in, especially in regards to vegan protein consumption, according to a systematic review from Maastricht University released earlier this month.
If you’ve even slightly considered the switch you’ll likely be familiar with the whole plant versus animal protein debate. Those on the latter side of the fence might point to the fact that consuming plant-derived proteins, such as soy and wheat protein, tends to result in lower muscle protein synthesis – the process of building muscle mass – after a meal, when compared to ingesting the same amount of animal-based protein.
Plant-based proteins, in general, also have less of an anabolic effect than animal proteins due to their lower digestibility, a lower essential amino acid content — especially when it comes to all-important, leucine — and a deficiency in other essential amino acids like lysine (although it is worth noting that net muscle protein synthesis is not just about stimulating an anabolic response but also decreasing the catabolic).
But, there is quite a large caveat as laid out in the review: not all plant proteins are created equal, and there are ways to combat these weaknesses so you can get all the benefits of a vegan switch without losing gains.
“The easiest way to compensate for the lower protein quality of a plant-based versus animal-based protein source is to simply consume a greater amount of the lesser quality protein,” says the study. “In support, we observed that ingestion of 60g as opposed to 35g of a wheat protein hydrolysate effectively increased post-prandial muscle protein synthesis rates in a group of healthy older men.”
It’s worth noting here that while vegetables and plants are the lowest calorie-dense food group, just eating more might not be the most practical strategy.
“The lower protein density of most plant-based protein sources would greatly increase both the total caloric content and volume of the plant-based food that would need to be consumed. Simply consuming 20g protein in the form of a plant-based protein source is already challenging, both from a perspective of food volume as well as caloric content.”
However it is worth noting according to head of nutrition at Form, Dr Adam Collins, “that this is not to say the other components of plant based protein foods are not beneficial, like fibre and phytonutrients.”
Balance Your Amino Acids
An alternative strategy is to combine different vegan protein sources to provide a protein blend with a more balanced amino acid profile.
Some plant proteins, like corn and brown rice protein, are deficient in the essential amino acid lysine but high in another, methionine, while other sources like soy or pea protein are high in lysine, but lower in methionine.
While an overall deficiency could be compensated via the first strategy — eat more — and trying to stomach two to four times more of the same protein, smartly blending protein sources to compensate for particular amino acid deficiencies would require only 1.1–1.9 times more protein to be consumed according to the review.
The final point put forward is to fortify the plant-based protein source with the specific free amino acids that they are deficient in, especially leucine. A smart ploy that in part relies on much of the whole vegan food industry to fortify their foods; unlikely.
“I don’t like this idea as this is a minimalist approach to diet,” notes Dr Collins. “We should not compartmentalise to eating individual nutrients or individual amino acids, but a combination of nutrients and non-nutrients within whole foods and diets.”
This is where supplementation is important then. “Rather than fortifying, supplements can provide formulations that combine plant proteins in an ideal way,” says Collins. The protein in our Performance, Superblend and Peakblend powders is all sourced from various sources and each one contains a full amino acid profile, including 1.64g of leucine, well over half of the recommended daily intake of the nutrient. As with everything, the best strategy is to educate and inform yourself.