Protein Options For Those On A Plant-Based Diet

Thursday, June 3, 2021, in Nutrition, Advice by

Plant-based proteins such as pea protein and even hemp protein have joined whey as options for building muscle. Gabrielle Maston explains which is best for you.

What was once an exclusive shelf for body builders has become infiltrated by seemingly healthier protein powder sources for weight loss and general health. You can now buy protein powder derived from a range of food types and choosing which one you need can be very confusing! Needless to say, there has been a huge market shift and trend within the food industry regarding the use of terms such as natural, raw and wholefood used on packaging to lure in trendy shoppers who have a new interest in health and wellbeing.It’s no surprise then, that seemingly “healthy”processed protein powders are all the rage. Protein powders are, by definition, processed foods. 

They’re made from protein derived sources such as peas, hemp, soy or milk. There is an extraction process that removes the protein molecules from the whole food product. Techniques like enzyme treatment, heating and drying are used to create these products. During this process some of the nutrients found in the original whole food are lost.Trendy labelling doesn’t make these new protein sources healthier or better for you.They’re simply alternative sources of protein that niche groups might find useful. 

For Example, those who are vegan, vegetarian, require lactose free products or have digestion problems.For most fitness fanatics, protein powders are not a necessary part of their diet or necessary for their training. They don't provide any added benefit over naturally rich-in-protein foods such as eggs, milk, yoghurt, chicken, fish, meat, pork and vegetarian alternatives like legumes and beans.In fact, natural wholefood sources of protein will provide you with a range of essential minerals and vitamins such as B12, zinc, iron, iodine and omega 3, which a protein powder will not. 

Always prioritise eating real food first, rather than drinking processed supplements.For a select group of athletes, protein powders can be beneficial to their training and muscle development. These include athletes who:

◗Naturally have speedy metabolisms and find it hard to keep weight on

◗Have repeated heavy training loads

◗Maintain a vegan or vegetarian diet

◗Need a convenient and portable snack when food is not available

◗Need to drop weight quickly and use it as a meal replacement.

If you fit any of the above criteria, you may consider using protein powders in addition to following a protein rich diet.


There’s a number of factors you need to consider before choosing the right protein powder. Protein is made up of 20 amino acids, which are responsible for building and repairing muscle. Branched chain amino acids (BCAA) are nine essential amino acids that the body can only get from food; the remaining can be produced by your body. 

Vegetarian sources of protein are not always complete proteins like animal products are. Another consideration is how well proteins are absorbed and used, depending on which type of food they come from. The term bioavailability is used to measure how well the body uses the protein consumed in the diet.

A higher bioavailability is better because it means there is a higher amount of essentialBCAA to promote muscle growth and repair.Animal-based sources of protein typically have a higher biological value than plant-based sources.Cost and suitability may be another factor you may consider when deciding which protein powder is best for you. It Might be trendy to use hemp protein, but if it's unaffordable to maintain long term you might consider a cheaper alternative.

Ultimately, one protein powder is not better than the other, as it depends on how and why you want to use them and your individual needs. Use the table to find out which one is best for you.

HEMP - Hemp protein is fairly new on the market and the research into its effectiveness is scarce. The protein is derived from the hemp seed and does not contain any hallucinogenic properties. It’s considered a complete protein containing a similar amino acid profile to soy protein, however with higher levels of arginine. Hemp protein is not a pure source of protein typically containing fibre, fats and carbohydrates. It has a lower quantity of protein, resulting in only 11g of protein per 25g scoop. This is much lower than other sources of protein.  Hemp protein is suitable for vegan and vegetarian athletes and those with lactose intolerance.

Bioavailability - Unknown 

Avg cost per 100g - $5.99

PEA - Pea protein is made from yellow split peas. It has all the BCAAs required for muscle growth. It’s lower in the amino acids methionine than whey protein, but has higher amounts of glutamine and arginine than whey protein. This product tends to have a chalky taste and isn’t easily mixed into liquid. It’s suitable for vegan and vegetarian athletes as well as those who are lactose intolerant. Pea protein isn’t suitable for athletes with irritable bowel syndrome following a low FODMAP diet. It’s best used in a combination with other plant-based proteins such as hemp and soy, or making a protein shake with soy milk.

Bioavailability - 65 

Avg cost per 100g - $2.50

SOY ISOLATE - This protein is the only complete plant-based protein. It contains all 20 amino acids, but the leucine levels are much lower compared to cow's milk-derived protein sources. It is a suitable option for vegan and vegetarian athletes. One 25g scoop of soy protein will give you 23g of protein. It’s also great for athletes who are allergic to dairy proteins and lactose. If you are allergic to soy, this product is not suitable for you.

Bioavailability - 74 

Avg cost per 100g - $1.90

CASEIN - This is a slow release protein derived from cows milk. It’s a complete protein containing all 20 amino acids. Cows milk is made from a combination of both casein and whey protein. Casein is used typically as a night–time supplement, but is also useful pre training for slow release of protein throughout your workout. Best taken added with milk to get both a whey, carbohydrate and casein mix for optimal recovery and muscle growth.

Bioavailability - 77 

Avg cost per 100g - $5.55

WHEY - A fast-release protein made from cow's milk. It, like casein, is also a complete protein. This is the most popular protein powder. It can be used pre and post training. It has the highest amount of amino acid leucine, which is the signalling protein for muscle repair and growth. Only 25g of whey protein gives you 17g of pure protein and the needed 2.5g of leucine required to start muscle protein synthesis. Best taken added with milk to get both whey, carbohydrate (lactose) and casein mix for optimal recovery and muscle growth. Whey protein concentrate is the cheapest form of whey protein because it’s not pure whey. Products that list whey concentrate as their main ingredient can contain as little as 25% protein to higher amounts at 89%. It’s a cheaper quality product. This type of product can contain lactose, fat, minerals and moisture. Whey protein isolate typically contains 90-95% protein, it’s considered the purest form of whey protein. It contains little to no lactose or fat. Great for those who are lactose intolerant. Whey protein hydrolysate is a protein that has undergone further processing, treated with a second round of enzymes to make it easier and faster to absorb. This is the type of protein used in baby formulas and in hospitals for people with digestion problems. 

Bioavailability - 104 

Avg cost per 100g - $3.99

At Fitness First we believe fitness is the first step to developing the energy and drive to be fearless and grab more from life – beyond the gym and your comfort zone. We want to celebrate this journey to the extraordinary, so we’ve created an online destination with all the tips, insights and know-how to help you get there. Click, share, enjoy!

What do you think?

Visit us for a free workout