No matter who you are, or what you eat, you need protein to feel your best. Protein is an essential macronutrient, meaning we must consume it daily for our bodies to run properly (or better yet, more optimally). While protein requirements vary depending on factors like age, weight, physical activity level, and health status, emerging research is finding that active people should consume 100 to 120 grams of protein per day. This means you’ll want to aim to eat at least 25 to 30 grams of high-quality protein1 in each meal. Of course, healthful and strategic snacks (including those incorporating vegan protein powders) can help bridge protein gaps, too. This is especially important as you get older and begin to lose muscle mass2.
Every time you eat protein, you’re investing in whole-body health, immune function, and especially muscle growth and maintenance. And since muscles are a prime site for glucose and fat metabolism, protein is also helpful for insulin sensitivity, metabolic health, and cellular energy. Plus, high-quality protein is very satiating3 and can be used to promote healthy weight management4 and healthy body composition5. (Learn more about how to use protein for healthy weight goals here.)*
The protein (i.e., the amino acid profile, or array) you’ll find in a plant is not the same as the protein you’ll find in an animal (think: poultry, beef, fish, eggs, dairy, etc). For starters, individual plant proteins (with the exception of soy) naturally do not contain all nine essential amino acids, many of which (especially the branched-chain amino acids, BCAAs) are critical for muscle growth and repair.
This means that plant proteins are technically, by definition, “incomplete” and must be combined with other protein sources to build something that starts to resemble animal protein, which is complete. This approach of combining complementary plant proteins (think: beans and rice) to achieve a more comprehensive amino acid profile is something that vegetarians and vegans are very familiar with and lean into daily.
One serving of plants is also typically lower in overall protein than a serving of meat. A serving of chicken (3.5 oz) has 32 grams of protein6, for example, while a serving of black beans has 24 grams7. Protein from plants is also less bioavailable than animal protein (e.g., whey).
This isn’t to say that we should all swap beans for meat. Plant-based diets have health (not to mention environmental) benefits of their own. And as the leading protein and amino acid researcher Don Layman, Ph.D., explains on his episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, it’s possible to be vegan and still get enough protein. It just takes more effort—and likely more calories, too.
That’s where vegan protein powders come in: They’re a more targeted way to help ensure you’re getting enough protein every day. Vegan protein powder is often made from peas, rice, hemp, or soy. More unique plants, like pumpkins, artichokes, and other legumes, seeds, or grains can be used to make protein powder as well.
Research shows that plant protein powders can build muscle and promote metabolic health8 just as well as animal-based powders can (when consumed in larger amounts9).*
The key is that they need to be well-formulated (with complementary plant protein combinations) to contain all nine essential amino acids—especially leucine, one of three essential BCAAs. Thanks to research we now know that leucine is what triggers mTOR, a key cellular signaling pathway that initiates muscle growth and speeds up recovery, and experts believe we should aim for at least 2.5 grams10 of the amino acid in each meal to support this important physiological process (and supplements can be an important part of obtaining this goal.)
For context, whey protein powder (from cows or goats) typically has about 8 to 10% leucine content. Soy is 7.8%, while hemp is 5.1%11. This means, Layman explains, that it would take 23 grams of whey protein to trigger muscle growth and 33 or 34 grams of soy. It can be trickier to find out how much leucine is in combination plant protein powders, as amino acid compositions are not always listed on labels. When possible, you’ll want to go with a protein powder that is transparent about its amino acid content. (We call out a few below.)
There are a few reasons to choose a vegan protein powder over an animal-based one, despite its less complete amino acid profile. The most obvious is if you follow a strictly plant-based diet. But some meat eaters might also want to weave more plants into their nutrition regimen and be easier on their personal carbon footprint12 too. Plant protein powders can also contain key nutrients from plant sources (e.g., dietary fiber, and omega-3 fatty acid ALA, to name a couple) that you won’t find in animal-based ones. Plant proteins are convenient to boot; add 1-2 scoops to a smoothie or shake and you’re well on your way to meeting your daily protein needs.
Of course, powders do not replace whole-food protein sources; they work together. And even the most complete protein powders can’t build muscle alone. You need to pair them with resistance exercises to see any change in body composition and strength.