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If you follow a vegan diet, you might be worried about getting enough protein. Plant-based protein sources are plentiful, but the protein from those foods isn't always easy for the body to absorb. Protein powder is an easy way to boost protein intake, but it can be tricky to find one that doesn't come from animal products and actually tastes good. We did the research to bring you the best vegan protein powders.
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Protein needs depend on your weight, and you need more if you're active.
"Protein plays a big role in muscle repair and growth, and many of my clients are looking to become more lean and maximize their efforts at the gym," says Lisa Hayim, R.D., registered dietitian and wellness blogger at TheWellNecessities.com.
Adults need at least 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (0.36 grams per pound of body weight) per day. Many dietitians recommend a little more, though, and certain people need more, like athletes and pregnant women.
Melissa Groves, R.D.N, owner of Avocado Grove Nutrition & Wellness recommends 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight. "I consider this a minimum and tell people to aim for 25 to 30 grams at meals and 10 grams for snacks," she says. Work with a dietitian to determine your specific needs.
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Most Americans don't have trouble getting enough protein, but vegans might be under the recommendation since they don't consume major protein sources like meat, eggs, dairy or any animal products. Plant proteins are not absorbed as well as animal proteins, so vegans might need even more protein for this reason. Plant proteins also are often incomplete proteins, meaning they don't contain all the essential amino acids. If you eat a well-balanced vegan diet with a variety of foods and proteins, you shouldn't need to worry about missing out on any of the essential amino acids.
"I find that many of my clients are not getting enough protein in the morning, especially if they are vegan," Groves says. "Having a breakfast that contains at least 20 grams of protein is the key to setting up your day for steady blood sugar and to prevent carb cravings later in the day. Adding protein powder to a smoothie is a great way to get in high-quality protein along with fruits and veggies."
Be strategic about how and when you eat your protein, too, Hayim adds. "Protein pairs really well with carbohydrates to lower the glycemic index, which means that it can control for blood sugar spikes and crashes," she says.
Protein also helps keep you full, especially when paired with a high-fiber carbohydrate. "I recommend adding protein powder to boost the protein content of other foods," Groves says. "For example, a scoop or two of protein powder or peanut butter powder added to pancakes or muffins adds an easy protein boost to keep your blood sugar stable, and it blends well into energy balls as well."
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This may seem obvious, but make sure the product you choose is plant-based. Whey protein is not vegan because it comes from dairy. Plant-based proteins include hemp, pea, soy, rice or nut- and seed-based proteins.
Hayim says, "You want to look for two or more sources of protein to make it a complete protein and get all the amino acids."
Soy is the exception for plant proteins because it's a complete protein on its own. If your protein powder has only one source of plant protein, don't worry too much. You can get the rest of your essential amino acids by eating a variety of proteins throughout the day.
Groves recommends looking for a protein powder that is just protein, with no added ingredients, plus has around 20 grams of protein per serving and no added sugars.
"I also recommend people watch for sugar alcohols (anything that ends with -ol, like xylitol and erythritol) as these can wreak havoc on your digestive system," she says. "If you must have a sweetened protein powder, look for one with stevia. I also recommend anyone with digestive issues like bloating, gas or IBS avoid products containing inulin—often labeled as chicory or acacia—as this is a high-FODMAP ingredient that can cause digestive issues."
Photo courtesy of Jarrow Formulas
Calories per serving: 60
Pros: Protein is the only ingredient; no sugar.
Cons: Some reviewers report a nutty flavor and since it's unsweetened it can taste strong.
Calories per serving: 120
Pros: Protein is the only ingredient; no added sugar.
Cons: This is not a complete protein. Pair with other protein sources to get all of your essential amino acids.
Calories per serving: 37
Pros: Protein is the only ingredient; no sugar.
Cons: This powder has zero grams of fiber and is not a complete protein. Pair with other protein sources to get all of your essential amino acids.
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Calories per serving: 100
Pros: Registered dietitian Keri Glassman helped develop this protein powder, and Hayim approves because of the delicious taste and no added sugars.
Cons: There aren't many cons here; it contains stevia and monk fruit extract, which give it a sweet taste without added sugar.
Photo courtesy of Aloha
Calories per serving: 140
Pros: This powder is available in natural flavors like vanilla bean and cinnamon without too many added sugars.
Cons: The added fibers might cause digestive issues for some people.
Photo courtesy of Orgain
Calories per serving: 150
*Contains 5g of erythritol, a sugar alcohol
Pros: This powder is high-protein, organic and comes in a variety of flavors.
Cons: The sugar alcohols and added fibers may cause digestive issues for some people.
Calories per serving: 170
Pros: It's high-protein and organic, comes in eight flavors and contains probiotics.
Cons: There aren't many cons here. It contains some added fibers, which could cause digestive issues for some people.
Calories per serving: 120
Pros: This contains whole-food ingredients and probiotics; it's also high in protein and low in sugar.
Cons: Not many cons here.
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Vegan protein powders are tastier and healthier than ever, but if protein powder isn't for you, you can boost protein by eating a variety of high-protein plant-based foods.
"Beans, nuts, seeds and soyfoods, such as edamame and tofu, can all contribute to overall protein intake throughout the day," Groves says.
Whole grains like quinoa and oatmeal also have protein.
Hayim recommends "adding things like chia or flaxseed into a smoothie, snacking on things like edamame or roasted beans, and using organic silken tofu in dressings and dips."
Allison Knott, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.S.D., a certified sports dietitian based in New York City, echoes these recommendations.
"Soybeans, peas, chickpeas and lentils are some of the most commonly found legumes and, when cooked, make for a creamy protein boost to smoothies," she says. "They're also good to add to stir-fry recipes or as a blended thickener in soups and sauces. Other vegan protein options like seitan, tempeh and tofu can be used as a simple meat substitute and make for an excellent source of protein."
Whether you choose protein powder, whole foods or a combination of both, aim to eat protein at every meal to stay full; nourish your hair, skin and nails; keep blood sugar stable; and help maintain a healthy weight.