In recent years, boxers David Haye and Mike Tyson, the Williams sisters, UFC fighters, cricketers and footballers have all reportedly “gone green”. Most famously, of course, did Popeye not develop huge biceps on a plant-based diet?
If you are thinking about making the change and worried about your protein intake, the good news is experts say with a little planning, plant-based protein can be just as effective to maintain an active lifestyle and repair and build muscle.
Can I get enough protein from a plant-based diet?
After speaking with several nutritionists, the general response was “yes, but…”. This was invariably followed by suggesting vegans should plan meals carefully.
“You need a variety of different plant-based sources to make sure you’re still getting all the essential amino acids”, says Bethan Hamilton, registered associate nutritionist and National Educator for Vega.
Dr Adam Collins, Director of MSc and BSc Nutrition at the University of Surrey, agrees: “In the UK people eat around 150pc of their protein requirement. You’re probably still meeting your requirements on a vegan diet in absolute terms. If you’re combining plant protein sources you could equally get a full complement of amino acids.”
“I think there’s a big misconception that a plant-based diet is devoid of protein,” says nutritional therapist Lily Soutter. “Make sure you are focusing on the good-quality protein sources, like tofu, tempeh, beans, lentils, chickpeas, quinoa, nuts and seeds. When you combine them it almost makes a jigsaw puzzle and can help to make a complete protein.”
This goes back to the debate on how complete a protein you’re consuming. The best vegan protein powders are composed of a variety of protein sources, from pea and rice to hemp and algae.
While vegan protein is proven to be very effective, its efficacy may not be quite as high as whey, which has “been shown to be more effective than vegan protein”, according to Roberts.
“Whey protein is a good promoter of building muscle, if that’s one of your aims,” says Dr Collins. “That’s not to say you can’t build muscle through a general intake of protein.” Dairy-free alternatives “take a bit more effort to release the protein, and they’re not going to give you a quick-release super-stimulus in the same way.”
With all this in mind, I set about trying some of the leading vegan proteins powders. They were all tested primarily for flavour, with nutritional information taken into account. I cannot vouch for their ability to leave you looking like Arnie – we’ll catch up in a few months’ time on that front.
All the powders (of course, they’re all suitable for vegetarians as well) were tested with milk substitutes or water, as per packet instructions. But as a useful tip, I preferred them all either sprinkled on cereal or in a fruit smoothie.