One of the major concerns vegetarian bodybuilders and athletes face is getting enough protein in their diet. After all, traditionally in Western societies meat and dairy have been the primary source of protein.
This can be problematic if you like to train hard in the gym or on the field and you need a fair amount of protein to repair damaged muscle cells. And if you’re into bodybuilding specifically, you also need protein in order to bulk up or build lean muscle.
Vegetarians need not succumb to eating dairy or other animal-based sources just to get their daily protein needs. Armed with the right knowledge, plant-based proteins can work just as good as meat and dairy every did for you.
In fact, even better when you consider all of the health advantages that come along with it.
Protein powder can be a great ally in this journey bodybuilding and athleticism. We wanted to make things easier for you and break down the best vegetarian protein powders.
1. Soy Protein
This is widely considered as among the highest quality of all plant-based proteins. Soy itself is rich in nutrients. It’s 38% protein and 30% carbohydrates, and it also contains other minerals and vitamins. Soy protein contains the complete essential amino acids. These are all in the right ratios that help with normal growth and development.
Pros: Soy proteins are especially high in glutamine and arginine. These are important amino acids for those who wish to build muscles and increase their testosterone levels naturally. Arginine stimulates the action of the anabolic hormones that promote lean muscle building. Glutamine plays a major role in controlling the negative effects of metabolic stress.
Cons: Soy proteins are also known to have estrogenic effects in the body. If you consume too much, it may lead to high estrogen levels and lower testosterone levels. It is quite difficult to find organic soy products.
2. Pea Protein
This plant-based protein has an excellent amino acid profile. It also contains a good amount of BCAAs (branched chain amino acids) that supports muscle building. These BCAAs are known for their ability to control the amount of muscle breakdown that happens after high-intensity exercises. It also has numerous other benefits such as weight loss and better heart health.
Pros: Pea protein is a hypoallergenic plant-based protein source. It does not create gluten issues like wheat proteins. This is easy on the digestive system. It does not cause any bloating. This is a common side effect from a lot of other plant-based proteins.
This protein may also be an effective way to control appetite. It has numerous peptides that delay the release of ghrelin, a hunger-inducing hormone.
Cons: Pea protein also contains non-essential amino acids, which the body can already produce on its own. Some conditional amino acids are also not found in pea protein. This protein powder has to be mixed with other vegetable protein powders because it is not a complete protein.
3. Sunflower Protein
This is obtained from sunflower seeds. This is especially helpful for improving digestion. It helps with muscle building and repair, and it has antioxidant capacities. Sunflower protein powder is high in fiber and contains no gluten.
Pros: This protein powder is good for people who suffer from nut allergies. Sunflower protein powder tastes good when blended with other vegan products such as banana, mixed berries, rice milk, and oats. The amount of protein is almost comparable to rich non-vegan sources like chicken and beef.
Cons: Sunflower does not have much omega-3, but high in omega-6. This may not suit well when trying to create a healthy ratio between these two essential fatty acids. More omega-6 than omega-3 may cause some health problems.
4. Hemp Protein
Hemp protein powder comes from cold-pressed, then milled hemp seeds. These seeds are rich in healthy oils, especially a good balance of omega-3 and omega-6. It also has all the essential amino acids the body needs.
It provides a good amount of BCAAs such as valine, isoleucine, and leucine. These BCAAs are metabolized within the muscle tissues, resulting in increased endurance, more muscle gains, improved recovery and reduced inflammation and muscle soreness.
Pros: This protein has a nutty flavor. It combines well with almond or coconut milk. Flavor is also good when fruits like bananas are added to it. The proteins are easily digestible, which means that you would not have to deal with side effects like bloating and gas.
Cons: This protein source is a bit more expensive than other vegetarian protein powders.
5. Brown Rice Protein
This vegetarian protein powder contains a good profile of amino acids. It is also full of important B vitamins.
Pros: This is a cheaper option than other vegetable protein powders. It is easily digested and gluten-free.
Cons: Its amino acid profile may be complete, but amounts of lysine are lower compared to whey protein. This is not a complete protein powder, so it has to be mixed with other plant-based proteins. The taste may not also be very friendly.
6. Pumpkin Seed Protein
Of all the commonly eaten nuts and seeds, pumpkin seeds rank the highest in terms of protein content. A 28-gram serving (1 ounce) of pumpkin seeds contain 9 grams of protein. That’s about one-third of the serving size of high-quality plant protein. That amount is also 2 grams more than the protein content of ground beef on a per serving basis.
Pros: Pumpkin seed protein powder is also high in other nutrients. It is full of iron, magnesium, calcium and zinc. These are among the leading essential minerals vital for growth and health. Zinc is needed in protein formation. Iron is important in blood cell formation. Magnesium is important for normal muscle and nerve function. Calcium is essential for strong bones.
Cons: Pumpkin seeds are also high in calories. Consumption should be controlled to avoid getting too many calories to prevent weight gain.
7. Quinoa Protein
This protein powder is an excellent one to add to your diet. Quinoa protein powder contains the essential amino acids. It has an unusual yet excellent, high ratio of proteins to carbohydrates. This makes it a good food to help you feel full longer.
Quinoa is also rich in plant sterols. These are anabolic agents that support lean muscle building and better hormonal balance.
Pros: Quinoa protein is good for people who need or want a gluten-free plant-derived protein. People with wheat allergy may enjoy this protein powder instead. It is also a good choice for those wanting to cut back on calorie intake since it is low in calories.
Cons: The saponins in quinoa may cause some toxicity for sensitive individuals. Check that the quinoa protein powder has been pre-washed, which removes a lot of saponins and most of the bitter taste.
8. Oat-Based Protein
Oat-based proteins are also rich in natural steroids, aside from an impressive roster of other proteins and nutrients.
Pros: This protein source is rich in beta glucans. These compounds help reduce cholesterol levels. Oats are also rich in the minerals selenium and manganese. These minerals are important, powerful antioxidants in the body.
Another good thing with oat-based proteins is its low glycemic index. This means it won’t cause blood glucose to shoot up rapidly and cause insulin problems.
Oat-based proteins are mainly avenins as the major storage protein. This is good news for those who want cereal-based proteins but have a gluten allergy. Oat-based proteins are non-gluten containing.
Cons: The same things mentioned above may also cause the problems that gluten triggers in sensitive individuals. This is not as common as from gluten, though.
9. Nut-Based Protein
These are among the most popular plant-based protein sources. Aside from the excellent amino acid profile, nut-based proteins are also rich in compounds that increase NO (nitric oxide) levels and activity in the body. NO helps in dilating the blood vessels.
This action promotes lower blood pressure and improved blood flow to the tissues. There is also an excellent profile of nutrients such as selenium, magnesium, and zinc. Nuts are also high in fiber that helps curb appetite and make you feel full for longer periods of time. The fats are also good for health and in reducing inflammation. There is a long list of other health benefits from nuts, making these an excellent source of plant proteins.
Pros: Nuts have excellent flavor and are ideal portable snacks. Almond protein powders and other nut-based ones have more pleasant tastes and less of the bitterness common in proteins such as pea powders.
Cons: Nuts are also high in calories so make sure to limit consumption.
How to Get Complete Proteins
As you can see, you have plenty of options for plant-based protein. However, what we recommend is a nut-based protein. If you want to make your own protein powder, you can grind the nuts in a blender (we recommend this) and make a shake quite easily.
Nuts are pretty good for boosting testosterone levels, and some varieties of nuts, such as Brazil nuts, have selenium which boosts hormone production and has positive effects on male fertility.
To ensure getting complete proteins in your diet always opt for multiple sources* of protein-packed foods. Here’s my recommended recipe for a DIY vegetarian protein powder:
*For maximum nutritional content always use organic foods and ingredients.
**Unless you train for competitions, you probably don’t need supplements if you’re eating a buffet of quality whole foods. Here’s an excellent article on what to look for in bodybuilding supplements.
Also, we have a great article that reviews the best plant-based protein powders on the market if you aren’t interested in making your own.
Alex Eriksson is the founder of Anabolic Health, a men’s health blog dedicated to providing honest and research backed advice for optimal male hormonal health. Anabolic Health aspires to become a trusted resource where men can come and learn how to fix their hormonal problems naturally, without pharmaceuticals. Check out anabolichealth.com to learn more about Alex and his work.