Build Muscle with Plant Protein

Posted by Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN on EatRealLiveWell

Now that we understand what plant based means, let’s talk about everyone’s next question: can I get enough protein without meat?!

“The main concern I hear from people about incorporating a plant based eating pattern (whether less or no animal product intake) is that they won’t get enough protein or be able build muscle. I’m here to tell you that is absolutely possible to build muscle with plant protein… even if you eat exclusively plants.

Make sure your animal alternatives actually contain protein

Some plant alternatives may have the texture of meat or look like an adequate replacement, but are very low in protein. Jackfruit, veggie burgers, and most non-dairy milk alternatives come to mind.

Jackfruit can replace pulled meats, such as pulled pork, but has virtually no protein, so you’ll want to include it in another way at that meal. Serving the jackfruit on protein rich whole grain rolls and pairing with vegetarian baked beans can do the trick!

Often veggie burgers contain some veggies and are rich in mono-unsaturated fat, but may have less than 5 grams of protein per serving. Legume burgers provide the protein you need. Look for bean or lentil burgers when dining out. At home, you can make your own bean burgers when you have the time, but some options in grocery stores are fortifying their veggie burgers with pea protein, which has some great potential when it comes to muscle repair.

When it comes to non-dairy milks, the popular choice of almond milk only contains ~1 g of protein/cup.  The best milk replacement is soy milk, while pea-protein milks and some oat milks can provide some protein, too. Still, the soy protein will be of highest quality, so if you’re looking to replace dairy milk (or chocolate milk) as a post-workout recovery tool, opt for soy! I buy Whole Foods 365 or Silk unsweetened most often.

Build quality protein with a variety of sources

While all plant proteins DO contain all of the essential amino acids, other than soy protein, most are limited in 1 or more of them. Yes, you’ll get a good balance of all the essential amino acids in quinoa, chia seeds, and algae too, but let’s be honest: you’re not getting adequate amounts of protein for a meal or recovery snack by eating a “normal” amount of those foods!

The average person following a plant-based diet can obtain enough of all essential amino acids over the course of the day without much extra effort, but those looking to recover from intense exercise or build muscle may benefit from pairing plant protein sources after workouts and at meals. Pairing grains, legumes and vegetables is the key, so whole grain pasta with beans and spinach works, but so can a simple PB sandwich on high protein bread with hemp seeds sprinkled inside.

Proteins are often rated based on “quality”, which is really based on digestibility and absorption into the body. The PDCAAS (protein digestibility corrected amino acid score) of single foods ranges from 0-1 with 1 being the highest. For plant protein, soy protein matches up to eggs and cow’s milk, while whole soy matches up to the score of beef. Foods like potatoes may have a PDCAAS of .99, but how much protein are you getting from a serving of potatoes? 3 grams. It certainly contributes to your intake for a meal (or day), but you clearly will need more total protein in that meal. You can read up more on PDCAAS and plant proteins in this Today’s Dietitian article written by the “Plant-Powered Dietitian” herself, Sharon Palmer.

The tempeh wrap below contains 25 grams of protein, with much of it coming from high quality soy protein.

Build Quality Protein

Eat protein throughout the day vs. all at once

While inclusion of high amounts of protein post-workout and at dinner is typical, in order to build muscle, it may be best to spread protein intake throughout the day. To be most accurate, the current recommendation is to consume .25-.3 grams per kg of your body weight 4-5 times per day.

Increase protein at breakfast by whipping up a tofu scramble and pairing with whole grain toast and fruit. For a quick option on a weekday morning, make your oats using soy milk rather than almond milk or water. Then topping with peanut butter and hemp seeds. Boost intake at snacks with nuts, like peanuts and pistachios, seeds, such as pumpkin and sunflower, and roasted beans.

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