Vegetarian protein powders contain all of the essential muscle-building components needed to get ripped and reap the rewards of hours at the gym. “There is no reason that someone who eats a vegan or vegetarian diet can’t build just as much muscle as an omnivore,” says Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RD. “They can get all of the same amino acids in the right amounts.”
So how do you do it? Ruscigno recommends using protein powders in your pre- and post-lifting snacks, and adds that —as vegans and vegetarians— it’s especially important to mix up your powders, rotating through several types in order to consume a variety of nutrients from different sources. Here, Ruscigno—and other experts—give us the run-down on your eight best options.
1. Soy Protein Powder
110 calories; 1g fat; 2.1g carbs; 23g protein per 28.5g serving
“Soy protein powder is a byproduct of the soya bean and consists of isoflavones, fiber and all of the amino acids you need for muscle growth,” says Shawn Dolan, PhD, RD, CSSD, Senior U.S. Olympic Committee Sports Dietitian. It’s also easily digestible, offers a smooth mixing consistency when added to foods and shakes, and is lactose- and gluten-free. If you are a lacto-vegetarian and include dairy in your diet, you can try mixing it with whey for perfect post-workout fuel.
120 calories; 4g fat; 7g carbs; 13g protein per 30g serving
Derived from the hemp seed, this protein-rich plant source offers a complete amino acid profile, plus it’s highly digestible—meaning it’s a smart pre-gym supplement that won’t cause stomach issues during your workout. But hemp’s fat and calorie content can be on the high side, so if your goal is to cut, you might want to opt for whey or casein powder, says Jim White, RD, ASCM, HFS, a dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (And for those not cutting? White says not to worry—it’s all healthy omega-3s and omega-6s.)
If you eat dairy-derived products, whey protein—which is what’s left over after the casein protein is removed from cow’s milk during the cheese-making process—can be a solid supplemental option. But what should you pick: Whey isolate, whey concentrate, or complete whey protein? “I would recommend complete whey, which is a combination of the isolate and concentrate, because they can work in synergy to create muscle synthesis,” says White. However, it’s important to note that isolate is a more pure protein with a lower fat content, plus it’s got less lactose—making it a better option for those with a lactose intolerance and a solid overall option as well.
120 calories; 1g fat; 3g carbs; 24g protein per 33g serving
Like whey, casein—which makes up 80 percent of the protein in cow’s milk and is also a byproduct of the cheese-making process—is not an option for vegans. But if you’re a lacto-vegetarian, you can add it to the roster. “You might call it time-released, because it stays in the GI system a little longer than whey does,” says Dolan. “It’s beneficial to have before you go to bed if you are trying to increase muscle mass.” Why? It helps to prevent muscle breakdown while sleeping, helping you recover more quickly before your next workout.
80 calories; 0g fat; 2g carbs; 17g protein per 21g serving
Brown rice protein isn’t a complete protein by itself, meaning you need to buy a powder that contains enhanced amino acids—or you need to pair it with something, like tofu, quinoa or beans, that will round out the nutrients you need. Still, it has it’s own unique benefits. “It’s high in fiber, gluten-free, lactose-free and full of B vitamins, which help out with muscle metabolism and growth,” says White. Bonus: Brown rice protein is labeled as hypoallergenic, so it’s less likely to irritate your system or cause an allergic reaction.
70 calories; 1g fat; 1g carbs; 14g protein per 15g serving
Like brown rice protein, a yellow pea powder isn’t going to contain all of the essential amino acids you need for muscle building. But if you’re lactose intolerant or allergic to soy, it’s worth adding to your more limited rotation. “A lot of studies show that it can prevent hypertension and kidney disease,” says White. Just pair it with another protein source, such as beans, quinoa or tofu, to make it complete, and use it in moderation, says White. “It may cause calcium to leak out of the bones due its affect on uric acid levels in the body—which can lead to flare ups for people with gout,” he says.
110 calories; 0.5g fat; 2g carbs; 24g protein per 30.5 g serving
If you’re an ovo-vegetarian, we don’t have to tell you that eggs are one of the best protein sources around—they offer a high content of well-proportioned amino acids with fewer carbs and fat. But that also means egg protein powder is another top choice for pre- and post- exercise fuel. It’s easily digestible and a perfect choice for building lean muscle.
120 calories; 1g fat; 6g carbs; 26g protein per 37g serving
Each vegetable-based protein is beneficial on its own, but this new method mixes multiple types of plant protein to deliver a variety of nutrients in one powder, says Lindsay Langford, MS, RD. Typically sourced from a combination of sprouts and beans, like quinoa, millet, buckwheat, garbanzo beans, lentils, bean sprouts and flaxseeds, a mixed powder can provide you with a nice profile of vitamins, fatty acids and fiber to help you diversify your supplements.