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Whey Your Options: Should You Pea?

Plant-based eating: It’s popular and recommended by health professionals for a variety of reasons. It should be no surprise that more athletes are inquiring about plant protein powders.

So does pea protein powder fit into an athlete’s plan? Is it equal to or better than the gold standard of whey?

Amino Acids Matter for Building Muscle

When we talk about building new muscles, we’re talking muscle protein synthesis (MPS). To maximize MPS, a dietary protein should:

  1. Be rapidly digested: “Fast-acting” like fruit juice versus a fibrous apple, so the protein’s building blocks can enter the bloodstream and their final destination faster.

  2. Be readily digested: Plant proteins aren’t as fully digested and absorbed as animal proteins (i.e., the animal protein’s “bioavailability” is better).

  3. Be “complete”: Include all nine essential amino acids (EAAs), which are those that our bodies cannot make and are therefore required from food.

  4. Include leucine: It’s both an EAA and a branch-chained amino acid (BCAA).* Leucine also acts as a signal to switch on MPS (click for visuals).

Regarding the above factors, how do pea and whey compare?

Nutritional comparison table of pea and whey proteins.

The Study I Reviewed: Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training

Note: I could only find one study in PubMed that measured supplemental pea protein and its outcome on muscles, so keep that in mind when forming your own conclusions.

Sponsored research by Babault et al. (2015) analyzed Roquette’s NUTRALYS® pea protein powder in the setting of a 12-week resistance training program. The 137 recreationally-active men were randomly assigned to consume one packet of pea protein powder, whey protein powder, or a carbohydrate placebo twice daily. All three packets contained the same amount of calories and, except for the placebo, 25 grams of protein. The outcomes measured were muscle thickness (primary outcome) and muscle strength (secondary outcome).

You can read the entire study here. I did, and below is a sample of the missing information that I would liked to have seen:

  • No diet records were collected: Besides knowing the specifics of the protein powder interventions, it’s unfair to compare Tom and Jerry’s outcomes if we have no clue what either were eating.

  • Men were excluded from the study if they were following a “high-protein diet”: No definition of what this protein cutoff entailed. Plus, there was no mention of how their pre-study diets were evaluated.

  • Was whey protein isolate, concentrate, hydrolysate, or intact whey protein used? This detail matters, since intact proteins take longer for the body to digest and absorb them (i.e., whey isolate is delivered faster to muscles than an intact whey protein).

Overall, the researchers found no statistically significant difference between whey and pea protein regarding muscle thickness and strength.** However, pea protein powder trended superior to both the whey protein powder and placebo.

I included the amino acid arginine in the above table because arginine is essential to building muscle. Plus, its presence in pea more than triples that of whey. Since pea and whey nutritionally go head-to-head pretty evenly and their absorption rates are high, could arginine be the trick?

Brendan Brazier: vegan triathlete and co-founder of Vega.

Vegan triathlete Brendan Brazier and co-founder of Vega, a vegan nutritional supplement company that includes pea protein as an ingredient.

Take-away Message: The Research is in the Whey

Remember: the above study evaluated muscle thickness and strength. If your goal is to run faster or improve your technical soccer skills, then this pea protein study doesn’t provide a definitive answer for you.

For now, I would continue to place my bets on whey as the better option due to its:

  • Vast body of convincing research.

  • Texture and palatability: It’s smooth and blends well. I think the texture of pea protein is grainy…

However, if you’re down to use pea protein then go for it, since:

  • The amino acid profile and high absorption index are promising.

  • It’s a great option for a vegan, vegetarian, or athletes allergic to either the dairy or soy protein.

Overall, and for maximizing MPS, I like the recommendations from the International Society of Sports Nutrition’s position stand on protein and exercise:

  • Consume protein before or after a weight-lifting session: 20-40 grams total (or 0.25 grams per kilogram body weight), includes 700-3,000 milligrams of leucine, and is a fast-acting and complete protein (i.e., EAA).

  • Aim for a higher protein diet: Roughly 1.4-2.0 grams per kilogram body weight daily.

**The researchers ran the data for weaker subjects and did find statistical significance for pea protein in regards to increased muscle thickness. Meaning, if you’re new or newer to weight lifting, your “gainz” may occur at a greater rate initially when compared to a long-term gym buff.

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