Keep Calm, Plants Have Protein. Why You Should Give Peas a Chance.
Updated: Nov 24, 2020
As a vegan endurance athlete, nutritional neuroscientist and university lecturer, I am often asked questions about my training regimen and nutrition plan. Usually among the most frequently asked questions that I receive is something along the lines of, “Wait, what? You don’t eat meat? Or fish? Or eggs? Or dairy?! But where do you get your protein?” To any person who eats a plant-based diet – especially after doing so for over 25 years – this question starts to sound like nails on a chalkboard. But in the interest of advancing the cause of plant-based living, I maintain my composure when responding to such questions and am often astounded at how little people know about the true chemical make-up of the food they consume. I inform them that I have to let them in on a little secret and that …drumroll please… the secret is: plants. actually. have. protein. (Gasp!) Imagine that. Jaws drop and eyes open wide. It’s as if I pulled back the curtain to reveal the real wizard of Oz and nothing is as it seemed before.
Now with an abundance of protein sources out there, and a thriving industry literally making billions off of the public’s desire to consume more of the major macronutrient, I’ve decided to outline my top ten reasons for why protein from peas should rank at the very top of your list of favorite protein sources.
1.) It's allergen-free. If you have food allergies or just gastrointestinal sensitivities to things like milk, eggs, gluten, or soy then the mighty pea is where you should venture next for your protein needs. Given that it is free of the most common allergen triggers, such as lactose, casein, and whey, the pea is a veritable clean, green protein machine.
2.) It’s easily digested. Unlike whey, pea protein is digested quite easily since it contains none of those previously aforementioned allergens like lactose and gluten (translation: no bloating!). I don't know about you, but I work really hard to see physical gains from my training and it’s important to note that your nutritional choices can make or break whether or not those gains are realized. Because relatively little energy is required by our bodies to digest it, consuming pea protein leaves you feeling more energized and light on your feet than any other type of protein.
3.) It may aid in weight loss. A role for protein in the regulation of food intake and the maintenance of a healthy body weight is well supported by a growing body of scientific research. A daily dose of between 0.8 and one gram of protein per kilogram (2.2 lbs) of body weight is generally considered ideal for promoting muscle growth and revving fat burning. Specifically, consumption of protein has been shown to slow the process of gastric emptying, which leads to a suppression of food intake (beyond what is expected from its energy content alone) and this is associated with a feeling of fullness and sensation of satiety for longer periods of time. Part of this has to do with a stimulation of the secretion of the gut peptides that promote satiety and a decrease in the release of hunger-inducing signals (a). Thus, science has led us to the conclusion that the protein content of food, and perhaps its source, is a strong determinant of satiety and of how much food is eaten (b,c).
4.) It promotes balanced blood sugar. Consuming adequate protein with each meal helps to mitigate the rise in blood sugar and subsequent secretion of insulin by the pancreas that occurs naturally in response to food intake. Too much insulin can lead to nutrient storage (as body fat) in our cells; thus, protein helps to dampen this effect. However, different types of protein differentially affect insulin secretion. For example, because of its composition, cow's milk proteins induce the largest insulin spike (b), which is not ideal when you’re trying to maintain balanced blood sugar levels. A pea protein source like EVOLVE® is naturally high in fiber (10 grams per serving), low in sugar (5-6 grams per serving) and free of artificial ingredients. So not only are we consuming 20 grams of quality, clean pea protein in one serving, but we are also able to avoid the unwanted blood sugar spike that comes with your typical sugar- and artificial flavor-laden protein drink.
5.) Iron from plants like peas is associated with decreased risk of heart disease. Iron is an integral part of human physiology and is required for the transportation of oxygen throughout the body as well as for the regulation of cell growth and differentiation. Plant foods, like peas, provide a source of iron known as non-heme iron that has been shown to be associated with decreased risk for cardiovascular diseased and metabolic syndrome (d,e). In contrast, the iron contained in meat, known as heme iron, is associated with significantly higher risk for heart disease (f,g). This is thought to be because iron can act as a pro-oxidant contributing to the development of atherosclerosis by oxidizing cholesterol with free radicals. A single serving of pea protein can contribute to ~20% of your daily iron needs. Consuming natural sources of vitamin C at the same time as consuming iron-containing foods (think: a splash of lemon juice on your dark green leafy greens) will optimize the absorption of the iron content, whereas consuming coffee, tea or calcium-rich foods will inhibit absorption.
6.) It’s non-GMO. Pea proteins are unlikely to be genetically modified. A genetically modified organism, or GMO, is an organism that has had its DNA altered or modified in some way through genetic engineering. The safety of consuming GMOs has yet to be determined by science and certainly the pesticides used to treat them are known to aggravate the bacteria in our guts.
7.) It’s rich in essential amino acids. All plant proteins have some of every essential amino acid. Our livers store some of those essential amino acids, so contrary to the prevailing myth, it's not necessary to combine different protein sources at each meal, as was once previously thought by some nutrition experts. Pea protein has a complete array of amino acids, including high levels of branched-chain amino acids. Its amino acid profile is well-balanced and especially suited for people with active lifestyles, with protein from the pea being particularly high in arginine, lysine and phenylalanine. Its profile fulfills the essential amino acid requirements outlined by the World Health Organization for adults.
8.) It can be consumed in various forms.
Pea protein can be consumed for a mid-day snack, a pre-workout energy bump and/or as a post-workout muscle recovery aide. It can be sprinkled into your oatmeal, smoothie bowl, cereal, pancake batter or it can be eaten as a meal replacement bar. It can be used in both hot and cold recipes. Heat simply denatures the protein (it does not destroy it), so as long as you don’t burn whatever you’re making, the protein will still be usable by the body. Among my favorite (and simple) homemade pea protein creations are protein power bites – little bite-sized energy balls containing dates, nut butter, coconut oil, cacao and hemp seeds rolled in some EVOLVE® protein powder – they pack a real nutritional punch and are a fun on-the-go snack!
I recommend that you experiment with different flavor combos when using pea protein powder to make your own smoothies and to add to your homemade creations and baked goods. Try tossing some pea protein powder into your blender when you go to make your next smoothie – add some hemp seeds, raw coconut flakes, flax seeds, dates, cacao nibs, chia seeds, avocado, frozen banana medallions, and/or any other fruits and veggies that you want to amp up the nutritional profile.
9.) The taste! If you’re concerned about the taste of pea protein, let me assure you that EVOLVE® takes the cake in that department. I can actually drink my ready-to-go EVOLVE® shakes straight off the shelf at room temperature – they are that good! With options like Classic Chocolate, Toasted Almond, Mellow Mocha and Ideal Vanilla, there is a flavor favorite for every palate. Furthermore, EVOLVE® protein shakes are made with eleven or less clean, pronounceable non-GMO ingredients making it obvious why we love them (less is more when it comes to taste!).
10.) Kids love it.
I share my daily smoothie with my 1 year-old and he simply can’t get enough of it! Whether I make a smoothie with Ideal Vanilla EVOLVE® powder loaded with kale, spinach and green apples or a Classic Chocolate EVOLVE® shake with chia, flax seeds and almond butter, my son is there next to me jumping up and down waiting (not-so-patiently) for his serving. There is no greater feeling in the world than ensuring that you are feeding your little ones the highest quality nutrition and by modeling this behavior, you’re laying the foundation for healthy habits for years to come.
Whether you add a serving of protein powder to your go-to morning smoothie or you grab a ready-to-drink bottle of your favorite plant-based protein shake to enjoy on the go, it’s time for you to give peas a chance and to finally start benefiting from the power of the pea.
In good health,
(*Note: I originally wrote this as a freelance piece for Evolve in June of 2017.)
a.) Blom, WAM, et. al. (2006) Effect of a high-protein breakfast on the postprandial ghrelin response. Am J Clin Nutr 83:211–20
b.) Nilsson, M, et al. (2004) Glycemia and insulinemia in healthy subjects after lactose-equivalent meals of milk and other food proteins: the role of plasma amino acids and incretins. Am J Clin Nutr 80:1246-53.
c.) Anderson, GH, Moore, SE. (2004) Dietary Proteins in the Regulation of Food Intake and Body Weight in Humans. J of Nutr 134: 974S–979S.
d.) Saunders, AV, et al. (2013) Iron and vegetarian diets. Med J Aust. Aug 19;199(4 Suppl):S11-6.
e.) Turner-McGrievy, G, Harris, M. (2014) Key elements of plant-based diets associated with reduced risk of metabolic syndrome. Curr Diab Rep. 14(9):524.
f.) Yang, W, et al. (2014) Is heme iron intake associated with risk of coronary heart disease? A meta-analysis of prospective studies. Eur J Nutr. 53(2):395-400.
g.) Kaluza, J, et al. (2014) Heme iron intake and acute myocardial infarction: a prospective study of men. Int J Cardiol. Mar 1;172(1):155-60.