Vegans take strict care to eschew all animal byproducts in their diet, which is an admirable level of discipline most weightlifters can appreciate. Unfortunately, if you’re a vegan and looking to build muscle, consuming enough protein, the macronutrient fuel that’s necessary for muscular growth, is going to be a challenge.
Getting enough protein can be tough enough for non-vegan lifters, which is why people guzzle shakes and supplements to up their intake. Vegans have a hard time with that, too — and it all comes down to what’s in those shaker bottles.
When it comes to protein powder, whey is considered the gold standard for guys who want to build muscle fast. Whey — which is made from the watery part of milk that separates from curds during the cheesemaking process—is a complete protein, meaning it packs all the amino acids you need for muscle growth and repair. Whey is also high in leucine, the most important amino acid in the muscle-building process.
Thing is, whey doesn’t work for everyone. Some athletes simply can’t stomach whey (and stinking up the weight room definitely breaks all kinds of gym etiquette rules). Others are lactose intolerant. And of course vegans need plant-based protein alternatives.
But can you really build muscle with vegan protein powder? Turns out, the answer is yes—you just have to buy the right kind.
For muscle protein synthesis — the technical term for the process of muscle repair and growth — to occur, you need to consume all nine essential amino acids in each meal, according to Marie Spano, R.D., C.S.C.S., a sports nutritionist for the Atlanta Hawks. Whey, a complete protein, makes it easy to do that, which is part of the reason it’s so popular. Most plant proteins, on the other hand, are missing at least one amino acid, and some are low in leucine (you should aim for 2.5 to 3 grams of leucine per meal for muscle repair and growth.)
That’s why you should opt for a vegetarian protein powder that mixes different types of plant proteins, explained Leslie Bonci, R.D., a nutrition consultant for the Pittsburgh Pirates. This ensures you’re consuming all the essential amino acids and a wider range of nutrients. You could also consume a single-ingredient plant protein powder post-workout, and then make up for the missing amino acids through food later in the day, she says, since protein synthesis takes place over a 24-hour period. But let’s face it—that makes things complicated.
Note: Most plant-based protein powders come with a few grams of added sugar, and that’s by necessity, according to Spano. Without it, they’d taste like dirt and would be about as hard to mix.
She recommended blending protein powder with a few ounces of orange juice. The citrus will boost the vitamin and nutrient content and offset the “earthy” taste. After all, you’ll never reap the benefits of plant-based protein powders if you can’t force yourself to drink them.
Here are our picks for the best vegan protein powders you can buy.
Best All Around: Vega Sport Protein Powder, Chocolate
Made from a mix of peas, pumpkin, organic sunflower seeds, and alfalfa, one 22-gram scoop of this protein powder contains 15 grams of protein and only 80 calories. Plus, it also contains a whopping 2.9 grams of leucine—more than you’d find in many whey protein powders.
Best for Smoothies and Shakes: Nutiva Organic Plant Protein Superfood Smoothie
Add this mix of pea, pumpkin, hemp, and sunflower with added probiotics and vitamins to your next smoothie and you’ll be pleased with the extra protein bump. Choose between vanilla or chocolate.
Best Pea + Rice Combo: NOW Foods Plant Protein Complex
A blend of pea, brown rice, and quinoa, each 38-gram scoop packs an impressive 22 grams of protein and 1.8 grams of leucine.
Best Fan Base: PlantFusion Complete Protein Powder, Vanilla Bean
Nearly 3,600 Amazon reviewers have given this blend of pea, artichoke, amaranth, and quinoa protein a 4 out of 5 rating—a true feat for a plant-based protein. One 30-gram scoop contains 21 grams of protein and 120 calories.
Best Ingredients: Garden of Life Meal Replacement, Chocolate
One look at the ingredients list, and you’ll wonder which plants aren’t in this container. Made with proteins from peas, brown rice, amaranth, buckwheat, chia seeds, and more, one 36-gram scoop packs 20 grams of protein, plus a 7-gram dose of fiber.
Best Unique Mix: Sunwarrior, Warrior Blend, Vanilla
Made from a blend of Goji berries and pea and hemp protein, each 25-gram scoop contains 18 grams of protein and about 2.6 grams of muscle-building leucine.
Best Soy: NOW Sports Soy Protein Isolate, Natural Chocolate
This soy protein isolate contains 20 grams of protein per 24 gram serving and just 90 calories.
Best Do-Everything Mix: Vega One All-In-One Plant Based Protein Powder, French Vanilla
A combination of pea protein, flaxseed, hemp protein, and more, one hefty 41-gram scoop contain 20 grams of protein, 6 grams of fiber, and 1.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids.