Written by Carina Fabia
Last updated on: Sep 18, 2022
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Pea protein has fast become a leading source of protein. It is often used in plant based protein powders due to it's high content of protein and amino acids. However, this is just one of the advantages of pea protein. Read on to find out more about the health benefits of pea protein powder...
The pea protein we are talking about here is derived from the yellow peas not the better known garden pea. This plant based protein is rich in iron, low in fat and calories It also comes packed with fiber, B vitamins and zinc.
When pea protein is isolated it can provide a protein content of 75% per gram of weight. This has made pea protein isolate one of the most popular plant based supplements. In fact, research has found pea protein powder to be comparable to whey. A study found both powders produced similar results when combined with resistance training. This included, improvements in strength, body composition, muscle growth and performance (1). The protein content in pea protein powders will vary between different brands which means it is always important to check the packaging before making a purchase.
Pea protein helps to regulate blood sugar levels. Pea protein has a low glycemic index, which means it doesn't cause spikes in blood sugar levels. Research found taking pea protein powder reduced postprandial glycaemia and stimulated insulin release in healthy adults with a dose-response effect. This supports the use of pea protein as a mechanism to regulate glycaemic and insulinaemic responses (2). This is particularly interesting to people with diabetes or pre-diabetes. And those who are trying to lose weight (3).
Inflammation is linked to many chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer (4). Research has confirmed yellow pea protein hydrolysate (this is partially digested protein powder) contains anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and immunomodulating potentials. The study goes on to suggest peptides could be used as an alternative therapy for the prevention of inflammatory-related diseases (5). Obviously, reduced inflammation is beneficial to everyone which makes pea protein powder an excellent inclusion to any diet.
Pea protein is rich in the amino acid arginine. Arginine is known to improve heart health. Specifically, it's ability to improve circulation and lower blood pressure (6). It promotes healthy blood flow by dilating and relaxing the arteries (7). Arginine has even been labelled by researchers as a potential therapy for cardiovascular disorders (8). Of interest to athletes and fitness enthusiasts is a study found arginine can enhance high intensity exercise tolerance. This is thought to be due to arginine increasing the bodies nitric oxide production (9).
Pea isolate is often described as a complete protein because it contains all nine essential amino acids. However, it is low in the amino acid methionine. The lack of methionine is not a concern as individuals can add methionine elsewhere in their diet. Plant based sources of methionine include; dried seaweed, brazil nuts, hemp seeds, chia seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, pistachio nuts, peanuts and oats. Interestingly, there are some quality pea protein powders which actually include some of these plant based sources to provide all 9 essential amino acids in one supplement. Another popular way to get a complete amino acid profile is to combine to pea protein powder with another one. A good example of this would be brown rice protein.
More and more people have special dietary needs. It is sometimes asked "is pea protein bad for you?". The answer is no pea protein is not bad for you (unless you are allergic or sensitive to peas). Pea protein is a great source of plant based protein with multiple benefits. It is hypoallergenic (10), so nearly everyone can consume it safely. As mentioned earlier this lactose and gluten free protein source has showed comparable results to whey protein. This means if athletic or fitness performance is important to you, there is nothing to worry about. The only thing to watch with pea protein is if there any artificial sweeteners added. The reason for this is some are linked to causing stomach upsets, this is especially true with sugar alcohols such as xylitol or erythritol (11).
The best pea protein powder brands can provide as much as 8.1mg of iron per serving. For men and post-menopausal women, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is 8 grams. This means one protein shake can provide all of an individuals iron needs for the day. And for premenopausal women the RDA is 18 grams (12). Which means just 2 servings will give nearly the full iron requirements for a day. This high iron content makes pea isolate an excellent supplement for those with iron deficiencies. Researchers have even found pea protein to be a promising encapsulating matrix for the controlled release of iron (13).
Pea protein is a good source of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). These amino acids; leucine, isoleucine and valine, are essential for supporting muscle growth. As mentioned earlier pea protein supplementation was found to be as effective as whey when it coms to promoting muscle growth.
A further study found supplementation with pea protein promoted a greater increase of muscle thickness as compared to a placebo group. This was especially pronounced in people starting or returning to strength training. Just like the previous study no difference was found in the results of pea protein when compared to whey protein. This led to the conclusion pea proteins could be used as an alternative to whey protein products (14).
It must be noted research has found consistent training and diet is essential to achieving increased muscle mass. This means using a protein powder alone will not produce muscle growth. it is designed to support your efforts of a good diet and training program over a period of time.
Protein has been proven to improve satiety. This is one of the often overlooked aspects of protein supplementation when on a diet. With a calorie deficit being the most important aspect in losing weight. Without taking advantage of protein and its satiety inducing effect. A weight loss program becomes a battle of willpower. Of all the protein powders available pea protein along with casein came out as significantly more effective at suppressing appetite (15). A study found taking pea protein 30 minutes before eating resulted in fewer calories being consumed when compared against other protein sources. These findings suggest if you want to maximise your satiety and make maintaining a calorie deficit as easy as possible pea protein powder would be a great choice.
As you can see, pea protein is not just a vegan substitute for whey. By consuming pea protein powder, you enjoy a host of benefits ranging from assisting with weight loss and muscle growth through to improved heart health and reduced inflammation. It is no wonder pea protein has developed such popularity and usurped soy protein as the number one plant based protein powder.