Pea Protein Benefits and How to Make the Most of Them

Pea Protein Benefits and How to Make the Most of Them

How Nutritious Pea Protein Can Do You Good

Key Takeaways:

  • Pea protein is a high quality plant protein.
  • It makes an excellent dairy- free choice for meal replacement shakes, vegan protein powders and other protein supplements.
  • Pea protein benefits include helping to control appetite and blood sugar.
  • Most people with a sensitive gut will tolerate pure pea protein well.

Consuming supplemental protein can be a smart move for some people. But with an expanding range of protein supplements available, how do you choose the right one for you?

When gut sensitivities mean dairy is off the menu, you need to find alternatives. A variety of plant-based protein supplements are available, and of these, pea protein is well worth an extra look. Pea protein powder can compete equally with casein and whey (cow’s milk proteins) for building muscle, and is superior to many other plant proteins. Its low allergenicity also works for people with gut issues.  

But before investigating the effects of pea protein and pea protein benefits in more detail, let’s take a quick look at what protein does more generally and why we may sometimes need protein supplements. 

Pea protein benefits: pea flour in a glass

What Protein Is and Why You Need It

Proteins are made of 20 different amino acids, eight of which are essential. This means we need to get them from food as the body cannot manufacture them. 

Amino acids combine in many different ways to make complex proteins. For example, proteins make up antibodies and other cells of the immune system, hormones, and the enzymes that facilitate biological reactions. They also form the structure of skin, muscles, and organs like the heart [1].

We need to eat some high-protein foods every day, because the body doesn’t store protein like it does fats or carbohydrates. Most of us eat enough protein, but if you get injured, stressed, sick, or older, or you start working out more, you need to increase your consumption [2 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 3 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 4 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. If you have food or gut sensitivities, you may also want to supplement with a protein powder here and there to give your digestive system a bit more of a rest.

Protein powders are a very convenient way to add extra protein when it’s needed, helping to prevent protein deficiency problems like muscle shrinkage and poor immunity. They’re also a top choice for athletes to refuel and repair after exercise.

While whey protein powder is a quality protein source that offers the full range of essential amino acids we need, mixing plant proteins with animal proteins is recommended for good health, to avoid excess intake of processed meats and to vary the overall balance of nutrients consumed [5].

And, if you prefer to eat a plant-based diet for individual health or gut sensitivity reasons, you may be looking for alternatives to commonly used protein powders like whey (derived from animal products). 

Here’s how whey and pea protein benefits compare:

At a Glance: Pea Protein Versus Whey Protein 

 Pea ProteinWhey Protein
Amino Acid ProfileGoodExcellent
Builds Muscle?YesYes
Low AllergyYesNo
Iron sourceYesNo (contains calcium)
Plant based (sustainable)YesNo

What’s Special About Pea Protein? 

Legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) in general are excellent sources of plant-based sustainable protein. So what makes pea protein an especially good choice?

The good quantity of essential amino acids in pea protein help make it a superior plant protein. In pea protein, 30% of the amino acids are essential amino acids. This compares with 27% in soy protein and 28% in brown rice protein.

That said, the amino acid balance in plant proteins isn’t perfect.

For example, pea protein has [6 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]:

  • Good quantities of leucine (a branched chain amino acid or BCAA particularly linked with muscle growth)
  • Good levels of lysine, histidine, phenylalanine, and threonine
  • Somewhat lower levels of methionine, isoleucine and  valine, than is necessary tofully meet the body’s needs.

This isn’t a problem as long as you eat a few different protein sources over the course of a day. And pea protein is a particularly valuable plant protein because it is tolerated by even sensitive guts (it’s unlikely to cause bloating and gas, which soy protein might), and because of the key health benefits below.

Top 3 Pea Protein Benefits

Different protein shakes in glasses, protein powder and dumbells

When the protein from yellow peas is extracted and concentrated into pea protein powder, it becomes a really useful way to supplement extra protein.

The main health benefits of pea protein include a good amino acid profile that helps build muscle mass, improve blood sugar and other metabolic benefits, and control appetite.

1. Muscle Building

Overall, peas are a high-quality source of protein compared with many other plant proteins. In fact, in studies, the protein content of peas can compete equally with casein and whey (cow’s milk protein) for building muscle. 

For example, one randomized controlled trial looked at the effects of supplementing whey, pea protein, or a placebo “protein” supplement on young men who were strength training. It found that [7 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]:

  • Pea protein powder promoted muscle (bicep) gains just as effectively as whey protein.
  • Protein supplementation was especially effective for those just starting out with resistance training.

Another trial also found that whey and pea protein, used alongside high-intensity training sessions, produced similar benefits. These benefits included [8 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]:

  • Improvements in body composition
  • Increase muscle thickness
  • Improved workout performance and strength after eight weeks

2. Blood Sugar and Metabolic Benefits

Research suggests that plant proteins in general, and pea protein specifically, can contribute to more stable blood glucose levels following the consumption of carbs. Other metabolic benefits include reduced risk factors for conditions like heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. 

A 2020 systematic review of 26 randomized controlled trials (a high standard of evidence as it pools the results of multiple gold standard clinical trials) found evidence that pea protein could [9 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]:

  • Smoothe and minimize blood sugar response after a meal (69% of studies)
  • Benefit blood pressure (15% of studies)
  • Lower blood cholesterol levels  (23% of studies)
  • Improve body weight management / help with weight loss (19% of studies)

3. Appetite Control

Pea protein may also be helpful in curbing hunger, thereby potentially helping with people with food cravings and helping to lose weight. For example:

  • The same 2020 systematic review (above) found that plant proteins, including pea protein, helped people feel more full. This tracked with improvements in blood sugar control – i.e. the two went hand in hand [9 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • A further small randomized controlled trial, including 19 young healthy men, found that the protein (rather than the fiber) in yellow peas was responsible for suppressing short-term appetite and glycemic response during a meal eaten 30 minutes after consuming the peas [10 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Other Pea Protein Benefits

Pea protein powder will often also provide a good source of other nutrients, including iron. Iron is naturally found in fresh peas and becomes concentrated in the drying process. How much iron will depend on the extraction process [11].

Many pea protein powders will have up to 2.4 mg of iron in a 10 g (rounded tablespoon) [12]. For reference, the recommended daily intake of iron is 18 mg for pre-menopausal women and 8 mg for everyone else [13].

Peas also provide important amounts of magnesium, folate, and potassium, some of which will still be retained in pea protein powder. 

Pea Protein is a Great Choice for a Sensitive Gut

For many people who have issues with common allergens and need lactose/dairy-free or gluten-free protein choices, pea protein is a more suitable choice than whey powder, casein, or wheat protein.

Different types of pea protein powder can be produced in different ways, but if you have IBS or other sensitive gut issues, you may react badly to some carbohydrates. In this case, you’ll want to look for “isolated pea protein” on the label. This ensures that the ingredient is just pure pea protein. FODMAPs, or carbs such as oligosaccharides that feed gut bacteria and cause discomfort and bloating, will have been removed [14 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

That said, many people with gut sensitivities tolerate pea protein and pea protein concentrates that still have some carbs and fiber included.

The best thing to do, as you would with any food you are not sure about, is to try any product with pea protein or pea fiber listed on the ingredient list cautiously at first.

The Verdict on Pea Protein

Pea protein is a healthy plant protein that can help build muscle, keep blood sugar and blood fats healthy and keep appetite under control. It’s a good protein to include as part of a balanced diet and is generally suitable for people with gut issues such as IBS and inflammatory bowel disease.

You can find a lot more detail on how to return a sensitive or inflamed gut to wellness, in my book Healthy, Gut Health You.

➕ References
  1. What are proteins and what do they do?: MedlinePlus Genetics [Internet]. Available from: https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/understanding/howgeneswork/protein/
  2. Dreyer HC, Volpi E. Role of protein and amino acids in the pathophysiology and treatment of sarcopenia. J Am Coll Nutr. 2005 Apr;24(2):140S-145S. DOI: 10.1080/07315724.2005.10719455. PMID: 15798081. PMCID: PMC3192454. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  3. Gaillard C, Alix E, Boirie Y, Berrut G, Ritz P. Are elderly hospitalized patients getting enough protein? J Am Geriatr Soc. 2008 Jun;56(6):1045–9. DOI: 10.1111/j.1532-5415.2008.01721.x. PMID: 18554362. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  4. Jäger R, Kerksick CM, Campbell BI, Cribb PJ, Wells SD, Skwiat TM, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Jun 20;14:20. DOI: 10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8. PMID: 28642676. PMCID: PMC5477153. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  5. Protein Foods | MyPlate [Internet]. Available from: https://www.myplate.gov/eat-healthy/protein-foods
  6. Gorissen SHM, Crombag JJR, Senden JMG, Waterval WAH, Bierau J, Verdijk LB, et al. Protein content and amino acid composition of commercially available plant-based protein isolates. Amino Acids. 2018 Dec;50(12):1685–95. DOI: 10.1007/s00726-018-2640-5. PMID: 30167963. PMCID: PMC6245118. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  7. Babault N, Païzis C, Deley G, Guérin-Deremaux L, Saniez M-H, Lefranc-Millot C, et al. Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. Whey protein. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015 Jan 21;12(1):3. DOI: 10.1186/s12970-014-0064-5. PMID: 25628520. PMCID: PMC4307635. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  8. Banaszek A, Townsend JR, Bender D, Vantrease WC, Marshall AC, Johnson KD. The Effects of Whey vs. Pea Protein on Physical Adaptations Following 8-Weeks of High-Intensity Functional Training (HIFT): A Pilot Study. Sports (Basel). 2019 Jan 4;7(1). DOI: 10.3390/sports7010012. PMID: 30621129. PMCID: PMC6358922. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  9. Lonnie M, Laurie I, Myers M, Horgan G, Russell WR, Johnstone AM. Exploring Health-Promoting Attributes of Plant Proteins as a Functional Ingredient for the Food Sector: A Systematic Review of Human Interventional Studies. Nutrients. 2020 Jul 30;12(8). DOI: 10.3390/nu12082291. PMID: 32751677. PMCID: PMC7468935. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  10. Smith CE, Mollard RC, Luhovyy BL, Anderson GH. The effect of yellow pea protein and fibre on short-term food intake, subjective appetite and glycaemic response in healthy young men. Br J Nutr. 2012 Aug;108 Suppl 1:S74-80. DOI: 10.1017/S0007114512000700. PMID: 22916818. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  11. Pea protein is everywhere, is it healthy? – American Institute for Cancer Research % [Internet]. Available from: https://www.aicr.org/resources/blog/health-talk-pea-protein-is-everywhere-is-it-healthy/
  12. FoodData Central [Internet]. Available from: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/ndb/nutrients/report?nutsort=608&max=25&offset=0&nutrient1=610&nutrient2=609&nutrient3=608&measureby=g&subset=0&sort=c&totCount=6323
  13. Institute of Medicine (US) Panel on Micronutrients. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2001. 9, Iron. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK222309/
  14. Fredrikson M, Biot P, Alminger ML, Carlsson NG, Sandberg AS. Production process for high-quality pea-protein isolate with low content of oligosaccharides and phytate. J Agric Food Chem. 2001 Mar;49(3):1208–12. DOI: 10.1021/jf000708x. PMID: 11312837. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
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