Power Your Training with Plant Proteins

By Marie Spano, MS, RD, CSCS, CSSD

If you’ve been under the assumption that you have to consume animal proteins to support muscle growth and repair, it’s time to take a closer look at what plant proteins – like the ones found in pecans – can do for you.

From the perspective of a trainer and nutritionist, plant proteins provide a more complete nutrition package than protein powders of the past – ones that relied on highly refined and processed isolates, concentrates and hydrolysates. Plant proteins are full of fiber, vitamins and minerals, helping meet consumer demand for greater nutrition value from their foods and beverages.

Though most single plant proteins are incomplete, meaning they don’t contain all of the essential amino acids a person needs in their daily diet, this can be addressed. Blending different plant-based proteins can provide a complete source of protein and deliver a product with the desired flavor, texture and mouth-feel that consumers are looking for.

Defatted pecan flour, for instance, is one of the latest and most innovative of plant-based proteins now on the market. It is naturally gluten free and nutrient-rich, providing an excellent source of both fiber and iron and nearly 1 gram of leucine per serving.

Plant proteins, including those found in defatted pecan flour, help meet consumer demand for products that they can feel good about eating and are higher in protein and overall nutrition value.

Growth Drivers

Protein is important for all people throughout their lives. Protein builds and repairs muscle while helping decrease muscle loss due to aging. Protein may also be important for weight management – it is the most filling of all macronutrients (which include fat, proteins and carbohydrates), so you feel full for a longer period of time in-between meals.

As the global protein market continues to grow, dairy proteins still make up the majority of sales. However, plant-based proteins are accelerating at a greater rate, scoring a 92.1 percent increase in sales between 2012 and 2013, according to market research firm SPINS LLC. Demand for plant proteins is expected to grow by 43 percent by 2030 according to BIPE-Sofiproteol.

There are several factors driving the movement toward plant-based foods, including concern for personal health, the rising cost of meat and seafood, concern about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), preservatives and animal diseases, the environmental impact of meat production, and personal or ethical beliefs.

There isn’t One Whey to Building Muscle

Though it’s clear that plant foods play an important role in overall health – plant-based diets are associated with lower rates of chronic disease, including cancer and cardiovascular disease – until the past few years, plant proteins have taken a seat behind dairy proteins in the sports nutrition market. However, the tide is changing.

Early research studies were designed to make whey protein appear superior to soy. These studies gave participants the same amount of total protein from either whey or soy and measured changes in muscle in the time period right after taking the protein. Whey came out ahead of soy every time.

However, whey is a fast protein – its amino acids are quickly delivered to muscle, helping up-regulate muscle growth and repair immediately. Conversely, soy and many other types of protein have a slower, more prolonged delivery of amino acids to muscle and therefore they peak later while extending the muscle-building period. Also, whey has more leucine per amount of protein than soy.

Leucine is the key amino acid that turns on the synthesis of protein in muscle. Leucine is like a dimmer switch – get a little and you’ll up-regulate muscle growth a little. The lights are on but they aren’t bright. Get an effective dose (2-3 grams in young adults and 3-4 grams in older adults) and your lights will shine brightly – you’ll maximize muscle protein synthesis.

Therefore, in addition to measuring protein synthesis during the immediate time period after consumption, one in which whey is very effective, the early studies didn’t provide enough soy protein to deliver an effective dose of leucine to study participants. More recent research, with rice and pea protein in particular, provided all proteins in amounts that delivered effective doses of leucine. The results of these studies tell a very different story as compared to earlier research.

A study conducted at the University of Tampa found 48 grams of rice protein (enough to meet the leucine threshold) was as effective as a protein-matched dose of whey for stimulating lean body mass gains, decreases in body fat and increases in muscle size, strength and power, when combined with an effective resistance-training program.

In another study, subjects were placed on a 12-week resistance training protocol and given either 25 grams of pea or whey protein twice per day or a placebo. There were no differences in muscle growth in pea and whey protein showing that plant-based proteins can be just as effective as dairy proteins such as whey.

Whether you opt for pea or a high-leucine protein made from tree nuts like pecans, you can feel good about supporting your training program with high quality protein.


(serving size: 36 grams)

Pecan Flour Rice Flour Pea Flourb
Calories 115 135 120
Protein 15 g 2 g 9.6 g
Leucinea 0.978 0.181 0.572
Carbohydrates 13 g 29 g 21.6 g
Dietary fiber 7 g 1 g 9.6
Fiber % daily value 28% 4% 38.4%
Iron % daily value 20% 0% 6%
Calcium % daily value 6% 0% 0%
Data taken from NM State University Research Report 778
a Data taken from or calculated based on leucine amount per gram protein serving from the USDA Nutrient Database
b Based on Bob’s Red Mill green pea flour



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