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Pea Power: Replenish the special protein missing from your diet

Replenish the special protein missing from your diet

I’m always on the lookout for foods that may give my athlete clients an edge, from fighting inflammation to supporting immunity and building muscle. I first stumbled upon pea protein powder, made from yellow split peas, several years ago and began recommending it, particularly for athletes who were sensitive or allergic to whey. Since that time, a wave of research has solidified its superfood status. Here are five key reasons every athlete may benefit from making pea protein a staple.

Muscle growth and strength

Conventional thinking has believed that only animal-based proteins provided the amino acid profile capable of building and strengthening muscle tissue. But new research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition proves otherwise. In the study, 161 men between the ages of 18 and 35 completed 12 weeks of upper body resistance training. During the study, they were randomly assigned to receive 25 grams of either pea protein, whey protein, or a placebo twice a day. As expected, the effects for both protein groups were greater than the placebo, but increases in muscle thickness and strength were equal for both pea and whey eaters. The results, combined with the fact that pea protein is plant-based, naturally gluten and lactose free, and not a common trigger of allergies and intolerances, makes it an attractive option for athletes who prioritize muscle strength and mass.

Delayed muscle fatigue

Like whey protein, pea protein is a rich source of branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), compounds that have been shown to delay fatigue during exercise. BCAAs have also been shown to reduce exercise-induced muscle damage. One study of 36 male athletes found that ingesting BCAAs during an 8-week resistance-training program resulted in a greater decrease in body fat and an increase in lean muscle. In addition, the arginine in pea protein powder has been shown to enhance immunity.

Appetite suppression

When Dutch scientists conducted an experiment with overweight men and women, they found a marked difference between pea and whey protein. Volunteers received beverages made with both options, and researchers found that the pea-protein version delayed the return of hunger by up to 23 minutes longer than the whey drink. In addition, four hours later, those who sipped pea protein felt less hungry than those who downed the whey beverage.

Belly fat reduction

A recent study from the British Journal of Nutrition, tracked overweight women. Twice a day for twenty-eight days, the women received muffins containing either whole pea flour, fractionated pea flour (pea hulls only), or white wheat flour. At the end of the study, the women who ate the muffins with whole pea protein had the lowest waist-to-hip ratios, indicating that fat was directed away from the waistline.

Kidney and blood pressure benefits

University of Manitoba in Winnipeg scientists conducted an animal study in which they fed pea protein to rats bred to have polycystic kidney disease. After eight weeks, the rodents fed a pea protein diet showed a 30 percent increase in urine production, remarkably restoring it to within normal levels. They also experienced a 20 percent drop in blood pressure compared those who received standard chow.

If you haven’t yet tried pea protein I recommend looking for a plain, unsweetened version. In other words, the only ingredient should be pea protein, or pea protein isolate which is made from yellow peas. It’s also referred to as Pisum sativum. Whip it into fruit and vegetable smoothies, or fold it into whole grain pancake or muffin mix, oatmeal, chia pudding, or homemade energy bars.

Cynthia Sass is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets. She previously consulted for three other professional sports teams, and is a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics. Her latest book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Sass privately counsels athletes in NYC, LA, and long distance. She can be reached via CynthiaSass.com.

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