If you search for plant protein powder information anywhere on the internet, you’ll probably find a fair few questions about them. One common question surrounding plant-based protein powders is whether or not they cause a spike in insulin. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels, and high levels of insulin can lead to insulin resistance, weight gain, and other health problems. Plant protein powder is a popular alternative to animal-based protein powders, particularly for vegetarians and vegans, but some people worry that it may have a negative impact on insulin levels.
I’ve spent hours looking through the scientific evidence, reading anecdotal ‘evidence’ and have finally come to a conclusion! Read on to find out more.
Plant-based proteins don’t directly cause a spike in insulin levels in the same way eating a high-carb meal would. However, the amino acids in protein can be converted to glucose in the liver by gluconeogenesis. An increased level of blood glucose causes insulin to be released to regulate the levels of glucose in the bloodstream. This can lead to a slight elevation in insulin levels. Most studies though, do not show a ‘spike’ in insulin from plant-based or any other protein supplement. In fact, some plant protein powders have been found to cause less increase in circulating glucose levels and the maximum blood sugar levels than animal proteins.
Table of Contents
What is Plant Protein Powder?
As the name suggests, plant protein powder is a type of protein supplement made from plant-based sources. It is an alternative to animal-based protein powders, such as whey or casein, for those who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet or have dairy allergies.
Plant protein powders can be made from a variety of sources, including soy, pea, rice, hemp, and quinoa. Each type of plant protein has its own unique amino acid profile, which makes it important to choose a powder that fits your specific nutritional needs.
One of the benefits of plant protein powder is that it is often easier to digest than animal-based protein powders, which can be heavy on the stomach. Additionally, plant protein powders are often lower in calories and fat than animal-based protein powders.
It is important to note that not all plant protein powders are created equal. Some may contain added sugars or artificial sweeteners, which can spike insulin levels. However, this isn’t specific to plant protein powders. Animal-based protein powders can also contain added sugars.
Overall, plant protein powder is a viable option for those looking to supplement their protein intake while following a plant-based diet. It is important to choose a high-quality powder and to incorporate it into a well-balanced diet for optimal health benefits.
Understanding Insulin Response
Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels in the body. When we consume carbohydrates, the body breaks them down into glucose, which enters the bloodstream. In response, the pancreas releases insulin, which signals the cells to absorb glucose from the bloodstream and use it for energy or store it for later use.
However, protein can also stimulate insulin secretion, although to a lesser extent than carbohydrates. This is because protein contains amino acids, which can be converted to glucose in the liver through a process called gluconeogenesis.
The rate at which insulin is released in response to protein consumption can vary depending on the type of protein and how it is processed. For example, a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that intact soy protein (SPI) induced a faster increase in both insulin and glucagon compared to the protein hydrolysate of soy. This could be due to the fact that intact protein takes longer to digest and absorb, leading to a slower release of amino acids into the bloodstream.
Another study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition investigated the effects of isoenergetic diets differing in cereal fibre and protein content on insulin sensitivity in overweight humans. The study found that high-protein diets increased insulin sensitivity, which could be attributed to the amino acids in protein stimulating insulin secretion.
However, it’s important to note that not all proteins have the same effect on insulin secretion. Whey protein, for example, has been shown to reduce body weight gain and alter insulin sensitivity relative to red meat in Wistar rats, as reported in a study published in The Journal of Nutrition. This could be due to the specific amino acid profile of whey protein and its ability to stimulate the release of certain hormones that regulate appetite and metabolism.
Overall, while protein can stimulate insulin secretion to some extent, the effect is generally less pronounced than with carbohydrates. The type of protein and how it is processed can also affect the insulin response.
Does Plant Protein Powder Spike Insulin?
Many people believe that consuming protein powder, especially plant-based protein powder, can cause a spike in insulin levels, which can lead to weight gain and other health issues. However, research suggests that this may not be the case.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consuming a plant-based protein powder did not cause a significant increase in insulin levels compared to a control group. The study also found that consuming the plant-based protein powder led to a greater feeling of fullness and satiety, which could be beneficial for weight management.
Another study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition compared the effects of whey protein and rice protein on insulin levels in healthy adults. The study found that both types of protein had similar effects on insulin levels, indicating that plant-based protein powders may not spike insulin levels any more than animal-based protein powders.
It’s important to note that individual responses to protein powder may vary based on factors such as age, gender, and overall health. Additionally, some plant-based protein powders may contain added sugars or other ingredients that can affect insulin levels. Therefore, it’s important to choose a high-quality protein powder that is free from additives where possible.
While there may be some concern about whether plant protein powder spikes insulin levels, the current research suggests that it may not be a significant concern.
The Science Behind Protein and Insulin
When we consume carbohydrates, our body breaks them down into glucose, which triggers the release of insulin to help transport the glucose into our cells for energy.
Protein, on the other hand, doesn’t directly stimulate insulin secretion. However, it does have an indirect effect on insulin levels. When we consume protein, our body breaks it down into amino acids, which can stimulate the release of a hormone called glucagon. Glucagon works in opposition to insulin, helping to regulate blood sugar levels by promoting the breakdown of stored glucose in the liver and the release of glucose into the bloodstream.
Some proteins, such as whey protein, have been shown to have a greater effect on insulin levels than others. Whey protein is a fast-digesting protein that can cause a rapid increase in blood amino acid levels, which in turn can stimulate insulin secretion.
Plant protein powders, on the other hand, tend to be slower digesting and have a lower impact on insulin levels. This is because plant proteins often have a higher fibre content, which can slow down the absorption of nutrients and prevent a rapid spike in blood sugar levels.
In basic terms, protein does have an indirect effect on insulin levels, but plant protein powders are unlikely to cause a significant spike in insulin levels.
Comparison with Animal-Based Protein
When it comes to protein powders, there are two main types: plant-based and animal-based. Animal-based protein powders, such as whey and casein, are derived from milk, while plant-based protein powders, such as pea and soy, are derived from plants.
One common concern with plant-based protein powders is that they may not be as effective at promoting muscle growth and recovery as animal-based protein powders. This is due to a lower leucine content in plant-based proteins . However, research has shown that this may not necessarily be the case.
A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that there were no differences in muscle protein synthesis rates following ingestion of wheat protein, milk protein, and their protein blend in healthy, young males . This suggests that plant-based protein powders can be just as effective at promoting muscle growth and recovery as animal-based protein powders.
Another study published in the Journal of Nutrition compared the impact of ingesting 30g of milk protein with the same amount of a plant-derived protein blend on muscle protein synthesis rates in healthy young men. The study found that the muscle protein synthetic response to the ingestion of a plant-derived protein blend did not differ from an equivalent amount of milk protein .
While there may be some differences in the amino acid profiles of plant-based and animal-based protein powders, it appears that both types can be effective at promoting muscle growth and recovery. It ultimately comes down to personal preference and dietary restrictions.
Effects on Blood Sugar Levels
Some studies have shown that plant protein powders can cause a slight increase in blood sugar levels, which in turn may lead to an increase in insulin levels. For example, a study published in the journal Phytotherapy Research found that protein-bound polysaccharides isolated from pumpkin can increase serum insulin levels and improve glucose tolerance in diabetic rats .
However, not all plant protein powders have the same effect on blood sugar levels. Fenugreek seeds and leaves, for instance, have been found to cause less increase in circulating glucose levels and the maximum blood sugar levels compared to other plant-based protein sources .
It is also important to note that the effect of plant protein powders on blood sugar levels may vary depending on the individual’s metabolic response. Some people may experience a significant spike in insulin levels after consuming plant protein powder, while others may not.
The effect of plant protein powder on blood sugar and insulin levels is not straightforward and may vary depending on the type of plant protein powder and the individual’s metabolic response.
Plant Protein Powder and Diabetes
Several studies have looked at the effect of replacing animal protein with plant protein on glycemic control in diabetes. One systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found that replacing animal protein with plant protein did not have a significant effect on fasting insulin levels in individuals with diabetes . However, another study found that isocaloric diets high in plant protein reduced liver fat and inflammation in individuals with type 2 diabetes .
Not all plant protein sources have the same effect on insulin levels. For example, some plant-based protein powders may have a higher glycemic index (GI) score and can cause a spike in blood sugar levels. Therefore, it is important to choose a plant protein powder that has a low GI score and does not cause a rapid rise in blood sugar levels.
Some plant-based sources of protein that have been shown to have a positive effect on insulin levels include protein-bound polysaccharides isolated from pumpkin  and mushrooms . These sources of protein have been found to increase insulin sensitivity and associated glucose uptake.
In conclusion, while replacing animal protein with plant protein may not have a significant effect on fasting insulin levels in individuals with diabetes, it is important to choose a plant protein powder with a low GI score to avoid a spike in blood sugar levels. Additionally, some plant-based sources of protein have been found to have a positive effect on insulin levels and may be beneficial for individuals with diabetes.
The evidence suggests that plant-based protein powders do not directly cause spikes in insulin levels like high-carb meals. While protein can stimulate some insulin release through gluconeogenesis, this effect is generally less than with carbohydrates. Research indicates that plant proteins tend to have a lower impact on insulin levels compared to animal proteins due to their higher fibre content and slower digestion.
The effects of plant protein powder on blood sugar and insulin can vary based on the source and the individual. However, by choosing a low glycemic index protein powder, such as a whey isolate, people with diabetes can likely incorporate these supplements safely into their diet.
Research indicates that plant protein powders (or protein powders in general) do not automatically spike insulin levels or blood sugar when consumed as part of a balanced diet. By choosing a protein powder that has minimal additives such as sugars and sweeteners, both diabetics and healthy individuals can likely use plant-based protein supplements without worrying about dramatic insulin spikes.
 Effect of replacing animal protein with plant protein on glycemic control in diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Available at: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/7/12/9804
 Isocaloric diets high in animal or plant protein reduce liver fat and inflammation in individuals with type 2 diabetes. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016508516352295
 Effects of protein-bound polysaccharide isolated from pumpkin on insulin in diabetic rats. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11130-005-2536-x
 Development of a Functional Acceptable Diabetic and Plant-Based Snack Bar Using Mushroom (Coprinus comatus) Powder. Available at: https://www.mdpi.com/2304-8158/12/14/2702