Is there such a thing as complete and incomplete proteins? If those exist then, can you combine the incomplete to “make” a complete one? Could you use a chart that serves you as an easy guide?
Then you have come to the right place! After reading this article you’ll understand all you need to know about proteins, the “complete” proteins myth, and how to get everything you need from a vegan diet.
You can also download a complete protein combinations chart at the end of this article.
What are complete proteins?
Protein is made up of amino acids which are considered its building blocks. There are 20 types of amino acids that can form a protein, 11 of which are produced by our bodies and 9 that aren’t.
These are called essential amino acids and should be sourced from food since our bodies can’t make them.
A protein is considered ‘complete’ when it contains adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids. On the other hand, foods that contain only a few amino acids are considered incomplete proteins.
Animal foods are a source for complete proteins, but there are also options for vegans and no need to worry about getting of them on a plant-based diet.
Why are complete proteins important?
Protein is responsible for performing vital functions in your body such as:
- Growing and maintaining muscle,
- Transporting and storing nutrients,
- Promoting a healthy metabolism
- Creating infection-fighting antibodies.
Additionally, your brains, organs, muscle, and connective tissue are literally made of amino acids so without complete proteins in your diet, you may feel sluggish, lose muscle mass, have skin, hair, and nail problems, increase your risk of bone fractures and infections and have a bigger appetite.
Which foods are complete proteins?
Complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids inconsistent amounts. Here are some complete protein examples:
What about plant-based complete proteins?
Despite the myth that you can’t get enough protein or complete protein through a vegan diet, there is actually a few plat-based sourced of comple protein:
Soy has an unfounded bad reputation but it is actually a great source of complete plant-based protein contrary to other beans which are normally low in the amino acid methionine. You can find soy as beans, edamame, tofu, tempeh, or soymilk. One for every taste.
Soy is also low in fat and free of saturated fat and cholesterol. Here’s how much protein each form contains:
- Firm Tofu: 12 grams per ½-cup serving
- Tempeh: 15 grams per 3-ounce serving
- Edamame: 17 grams per 1-cup serving
- Soymilk: 8 grams per 1 cup
This ancient grain contains 8 grams of protein per cup serving and is also full of nutrients like fiber, iron, and magnesium. Though quinoa is mostly used as a rice substitute, you can also use it to make nutritious high-protein muffins, pancakes, cookies, and breakfast bowls.
Buckwheat is usually mistaken for a grain but it’s actually a seed and provides 6 grams of protein per cup (cooked). It offers many health benefits like reducing blood pressure, lowering cholesterol, and controlling glucose levels.
You can eat this healthy seed by cooking like oatmeal or grinding it into flour that you can then use in any recipe.
Hemp is one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth cultivated for its useful bast fiber and nutritious edible seeds. It is the same species of plant as cannabis but it contains very low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), less than 0.3%.
Hemp is a high-quality vegan protein proving 11 grams of protein per 30 grams ( 2–3 tablespoons). It is also a good source of fiber, healthy fats and minerals.
Chia seeds are tiny round seeds that provide 4 grams of protein per two tablespoons along with important nutrients such as omega-3s, iron, calcium, magnesium, and fiber.
These unique seeds can absorb liquid and form a gel-like substance so they’re also commonly used as an egg substitute in vegan baking. You can also add them to your salads, smoothies, or use them to prepare easy and delicious chia puddings.
This pseudo-cereal has some similarities to quinoa offering 7 grams of protein per A quarter-cup. It boasts an impressive nutrient resume, providing twice as much iron as quinoa and close to double the amount of protein found in rice and corn.
It can be roasted, popped, boiled, and added to other dishes, making it a versatile pantry item. Check out this article for more ways to incorporate Amaranth into your cooking.
Complete protein combinations – Chart
If you follow a plant-based diet, you don’t need to limit yourself to eating only complete vegan proteins or worry about eating every single amino acid every day.
You also don’t need to mix and match incomplete proteins to create complete protein at every meal or even over the course of the day.
Eating a variety of plant foods such as legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole grains on a daily basis will allow for you to get the all the complete protein you need.
However, if you want to do it anyway, here are the best combinations to make complete vegetable proteins:
Pair legumes and grains.
Pair legumes with seeds.
Seed sprouts (Alfalfa seed, Lentils, Mung Beans, Peas)
Pair Legumes with Nuts.
Complete Protein Combinations Chart
Complete Protein Combinations Ideas
- Beans and Rice
- Dahl (Indian lentil stew with rice)
- Chickepa Chana Masala with rice
- Peanut butter sandwich (on whole-wheat bread)
- Tacos with beans and wheat tortilla
- Split-pea soup with brown rice
- Vegetable chili with cornbread
- Bean chili and crackers
- Refried beans and tortillas
- Falafel (chickpea pancake) with pita bread
- Whole-grain pita bread and hummus
- Lentil soup with whole-grain slice of bread
- Pasta salad with kidney beans
- Pasta with lentil bolgonesa
- Oatmeal with peanut butter
- Bean curd with sesame seeds
- Classics Hummus: chickpea and tahini (sesame paste)
- Chickpea salad with sprouts
- Trail mix with peanuts and seeds
- Lentil patties with tahini sauce
- Lentils and hemp meatballs
- Buckwheat and hemp pancake
Do you need to worry about complete proteins?
If you’re eating a varied, whole-foods diet, the answer is probably not.
The concept of “incomplete proteins: was first popularized in the 1971 book, Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé.
In it, the author stated that plant foods are deficient in some essential amino acids, so you needed to eat a combination of plant foods at the same time to get all of the essential amino acids in the right amounts.
Lappé was not a doctor of a nutritionist but a sociologist trying to end world hunger by providing a sustainable alternative to animal protein. She later retracted her statement and affirmed that humans can get getting enough protein and aminoacid from plant sources if they consume sufficient calories but unfortunately the incomplete protein myth is still going strong.
Modern researchers know that it is impossible to eat enough calories of a whole natural plant-based diet that is deficient in any of the amino acids. (Except for one based only on fruit).
additoanlly, you can meet the recommended amino acid requirement by eating any single whole natural plant food, or any combination of them, as one’s sole source of calories for a day, would provide all of the essential amino acids and not just
To wrongly suggest that people need to eat animal protein for proper nutrition encourages consumption of foods known to contribute to the incidence of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, many forms of cancer, and other common health problems.
So, no, you don’t need to worry about complete protein if you are eating a varied plant-based diet of mostly whole foods.
How much protein do you really need?
The DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) is 0.36 grams of protein per pound (0.8 grams per kg) of body weight.
This means that an average woman needs about 46 grams of protein per day and an average man about 56.
Protein deficiency is almost unheard of in the United States and on the contrary, most Americans consume about double the amount they actually need.
Keep in mind that these recommendations can vary based on your lifestyle and goals. If you are looking to gain muscle mass or are training for a marathon, your needs won’t be the same as the average man or woman so it is best to consult with a physician.
You can also check this article to calculate your protein (and other macronutrients) requirements based on your fitness goals.