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Complete Your Protein from Plants!

Nina Ghamrawi, MS, RD, CDE
November 14, 2022
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It’s easy to get enough protein without eating animals, but your mother/aunt/neurotic friend may constantly ask you, “Are these meat-free protein sources complete?” If you are vegan or vegetarian, it is important to combine different plant proteins to get all the essential amino acids that you need in a day. This perfect protein combination has many names, “perfect protein,” complementary proteins,” or “complete proteins.” Here’s how to get them in your daily routine.

Most dietitians believe that plant-based diets contain such a wide variety of amino acid profiles that vegans who follow a varied, healthful diet are virtually guaranteed to get all their amino acids with very little effort. The term “complete protein” refers to amino acids, the building blocks of protein. There are 20 different amino acids that can form a protein and nine that your body can’t produce on its own. These are called essential amino acids - we need to eat them because we can’t make them ourselves. To be considered “complete,” a protein must contain adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids.

Yes, meat and eggs are complete proteins, and beans, grains, and nuts aren’t. But don't worry about getting complete proteins in every bite of food at every meal - we only need a sufficient amount of each amino acid each day.

Complementary protein combinations is when you combine two vegetable proteins (legumes and grains for an example) to get all 9 amino acids that are essential for your body.

For vegetarians and vegans looking to have a perfect, complementary protein combination, legumes like beans and lentils are the star of the show.

Legumes, for example, contain the most variety of amino acids, and in the right balance, but they are generally low in one key amino acid, called methionine. To get methionine, add some grains, nuts, or seeds to your legumes.

But you can also get protein from other plant sources, like vegetables, and another grain, corn. The breakdown of protein complementation goes like this:

Plant Protein Source Most Limited Amino Acid What to Complement
Beans Methionine Grains, nuts, seeds
Grains Lysine, threonine Legumes
Nuts, seeds Lysine Legumes
Vegetables Methionine Grains, nuts, seeds
Corn Tryptophan, lysine Legumes
Soybeans, tofu, and other soy products None None - it is complete by itself

It may seem confusing at first, to know how to combine your foods in each day or meal to get complete proteins, but after studying this chart and applying it a few times, it will soon become natural! If you need a little jumpstart, here’s a good example of a day’s worth of food, and links to a couple recipes.

An Example of Perfect Proteins for your Vegan Day

In short, proteins from soybeans are fully complete by themselves, and don’t generally need to be combined with other plants to be complete. However, grains and legumes together or nuts or seeds combined together with legumes are both examples of complementary, or perfect proteins, because when you combine them, you get all of the 9 essential amino acids that your body needs in a day.

Takeaways

In short, being vegan, vegetarian, or even partially vegan, can be a great way to stay healthy and shouldn’t lead you to constantly explaining yourself to others. But you should definitely focus on getting enough variety of nutrients in your day to ensure that your meals leave no vitamin out! If you are wondering about how to make your meals perfect, or you are just want a second look to ensure that you are getting all the nutrients that you need on a vegetarian or vegan diet, talk with your dietitian, or schedule a Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT) consult with one of our dietitians! Also check out our article about the different food sources of proteins!

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