Complete Protein for Vegetarians [and everyone else]

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It’s easy to get enough protein without eating animals, but the doubters often have another concern: Are these meat-free protein sources complete?  
 
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 the 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. In order to be considered “complete,” a protein must contain all nine of these essential amino acids.

Yes, meat and eggs are complete proteins, and beans and nuts aren’t. But humans don’t need every essential amino acid in every bite of food in every meal they eat; we only need a sufficient amount of each amino acid every day. Most dieticians believe that plant-based diets contain such a wide variety of amino acid profiles that vegans are virtually guaranteed to get all of their amino acids with very little effort.

Still, some people want complete proteins in all of their meals. No problem — meat’s not the only contender. Eggs and dairy also fit the bill, which is an easy get for the vegetarians, but there are plenty of other ways to get complete proteins. Here are some of the easiest:

Quinoa: Protein: 8 grams per 1 cup serving, cooked 
A food so healthy that NASA hopes we’ll grow it on interplanetary space flights, quinoa looks a lot like couscous, but it’s way more nutritious. Full of fiber, iron, magnesium, and manganese, quinoa is a terrific substitute for rice and it’s versatile enough to make muffins, fritters, cookies, and breakfast casseroles

Hummus and Pita: Protein: 7 grams per 1 whole-wheat pita and 2 tablespoons of hummus
The protein in wheat is pretty similar to that of rice, in that it’s only deficient in lysine. But chickpeas have plenty of lysine, giving us all the more reason to tuck into that Middle Eastern staple: hummus and pita. Chickpeas have a pretty similar amino acid profile to most legumes, so don’t’ be afraid to experiment with hummus made from cannellini, edamame, or other kinds of beans.

Peanut Butter Sandwich: Protein: 15 grams per 2-slice sandwich with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter 
See how easy this is? Every time legumes like beans, lentils, and peanuts are combined with grains like wheat, rice, and corn, a complete protein is born. Peanut butter on whole wheat is an easy snack that, while pretty high in calories, provides a heaping dose of all the essential amino acids and plenty of healthy fats to boot.

 There are tons more options, and once you get the hang of pairing foods to create a complete protein- you’ll be making your own combos in no time!

Until then, click here for more meatless complete proteins: 12 Complete Proteins Vegetarians Need to Know About

WINForum recommends healthy well balanced eating that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein and low-fat dairy. We offer nutrition information that emphasizes the importance of healthy eating for peak performance. For more on this topic please visit www.winforum.org

About the author

The Washington Interscholastic Nutrition Forum (WINforum) is a research based sport nutrition resource for student-athletes, parents, coaches, and professionals in the field of athletics. Our team of Sports Nutritionists (Registered Dieitians with a specialty in sports nutrition) keep our website stocked with accurate, science based nutrition information and sport nutrition tips, in order to help athletes and coaches reach their full potential on and off the field.