When we think of dietary protein, foods like beef, chicken and fish usually come to mind. Aside from the ongoing health debate regarding meat, animal protein sources are still considered a great way to get protein as they are complete protein sources. What makes a protein complete or incomplete depends on whether or not it contains all of the essential amino acids that our body cannot make.
Out of the full range of 20 amino acids, or the “building blocks” of protein, there are 9 essential amino acids that need to be consumed in your diet. The other 11 amino acids can almost always be made within our bodies (except in certain rare diseases or disorders). Meat, fish, milk and eggs are all examples of complete proteins, as they have all 9 essential amino acids in large quantities. Our bodies are able to utilize these proteins to the fullest, and their essential amino acids can be used to repair tissue and form hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters, among performing other functions. However, there are many plant-based eaters in the world that don’t have such wide accessibility to complete protein sources and amino acids. There are a few vegetarian sources that contain all 9 essential amino acids, including eggs and dairy (for those lacto-ovo vegetarians), as well as quinoa, buckwheat, hemp seeds, chia seeds, and spirulina.
Other foods such as nuts, seeds, legumes, grains and veggies are considered incomplete proteins because they are missing one or more of the essential amino acids. This is when pairing foods comes in handy! For example, beans are a great source for the amino acid lysine, but low in methionine. Rice, on the other hand, is low in lysine, but a great source for methionine. When you put these foods together, you have the perfect pair! As long as vegetarians try to consume as many complete proteins as possible and consume plant-based foods in combination, such as beans and rice, they are good to go! For vegan amino acids for those who don’t eat any animal food products whatsoever, eating complimentary proteins is even more important. Additionally, those on a vegan diet will need to supplement with vitamin B12, which is an essential vitamin only found in animal food sources. It is always important to consult a medical doctor or specialist when modifying your diet or omitting any food groups. If you love plant-based eating, there is always a way to source complete proteins and essential amino acids!