Protein builds and repairs our muscles, cartilage, and skin, boosts metabolism, fills us up, and strengthens the immune system. If we don’t eat enough protein, we lose muscle mass and strength, metabolism slows, immune function falters, and we become prone to conditions such as anemia. We’ve put together a complete protein food list made up of high-protein foods with all the essential amino acids...so you never need to wonder if you’re getting enough protein again.
The Building Blocks of Protein
String together a sequence of amino acids and you’ve got yourself a protein. In fact, proteins are made from 20 different amino acids in unique combinations that determine the protein’s role in the body.
When you eat protein, your body immediately gets to work breaking it apart into its individual amino acids for various uses, such as stimulating muscle growth, making neurotransmitters, or acting as antibodies or antioxidants.
Some of these amino acids, 11 to be precise, are nonessential amino acids, which means that while they are critical to the proper functioning of the body, you can make them internally and don’t necessarily have to get them from your diet, barring times of illness and stress.
The other nine are called essential amino acids, and they can’t be made in the body, which means it’s crucial that you get them from your diet by eating complete protein foods.
What Makes a Protein Complete?
A complete protein is a protein that contains all nine essential amino acids:
It can’t be skimpy in even one essential amino acid to truly qualify as a complete protein food, and this is where plant proteins often fall short.
You see, animal proteins such as meat and eggs contain essential amino acid profiles that mimic that of human skeletal muscle. They contain enough of all the essential amino acids to meet the recommendations of the World Health Organization/Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations/United Nations University (WHO/FAO/UNU) (1).
Plant protein sources, even proteins such as soy protein and pea protein, are lacking in certain essential amino acids, such as lysine, methionine, and leucine. Plant foods also aren’t as digestible or bioavailable, which makes it tricky for vegans and vegetarians to get enough complete protein foods in their diet (don’t worry...we have a work around for this!)
Complete Protein Foods You Can Count On
When it comes to complete protein foods, here are the ones you can count on without question:
Yes, they all come from animal products. But that doesn’t mean plant-based sources of protein aren’t a worthwhile addition to your diet. Especially when mixed and matched with complementary proteins to fill in essential amino acid gaps.
Plant Proteins That Are Nearly Complete
Plant food sources with all nine essential amino acids (keep in mind that they may not meet the WHO/FAO/UNU requirements in individual amounts) include:
- Soybeans (soy milk, tempeh, edamame, tofu)
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Ezekiel bread
There are other creative ways for people on a vegan diet to make sure they’re eating complete proteins. One is to combine two incomplete proteins that complement each other, such as rice and beans. Legumes like lentils and chickpeas are low in methionine but high in lysine, while rice is low in lysine but high in methionine. When eaten together, rice and beans even out essential amino acid intake. Or grind up the chickpeas into hummus and eat with pita, another complementary pairing.
Whole wheat bread and peanut butter or two popular incomplete protein sources that, when combined as a peanut butter sandwich make a more complete team.
How to Make Sure Your Protein Intake Is Complete
Vegetarians and vegans aren't the only people who can have difficulty eating enough protein. Studies show that older adults do not meet the recommended daily allowance for protein, and in times of illness, stress, or surgery, it's tough for patients to meet their protein needs through healthy eating alone.
That's where a protein powder made up of all the essential amino acids can come in handy. The beauty of essential amino acid powders is that they cut out the middle man (dietary proteins like whey protein) and go straight to protein's source—essential amino acids!
Designed to be vegetarian or vegan approved, essential amino acid powders get to work faster building and repairing muscles and boosting metabolism for weight loss.
If you're looking for a complete protein source that's vegetarian-based, gluten-free, and low-fat, with little-to-no carbohydrates, then we highly recommended Amino Co essential amino acid blends. They're based on 40 years of research and developed by the world's leading protein nutrition scientists. You can shop the Amino Co product line here.
Complete protein foods are an important part of a healthy diet, but they certainly aren't the only part. Balance out your protein intake with veggies, healthy fats, whole grains, nuts and seeds like pumpkin seeds, and legumes like black beans, which give you an additional 8 grams of protein in half a cup!