Are Beans a Complete Protein?

Find out whether beans are a complete protein, and also learn about the health benefits that beans have to offer for weight management, digestive comfort, heart health, and blood sugar control.

You’ve heard about complete proteins, and you know that beans are a great non-animal protein source, but you find yourself asking, “Are beans a complete protein?” We will provide you with that answer, as well as the specific definitions of what makes a complete protein, and whether or not so-called “complementary proteins” get the job done in providing you with all nine of the essential amino acids that keep your body growing and functioning.

What Is a Complete Protein?

When someone speaks of a “complete protein” they are referring to the amino acid content of a food. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein in the body, meaning they are involved in building muscle, repairing tissue, and so much more (like producing your much-needed hormones).

There are 20 different amino acids in the human body, nine of which are considered essential, meaning they must come from a food source because the body can’t create them in-house. A complete protein has all nine of these essential amino acids, not least because for protein synthesis and muscle creation in the body, all nine are necessary.

Examples of complete proteins are eggs, chia seeds, Greek yogurt, quinoa, and soybeans. These are all great sources of protein that are either non-meat or plant proteins, and thus are especially valuable for those keeping vegetarian diets as well as vegan diets (where it’s all the more difficult to get enough protein).

When talking about foods, complete proteins must have all nine essential amino acids in sufficient amounts. If a food is lacking in one or two amino acids, it needs to be eaten with a complementary protein to make for a complete protein meal.

What Are Complementary Protein Combinations?

When you have a food that has, say, eight out of nine essential amino acids, or you have a food with all nine but two of the amino acids are only present in trace amounts and, therefore, not enough for your body to effectively use, well… what then? Of course, it’s not as if an incomplete protein is suddenly trash food to be thrown to the wolves, so what can you do?

No worries: if a complete protein is what you’re after, then you might easily pair two foods in one dish, each of which have complementary amino acid profiles. What one food lacks, the other makes up for, and vice versa!

One of the best-known examples is hummus eaten with pita bread. The protein in whole wheat is almost complete, deficient only in the amino acid lysine. Meanwhile the protein in chickpeas does contain a significant helping of lysine, which together makes this Middle Eastern staple a complete protein snack. Combine one whole wheat pita and 2 tablespoons of hummus, and you net 7 grams of protein. Other easy combinations for complementary protein sources include a whole wheat bread and peanut butter sandwich, hemp seeds added to a dish with lentils, or non-Greek yogurt combined with almonds or sunflower seeds.

So… Are Beans A Complete Protein?

The answer is: not without rice! Most beans are high in lysine but low in the essential amino acid methionine. Whole grain rice on the other hand is low in lysine, but rather high in methionine. On top of that, rice and beans is one of the simplest and most affordable vegan meals around (for those who are only interested in plant sources of protein), and one of the easiest sources of protein you can make for dinner. In a 1-cup serving of rice and beans you can gain a complete protein content of 7 grams. This meal choice is also a great way to load back up on carbs and protein after a workout.

The Many Health Benefits of Beans

Beans are valuable not just as a source of protein for your daily protein requirements, but for many more of the nutrients your body needs. Check out the following nutrition facts about beans, and see if you don’t feel like making rice and beans a regular staple of your household.

Learn whether beans are a complete protein.

The Bean Family

Beans are seeds that come from the Fabaceae flowering plant family, and are technically classified as legumes (a member of the pea family). Other legumes are peanuts, lentils, and (of course) peas. The bean family includes the following varieties:

  • Black beans
  • Soybeans
  • Garbanzo beans
  • Pinto beans
  • Lima beans
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Kidney beans
  • Navy beans
  • Red beans

The Health Benefits of Beans

Outside of its protein and amino acid content, check out just what else beans can offer to your health and well-being with these six facts.

1. Nutrient Density

Beans are full of the vitamin folate, which is vital for pregnant women and for anyone in their early childhood or adolescence, which are periods of time when we are growing rapidly. Note here that dried beans have close to double the folate of canned beans. Though it may take an extra step in preparation, cooking your own beans from their dried form is better for you in the folate department. However, even canned beans contain more folate than so many other foods, so they’re still worthy of inclusion if they’re easier for you to work with. A lack of folate can lead to folate deficiency anemia, which can result in heart palpitations, fatigue, irritability, and loss of appetite.

Some other important nutrients in beans include zinc, iron, magnesium, and fiber, needed regularly in our diets for comfortable digestion and gut health.

2. Heart Health

Consuming beans on a regular basis shows a correlation in scientific studies to a reduced likelihood of death from stroke, heart attack, and other cardiovascular diseases. A multi-study analysis from 2013 showed a clear connection between the consumption of beans and a reduction in risk from coronary heart disease, while even more research suggests that beans have the potential to lower dangerous LDL cholesterol levels, another contributor to heart disease.

3. Antioxidant and Anti-Cancer Properties

Rich in the antioxidants known as polyphenols, which help combat the damage done by free radicals in the body, beans can help prevent certain forms of cancer according to the American Institute for Cancer Research, as well as unhealthy inflammation. There has been research showing that black beans specifically have the highest antioxidant effect, which you may want to take into consideration when you’re choosing between beans at the grocery store.

4. Glucose Metabolism and Diabetes

Because beans are high in fiber, they can help prevent diabetes and stabilize blood glucose levels. Beans are often considered a diabetes superfood, with the American Diabetes Association saying specifically that pinto, navy, kidney, and black beans are each full of important vitamins and minerals like potassium and magnesium. Soybeans are also contributors to pancreatic health, and the pancreas produces the insulin that regulates blood sugar in the human body.

5. Appetite Control

Not only do people often feel fuller after eating beans due to their starch and fiber content, which cuts down on their caloric intake each day, but these healthful aspects of beans can even help prevent food cravings in the first place. Appetite control means a greater ease at losing body weight, which is valuable for those struggling with obesity and the health concerns that accompany the condition.

6. Preventing Fatty Liver Issues

When fats accumulate in the liver, it could lead to the metabolic disorder that is fatty liver disease. Beans can contribute to the prevention of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, another health benefit from this protein provider (even if it’s not at the golden ratio of a “complete protein”).

These Beneficial Beans: Are There Any Downsides?

The most common complaint about beans is that they can cause gas and increase intestinal discomfort as a result (beans, beans, the musical fruit…). Though it’s usually not dangerous, some may find having extra gas to be quite unpleasant. There is a way to better avoid the issue: by hot-soaking, boiling, or pressure-cooking beans, you can reduce the chance of having gas or intestinal issues as a result of your meal. This practice may also be of use to those with IBS or inflammatory bowel syndrome who may want to include the protein and nutrients of beans in their diet, but must be wary of the strong fiber content on the digestive tract.

Protein, Pro-Beans

Long story short: no, beans are not considered one of the independent sources of complete protein, but they can easily become complete when paired with whole grain rice or cornbread (which go together as well as red beans and rice in that they’re all complete proteins). When searching for complete protein foods, it’s vital not to limit yourself when complementary proteins combos are available as well. You should welcome beans into your diet not just for the sake of your health, but for the rich variety of flavors and textures that make living well both a pleasure and a joy.

When Is the Best Time to Take Protein?

The best time to take protein supplements depends on your activity level, your personal goals, and the types of workouts you engage in. This article will provide you with specific, scientifically backed recommendations, and the reasoning behind that advice.

When taking protein supplements, people often wonder when exactly is the best time of day to consume them. Pre-workout? Post-workout? Is it okay to drink a protein shake before bed? Protein supplements can help people lose weight, build muscle, and recover from tissue damage due to injury or surgery. Because they’re so effective, most people want to be sure they’re utilizing protein the right way. So when is the best time to take protein? Short answer is: that depends on your health goals and the kinds of workouts you’re doing. For the longer answer and more detail, read on.

The Different Types of Protein Supplements

Protein is a source of energy for the body, essential for muscle growth, repairing damaged tissue, and preventing certain infections and diseases. Normal dietary protein comes from foods like meats, eggs, fish, dairy, grains, legumes, and seeds. Though animal products contain the most amount of protein, vegetables are sources of protein too, a fact well-known by those living a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Of the most popular protein powders on the market in fact, a significant portion are plant-based.

Plant-based proteins include:

  • Soy protein containing all nine essential amino acids.
  • Rice protein, which is lower in the essential amino acid lysine.
  • Pea protein, which has lower levels of the essential amino acid methionine and nonessential amino acid cysteine.
  • Hemp protein, which is low in lysine but high in fiber, and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, both of which are essential, meaning your body can’t make them on its own, and needs to gain them from the foods you eat.

Dairy-based proteins include:

  • Whey protein, which is absorbed relatively quickly and contains all nine essential amino acids.
  • Casein protein from milk curds, also containing the essential amino acids, and with a slower digestion rate than whey (which is why people often take casein before they sleep, so it will digest throughout the night… more on that timing below).

Animal-based proteins include:

  • Egg protein powder made from pure egg white protein.
  • Creatine, which is not found in plants but can be synthetically created. Though it is an animal protein, depending on its origin source, it may nevertheless be possible for vegans to use creatine as a supplement.

These are among the most commonly known protein powders available to buy, but we here at the Amino Co. have also developed an essential amino acid (EAA) blend that isn’t lacking or low on any of the amino acids required for protein synthesis and new muscle growth. It also blends free-form amino acids with whey protein and creatine, a nonessential protein that nevertheless has great value as a supplement. These forms of protein are used to help those who want to build muscle rapidly, and can even benefit those with muscle, neurological, or neuromuscular diseases.

The Varied Uses of Protein Supplementation

From muscle building to weight loss, here’s a quick look at all that supplemental protein can do to benefit your body.

Exercise Performance and Recovery

Added protein has been shown to increase endurance during training and workouts, as well as reduce soreness and speed up post-workout recovery. The timing of your protein intake matters here, whether you’re eating high-protein foods or taking supplements. Read on to learn about workout-specific timing recommendations.

Muscle Building

Muscles can only be built when you have the proper amount of amino acids for protein synthesis, and when you’re consuming more protein than your body breaks down during workouts. Taking a protein supplement, especially one that contains all the necessary EAAs for muscle growth, can make a huge difference. Finding the right anabolic window, the period of time when the protein you take in will go directly to your muscles, is something the International Society of Sports Nutrition has done extensive research on, and we, too, will provide specific scientific reasoning below.

Muscle Loss Prevention

Muscle mass is lost not only during intensive workouts, but also naturally as we age. Each decade you live after the age of 30 brings with it a higher risk of losing muscle (anywhere between 3-8% per decade). Proper protein intake is not only valuable to athletes, bodybuilders, and anyone who works out regularly, but it’s also important for each and every one of us as we age. Most Americans reserve their protein more for dinner than breakfast (3 times the amount on average is the difference between the two meals), and could use a supplemental boost of protein first thing in the morning to shore up their protein stores and help prevent the loss of muscle mass due to aging.

Fat Loss Facilitation

Protein is filling enough to help curb hunger pangs and chemically contributes to appetite suppression by reducing the “hunger hormone” ghrelin. A high-protein diet raises your metabolism and increases levels of appetite-reducing hormones like peptide YY (PYY) and glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1). More satiety means fewer calories consumed throughout the day, which quickly leads to safe, maintainable weight loss and the reduction of dangerous body fat.

The Enduring Power of Protein

Popular because they’re convenient and effective, protein powders and supplements are here to stay and can offer you a wide variety of options, from self-mix formulas and powders to ready-to-drink protein shakes. If you’ve got your preferred protein supplement ready to go, then it’s time to wonder: when should you drink protein?

The Best Time to Take Protein Depending on Your Workout

Depending on your goals and activities, there are recommended times to take protein for the greatest effectiveness for your energy levels and muscle-building needs. Here are specific recommendations based on different types of workout activity.

The best time to take protein supplements.

Aerobic/Cardiovascular Exercise

Best time to take protein: Pre-workout and post-workout

The amino acid leucine is one of the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), and it promotes muscle recovery after workouts. Not only that, it activates protein synthesis, prompting new muscle to be built. One might think that due to leucine’s ability to boost endurance and stamina, one should take a BCAA supplement before a workout, but the science contradicts that idea. Not only are BCAAs only three of the nine essential amino acids needed to construct new muscle, leucine and the other BCAAs (isoleucine and valine) experience oxidative degradation during aerobic activity.

BCAAs are Insufficient Pre-Workout

Adding these limited amino acids before your workout, especially in the unbalanced form of BCAAs instead of a complete EAA formula, means that a greater percentage will be oxidized and used for energy instead of muscle building. Your body does not want to be out of balance, so a sudden overabundance of a few amino acids will cause the body to clean up and reduce them in order to maintain equilibrium.

Rather than risk burning off the protein you put in because your body is only looking for energy sources, it’s better to take a full measure of EAAs within the hour after your aerobic workout, when your body is looking for supplies to rebuild. Leucine will be there to prompt muscle protein synthesis, and the rest of the essential amino acids will all be included in the ideal ratio for generating new muscle growth.

EAAs are Effective Pre- and Post-Workout

That being said, taking a complete amino acid protein supplement before an aerobic cardiovascular workout (like a high-intensity interval training or HIIT class), not only provides the necessary ingredients for muscle building, but also helps fight fatigue in a way that only taking BCAAs can’t, by fueling your body with the amino acids that help produce dopamine and serotonin in the brain.

Whether you’re walking, cycling, running stairs, or jumping rope, start by taking your EAA supplement 30 minutes before your workout session. The biggest benefit comes when you take your EAA supplement within an hour after your workout, when your blood flow is strong and active. Not only will the amino acids rush in to replace damaged muscle fibers with new muscle, EAAs can also help calm unnecessary inflammation. That will help quicken your recovery, allowing you to feel only the good side effects of working out, like increased energy and light euphoria, instead of soreness and fatigue.

Resistance Exercise

Best time to take protein: Pre-workout, during, and post-workout

Research has shown that EAAs given 30 minutes before a resistance exercise workout prompt muscle protein synthesis much more effectively than consuming EAAs afterwards does. Taking a protein supplement before this type of workout helps prevent the breakdown of muscle protein during the activity, and also increases blood flow to the muscles, thus getting the amino acids quickly into the muscle where they’re needed.

Consuming EAAs after a resistance workout is not harmful by any means, as that method, too, will prompt the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis, but it’s not ideal to leave the consumption of EAAs until after your resistance training is complete. Our recommendation is to first and foremost take a complete protein supplement before a resistance workout, and if possible take them throughout and/or after as well to get the most benefit.

Bodybuilding

Best time to take protein: Pre- and post-workout, and also before bed.

Immediately before and after a weight-lifting workout, we recommend that you take 15 grams of EAAs each. An EAA supplement has been shown to have a faster effect on muscle protein synthesis than either whey or casein protein alone. However, our Amino Co. blend of free-form EAAs with whey and creatine support ensures that you get a fast dose of EAAs and that the EAAs from whey will digest more slowly as you work out, offering a steady supply to help prevent muscle breakdown. Creatine helps prevent catabolism by supplying faster energy than your body can naturally generate from muscle cell mitochondria. This means more energy for more reps, which ultimately means more work put in and more muscle gained.

An hour after your post-workout dose of EAAs, we recommend another 15-gram dose. On off days, continue taking these same doses, measured between meals instead of surrounding your workout. Lastly, it’s also recommended you take another 15-gram dose before bed to keep your muscles fed as you sleep and to help prevent muscle breakdown as much as possible. You work hard to gain your muscles, and we encourage you to protect those gains at every opportunity. Set your alarm to take one more dose around 4 am if you know you won’t have a problem falling back to sleep, that way your muscles never go hungry for fuel.

It should be noted here that bodybuilders aren’t the only ones who benefit from taking extra protein before bed. One study of 16 elderly men showed that those who consumed casein protein (which digests slowly) before bed had increased muscle growth over those who took a placebo, despite being less active individuals. When you’re sleeping, it’s the protein that counts, and not the activity.

Is There Any Downside to Taking Protein Supplements?

The majority of scientific studies into how our bodies process high amounts of protein show that you can safely consume plenty of protein without risk of harmful side effects. Unless your doctor advises against protein supplements or you have a known kidney issue like rhabdomyolysis, there is no need to worry about excessive protein intake; merely take your products as recommended and spread them throughout your day.

Timing Is Everything

At the end of the day, it’s true that people who work out need more protein, but even those with a less active lifestyle benefit from consuming extra protein for strength, for maintaining healthy weight levels, and for preventing the loss of muscle mass we all experience as we age.

Make a protein shake for breakfast, have another to curb your appetite between meals, and make another as a beneficial treat before bed. Know that the more regularly you take in balanced forms of protein like Amino Co.’s complete EAA blend, the more good you can do for your body. Whether you’re working out or not, upping your daily protein intake is safe and smart. Bulk up, slim down, and stay strong with protein!

What Are the Best Muscle Recovery Foods?

Wondering what muscle recovery foods are good for prevention and relief of delayed onset muscle soreness? This comprehensive list of foods full of healthy fats, amino acids, and natural sugars will support your workout and recovery goals.

After starting a new workout, you’re in for some growing pains. Delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS can affect anyone, from those new to working out to elite athletes incorporating different exercises into their routines. Whenever you push your muscles, either with unfamiliar exercises or longer durations, you’re creating microscopic tears to the muscles, which then cause stiffness, soreness, and pain. Are sore muscles a good sign? Yes, in a sense, because it means you’re using your muscles in new ways that will eventually lead to a better fitness profile. But don’t fret! Eating muscle recovery foods can help ease the discomfort and may even help decrease muscle soreness in the first place.

Using food as your method of recovery and prevention may truly be the best road to take. The other suggestions to help muscle recovery either take extra time or come with other risks, and none of them can get in front of DOMS before it starts. Getting a massage after every workout would be great, but do you have the time, the money? Rest and ice packs are perfectly reasonable options too, but it’s the rest that might bother you if you’re really excited about a new workout and seeing results. Do you really want to take a couple of days off after every workout to let your muscles recover? It might not be a bad idea, but with the right foods pre- and post-workout, it might not be necessary either.

The last refuge to treat the ache and pain of muscle soreness is to use painkillers. Whether it’s over the counter fare you’d take for any pains (a wincing headache for example, or to relieve menstrual cramps), or prescription painkillers meant for more serious pains (a wrenched back or dental surgery). And these pain killers come with health-compromising side effects that are best avoided.

So what can you eat that will make a difference? Here are some foods you might want to include on the menu on gym days.

 Muscle recovery foods for prevention and relief.

Muscle Recovery Foods

Whether for their protein content, iron content, anti-inflammatory properties, or amino acids, these foods can help your muscles heal faster.

Cottage Cheese

Cottage cheese has around 27 grams of protein per cup, and is often a regular food in the fitness community for those without any dietary restrictions surrounding milk products. In fact, the casein protein found in cottage cheese curds (as opposed to the whey protein found in watery milk) are often isolated and used as a workout protein supplement. As a slow-digesting protein, casein can help build and rebuild muscle while you sleep if it’s your last snack before bed.

The essential amino acid leucine is also present in cottage cheese, and comprises around 23% of the essential amino acids in muscle protein (the most abundant percentage of them all). Foods with leucine can help you build muscle by activating protein synthesis, and the faster you rebuild your muscle, the faster your muscle repair and workout recovery!

Eat it plain, or combine cottage cheese with some of the other recovery foods on this list to stack the benefits. Cottage cheese can even be used in baked goods and pancakes or included in protein shakes—don’t be afraid to get creative.

Sweet Potatoes

Adding sweet potatoes to your post-workout meal can help replenish your glycogen stores after a tough workout. Sweet potatoes are a great source of vitamin C and beta-carotene as well, and are loaded with fiber which helps to control appetite and maintain healthy digestion and build muscle.

Sweet potatoes can be baked whole in the oven or on a grill, cut into fries, spiced with cinnamon, or made savory with garlic powder and pepper. Enjoy them at the dinner table or on the go: a baked potato wrapped in foil can join you just about anywhere.

Baking Spices

Speaking of what you can put on sweet potatoes, it turns out some baking spices are good for post-workout recovery as well. Not so much in the form of gingerbread cookies or cinnamon rolls, but a study showed that cinnamon or ginger given to 60 trained young women (between the ages of 13 and 25) significantly reduced their muscle soreness post-exercise. If you’re already having a sweet potato, make it a little sweeter with some cinnamon, add it to oatmeal, or put some in your coffee for the extra boost.

Coffee

Did we just mention coffee? Good news: coffee’s on the list too. Research suggests that about 2 cups of caffeinated coffee can reduce post-workout pain by 48%, and another study showed that pairing caffeine with painkilling pharmaceuticals resulted in a 40% reduction of the drugs taken. If you do need pharmaceutical pain relief, maybe coffee can help you minimize just how much you take—caffeine is a much less dangerous stimulant than pain pills.

Turmeric

Another spice on the list, turmeric contains the compound curcumin, which is an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant, and has been shown to be a proven and reliable pain reliever. Whether it’s helping you with delayed onset muscle soreness or pain from an injury (workout-related or otherwise), turmeric eases both pain and swelling by blocking chemical pain messengers and pro-inflammatory enzymes.

As with the other spices, it can be easily added to baked goods, to coffee, and to oatmeal. With its beautiful golden color, you can even make what’s called “golden milk” or a turmeric latte by combining 2 cups of warm cow’s or almond milk with 1 teaspoon of turmeric and another teaspoon of ginger, and then sip your muscle soreness away.

Oatmeal

Speaking of oatmeal (and isn’t it nice that so many of these ingredients can be easily combined?), it, too, can help relieve muscle soreness. This complex carb gives you a slow and steady release of sugar, along with iron needed to carry oxygen through your blood, and vitamin B1 (thiamin), which can reduce stress and improve alertness. This is why oatmeal is a great way to start the day, but since it also includes selenium, a mineral that protects cells from free-radical damage and lowers the potential for joint inflammation, it’s a great food for those in high-intensity workout training as well (like, up to Olympic level training).

Use oatmeal as a daily vehicle for other healthy ingredients, including the spices on this list, and enjoy its reliable benefits.

Bananas

Easily sliced into oatmeal, included in smoothies, or eaten alone, not only are bananas a healthy way to replace sweets (frozen and blended they can even make a delicious ice cream alternative), bananas are also a great way to get much-needed potassium. Research suggests potassium helps reduce muscle soreness and muscle cramps like the dreaded “Charley horse” spasm that contracts your muscle against your will and might not let up until it causes enough damage to last for days. A banana a day could keep the Charley horse away, and is particularly delicious (and helpful) when paired with its classic mate: peanut butter.

Peanut Butter

The healthy fats and protein found in nut butters like peanut or almond butter can help repair sore muscles. A reliable source of protein for muscle building, with fiber for blood pressure aid, vitamin E for antioxidant properties, and phytosterols for heart health, peanut butter offers up a ton of benefit and is easy to eat anywhere. Make a sandwich, use it to help bind together portable protein balls filled with other ingredients, add it into smoothies, or just eat it from the jar with a spoon (no one’s judging).

Nuts and Seeds

If you’re a fan of protein balls, then you’re well acquainted with nuts and seeds, which are great additions to these protein-rich foods. While providing essential omega-3 fatty acids to fight inflammation, various nuts and seeds can provide you protein for muscle protein synthesis, electrolytes for hydration, and zinc for an immune system boost. Something as simple as a baggie full of almonds, walnuts, pumpkin, and cashews can help maximize your muscles. Mixing in seeds (sunflower, chia, pumpkin) adds a healthy density that can curb your hunger and satisfy your appetite for longer. They’re small but powerful assets in quick muscle recovery.

Manuka Honey

This is not your grocery store honey in its little bear- or hive-shaped bottle. Manuka honey comes from the Manuka bush in New Zealand, with a milder flavor than that of bee honey and a much thicker texture. It’s anti-inflammatory and rich in the carbs needed to replenish glycogen stores and deliver protein to your muscles. Drizzle it over yogurt or stir it into tea to gain its benefits.

Green Tea

Green tea is particularly helpful for muscle recovery purposes. With anti-inflammatory antioxidants, it makes an excellent pre- or post-workout drink to prevent muscle damage related to exercise, and also helps you stay hydrated.

Cacao

Cacao has high levels of magnesium, antioxidants, and B-vitamins, which reduce exercise stress, balance electrolytes, and boost immunity and energy levels. The antioxidant flavanols in cacao also help up the production of nitric oxide in your body, which allows your blood vessel walls to relax, lowering blood pressure and promoting healthy blood flow. Adding cacao powder to your high-quality protein shakes or a glass of cow/almond/coconut milk post-workout will bring you its benefits.

Tart Cherries

Tart cherry juice has been shown to minimize post-run muscle pain, reduce muscle damage, and improve recovery time in professional athletes like lifters, according to the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Enjoy tart cherry juice as a drink, or include the dried fruit as a part of your own muscle-building trail mix with the nuts and seeds discussed above. It’s not the only fruit or fruit juice you might include either. The nutrients in fruits like oranges, pineapples, and raspberries can also help speed up your recovery.

Salmon

Rich with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, muscle-building protein, and antioxidants, salmon is an extremely efficient post-workout food. Not an option if you are vegan or vegetarian, of course, but for the meat eaters among us, or those on the Paleo diet, salmon can specifically help prevent delayed onset muscle soreness, reduce inflammation, and provide you with an abundance of the protein needed for muscle growth. Eat this protein within 45 minutes after working out for maximum effect, either grilled, cooked up in salmon cakes, or raw in the form of sushi or sashimi. All of the above goes for tuna as well, by the way—reasons you might become a pescatarian.

Eggs

If you are an omnivore or ovo-vegetarian, eggs are great way to gain protein first thing in the morning, and an even more effective food to have immediately post-workout to help prevent DOMS. Like cottage cheese, eggs are a rich provider of leucine, and like salmon, eggs contain vitamin D (in their yolks). For your convenience, eggs can be boiled and brought along for immediate consumption after your training. Boil a dozen at the start of each week during your meal prep, and have an easy protein source in the palm of your hand every other day of the week.

Spinach

Did we really get all the way to the end of the list without a vegetable? So sorry! Let’s fix that with spinach. A powerhouse of antioxidants, not only can spinach help prevent diseases like heart disease and various cancers, but it also helps you recover quickly from intense exercise. Spinach’s nitrates help to strengthen your muscles, and its magnesium content helps maintain nerve function. Spinach helps to regulate your blood sugar (in case you worry about the spikes you might get from the sweeter items on this list), and can be added to many dinners, snuck into smoothies, or eaten on its own either raw or sautéed in olive oil.

Resist Damage and Recovery Quickly

These foods help with recovery from DOMS and reduce the amount of soreness you get in the first place by providing your body with the proteins and nutrients it craves when you’re working out to the best of your ability.

A quick note before you go. In your quest for pain-free muscles, you’ll want to avoid:

  • Refined sugar: Just one sugary soda a day can increase your inflammatory markers, as can white bread and other products with refined sugar. Natural sugars don’t bring that kind of adverse effect, so get your sugar from whole foods instead.
  • Alcohol: The dehydration caused by alcohol requires its own special recovery, and will deplete many of your vitamins (especially B vitamins). Some research suggests that alcohol can interfere with how your body breaks down lactic acid, which would increase muscle soreness. If you’re on a mission to build muscle, it’s best to avoid alcohol.

If you’re eating pretty well and avoiding what you shouldn’t eat, but still find muscle soreness a burden after working out, there is always the option to supplement.

What is the best supplement for muscle recovery? Evidence shows that getting all your body’s essential amino acids in balance will help specifically with muscle sprains and pulls, so when supplementing, just make sure you cover the waterfront (rather than choosing one or two essentials and neglecting the rest). Other than that, a diverse diet can be had in choosing natural preventions and remedies for healthy muscle recovery.

Top 24 Vegetarian Protein Sources

The top 24 vegetarian protein sources, including a list of valuable complete proteins, and information on the unique health benefits each food provides to the human body.

The quest for vegetarian protein sources is an important one. Protein and amino acid deficiency can lead to muscle loss, delayed healing, difficulty concentrating, and increased levels of depression and anxiety. When your body’s lacking what it needs, you won’t feel right, and you’ll know it.

This is why it’s important to make sure you get the protein intake you need from a vegetarian diet. Incomplete proteins like whole grains, produce, and nuts can do the job in concert with one other, but there are some foods that contain all nine essential amino acids required for proper human functioning: complete proteins.

We’ve assembled a list of the best vegetarian proteins below. Any of these foods will help ward off the symptoms of protein deficiency, but the complete protein foods listed at the end are for those who want to do some one-stop shopping when it comes to their amino acids intake.

Top 24 vegetarian protein sources.

Nuts and Seeds

We’ve compiled some of the healthiest and handiest snacks around.

1. Hemp Seeds

Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, hemp seeds are a protein source that can aid against obesity, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease. Hemp seeds are small sources of fiber that can be easily added to just about any food—stirred into oatmeal, blended into a protein shake or smoothie, or even sprinkled onto a salad. With 3.3 grams of protein per tablespoon, this is an easy ingredient to include in the foods and meals you already eat.

2. Almonds

Full of the amino acid arginine, almonds as a snack can contribute to healthy weight loss and fat burning, reduce the risk of heart disease, and curb hunger. With 6 grams of protein per ounce, almonds are also a source of nutrients that contribute to brain health, like vitamin E, folate, and carnitine, known for its neuroprotective benefits.

3. Cashews

Another conveniently healthy snack, cashews are an excellent resource for minerals like copper, manganese, magnesium, and phosphorus. With a fair amount of vitamin K, cashews also contain biotin, which is used for hair and nail health, and they have 5 grams of protein per ounce.

4. Pumpkin Seeds

Pumpkin seeds contain magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, antioxidants and 9 grams of protein per ounce. Containing the amino acid arginine, pumpkin seeds can help in situations of hair loss, and can be eaten raw or baked with added flavors like honey (for sweet) or garlic powder (for savory).

Beans and Legumes

Here are some hardy foods to add substantial protein to your diet.

5. Lentils

Lentils are a complete protein, but there’s a catch: they contain all nine essential amino acids, but they don’t contain sufficient methionine to meet ideal amino acid intake. Just 1 cup of lentils has 18 grams of protein, the same amount as three eggs. With a high-fiber content, lentils are filling when eaten and slow down digestion in a way that could help blunt spikes in blood glucose (a contributing factor to the development of type 2 diabetes).

6. Black Beans

With 39 grams of protein per cup, black beans are a heavy hitter in the protein department and a terrific way to meet your copper, manganese, vitamin B1, phosphorus, magnesium, and iron needs. Black beans are a great way to add valuable density to a pot.

7. Chickpeas

Chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, are legumes high in the amino acid lysine as well as fiber, iron, folate, zinc, phosphorus, and B vitamins. Just 1 cup of chickpeas has 39 grams of protein. Extremely popular in the form of hummus, when eaten with pita bread, that combined snack can become a complete protein.

Protein-Rich Grains

These modern and ancient grains are the staff of life.

8. Amaranth

An ancient grain that is naturally gluten free, amaranth offers up digestive fiber and calcium. Porridge-like when cooked, it is a particularly healthy replacement for or addition to morning cereal and oatmeal. It provides 9 grams of protein per cup.

9. Teff

A lesser-known ancient grain from the Ethiopian region, Teff is full of essential amino acids, vitamin C (quite unusual in a grain), and calcium. With 10 grams of protein per cup, again it could replace or enhance a bowl of oatmeal, a helping of grits, or a side of rice.

10. Triticale

Triticale is another whole grain (wheat-rye hybrid) with 24 grams of protein per cup and rich in iron, potassium, magnesium, and fiber. Triticale can be used instead of traditional baking flour in recipes.

Fruits and Veggies

Vitamin-rich vegetables and even some fruit can provide protein.

11. Spinach

With 5 grams of protein per cooked cup, spinach has almost the equivalent amount of protein as a hard-boiled egg (at half the calories). Eating spinach raw or steamed maintains the maximum amount of nutrients, namely high amounts of carotenoids, vitamin C, vitamin K, folic acid, iron, and calcium.

12. Tomatoes

Tomatoes contain lycopene, an antioxidant that may reduce your risk of bladder, lung, prostate, skin, and stomach cancers, as well as your risk of coronary artery disease. With 6 grams of protein per cup, tomatoes provide fiber and calcium and make a refreshing addition to many salads, sandwiches, and salsas.

13. Guava

This high-protein fruit has more than 4 grams of protein per cup. Along with fiber, guava has over 600% of your daily recommended vitamin C (about seven oranges worth). A brightly colored and delightfully zesty treat to include in any diet.

14. Artichokes

Artichokes are a good source of niacin, magnesium, potassium, copper, vitamin C, vitamin K, and folate. With about 10 grams of plant protein per cup, it has one of the highest protein yields among vegetables, and the artichoke has nearly twice the fiber of kale.

15. Peas

A high-protein food with 8 grams of protein per cup and nearly 100% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C, peas add a tantalizing texture to salads and mashed potatoes. Of course, they’re also enjoyed as a side dish all on its own. You can even mash them up for baby food, or flavor that mash and use it as a veggie spread for your morning toast.

Complete Proteins

Here’s the good stuff, the protein sources that contain all nine essential amino acids needed in your diet.

16. Quinoa

With 8 grams of protein per cup, quinoa is an ancient grain with wide modern popularity, included in over 1,000 products on the market and regularly showing up in strange places (like wrapped around a sushi roll or pressed into a veggie burger). With a mild flavor, quinoa can be seasoned to a variety of taste preferences and is an excellent source of unsaturated fats and fiber. Along with the nine essential amino acids, quinoa also contains the amino acid L-arginine, shown to promote muscle over fat gain in animal studies (let’s hope that proves true for the most dangerous game animal of all: humans!). In fact, quinoa contains about a dozen amino acids, making it a wonderful alternative to carbs like couscous or rice.

17. Soybeans

Soybeans and soy products like tofu and soy milk all contain protein: steamed soybeans have 8 grams per cup, tofu 20 grams per cup, and soy milk 4 grams per cup. Soy foods offer cardiovascular benefits, help prevent prostate and colon cancer, decrease hot flashes for women in menopause, and guard against osteoporosis. Tofu particularly can be formed and flavored to fit a variety of recipes.

18. Buckwheat

With 6 grams of protein per cup, buckwheat is a gluten-free seed full of fiber (more than the amount found in oatmeal) and magnesium, a mineral that’s important to metabolism. Buckwheat is not a wheat but a versatile cousin of rhubarb that can nevertheless function as a pancake mix, be formed into Japanese soba noodles, or be eaten as porridge.

19. Ezekiel Bread

Sprouted bread or Ezekiel bread has 4 grams of protein per slice and is made with the sprouted grains and legumes wheat, barley, lentils, beans, spelt, and millet. It contains 18 amino acids, including all 9 essential amino acids, which is not even close to true for most bread products. With one sandwich on Ezekiel bread you can gain 8 grams of protein during lunch alone.

Fun fact: Ezekiel bread is named after this passage in the Bible from Ezekiel 4:9: “Take wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt, put them in one vessel and make them into bread for yourself.” Intended as a last resort to make bread when a besieged Jerusalem was running low on supplies, it turned out to be a fantastic recipe fit for modern times, and an extraordinarily nutritious food.

20. Spirulina

Used as a whole food or dietary supplement, the vibrantly green spirulina is a biomass of cyanobacteria that can be eaten by humans and other animals. With 4 grams of protein per powdered teaspoon, it also provides the B vitamins B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), and B3 (niacin), along with copper, iron, magnesium, potassium, and manganese. An odd taste at first, spirulina can nevertheless be added to a variety of foods for the bevy of benefits it provides.

21. Quorn

Developed in the U.K. in the 1980s from a fungus relative of mushrooms and truffles, Quorn is often used as a faux meat in the form of tenders, burgers, and lasagna filling. With over 20 grams of fiber per cup, this product contains all nine essential amino acids.

22. Peanut Butter

With 65 grams of protein per cup, peanut butter is a tasty protein source that can be made into cookies, sandwiches, included in smoothies, and used as a spread on crackers or celery (add some raisins to make the classic “ants on a log” snack). Peanut butter also contains healthy fats and could prevent both cardiovascular and coronary artery disease. Choose the unsalted kind, with no hydrogenated oils or sugars added, and have a guilt-free treat!

23. Chia Seeds

With 2.5 grams of protein per tablespoon, chia seeds don’t contain that much protein, but they can easily make up for it by providing all nine essential amino acids. Chia seeds can absorb moisture and become gel-like, making them a fun addition to pudding and smoothies, and the omega-3s in chia seeds can help reduce the risk of heart disease. They can be sprinkled over soups and salads, made into a chia seed pudding for dessert, and used as an egg replacement in vegan cooking recipes once they are fully hydrated.

24. Eggs

Speaking of eggs, this last item is for the ovo-vegetarians only, but too important to leave off the list entirely. Eggs are one of the most nutrient-filled protein sources around. With 6 grams of protein per egg, they contain the disease-fighting nutrients lutein and zeaxanthin and are a classic breakfast food whether they’re prepared scrambled, sunny side up, baked into a quiche, or separated to make an egg white omelet. Along with being versatile as their own main ingredient (egg salad, deviled eggs, etc.), eggs are also a great binding element for cauliflower pizza dough or egg-washing cookies before baking.

Plentiful Vegetarian Protein Sources

A protein deficiency doesn’t have to be a concern for those keeping to a vegetarian diet, and in fact, since plant-based sources of protein are so abundant, protein deficiency in vegetarian and vegan diets is actually quite rare. There are many ways to add enough protein to your diet that will support healthy weight loss, increase muscle mass, and improve your overall health and well-being.

On a deeper level, choosing complete proteins to include in one’s diet gets down to the cellular level of wellness, providing the nine essential amino acids that only come to humans via dietary intake. The more you know about what your food truly provides to the human body, the more precise your choices (and recipes) will become.

While animal proteins are higher quality in that they contain an adequate balance of the essential amino acids our bodies need, some plant proteins are low in essential amino acids such as methionine, tryptophan, lysine, and isoleucine. If you’re adhering to a plant-based diet, it’s a good idea to supplement with an essential amino acid blend to improve the balance of essential amino acids and nonessential amino acids, especially if you don’t want to have to think so hard about mixing and matching plant-based proteins to make them more complete.

Top 16 Vegan Foods That Are High in Protein

Learn about 16 high-protein vegan foods, including their nutrient content, a few interesting facts about their origins and histories, plus some tasty recipe ideas.

One of the first struggles involved in maintaining a vegan diet is getting enough protein. Significant amounts of casual protein comes from animal sources, and so it takes a fair amount of effort to derive the body’s much-needed protein from plant-based foods. Below are 16 high-protein vegan foods, with their nutrient content, origins, and common recipe uses.

Top 16 vegan foods high in protein.

1. Tofu

One cup of the soy product tofu contains 10 grams of protein. A valuable resource for iron, calcium, the mineral manganese, and vitamin B1, tofu is what’s known as a whole protein, meaning that it contains an adequate amount of the nine essential amino acids necessary in the human diet.

Where It Comes From

Made by pressing soymilk curds into a firm tofu slab, this high-protein source is invaluable. Tempeh and edamame also originate from soybeans, edamame from immature soybeans, which gives them a grassy taste, and tempeh from fermented soybeans, which has a more nutty flavor.

How to Eat It

Formed into cubes or balls, tofu can be grilled, fried, marinated, baked, or thrown into a vegetable stir fry. With a very light nutty flavor, tofu can be easily seasoned with a multitude of flavors, and because it’s such an especially pliable substance (tofu texture can span the range from silken to extra firm), it can be formed into mimicking types of meat like chicken strips, hamburgers, and meatballs.

2. Lentils

One of the great vegan protein sources, lentils are edible legumes, and 1 cup of lentils has approximately 18 grams of protein. Lentils are also high in fiber, folate, and iron.

Where It Comes From

Lentils are widely cultivated throughout Europe, Asia, and North Africa but very little is grown in the Western Hemisphere. An annual plant, its seeds grow two to a pod.

How to Eat It

From soups to salads to a wide variety of side dishes, lentils promote gut health, provide a significant source of dietary fiber, and contain important antioxidants.

3. Seitan

Seitan is a high-protein food made from cooked wheat gluten and is a fantastic meat substitute. One cup has over 75 grams of protein, making it one of the richest plant protein sources, and also a good source for the minerals iron, calcium, and phosphorus.

Where It Comes From

Made from gluten, seitan is the main protein of wheat, which is why it’s sometimes called “wheat meat.” Seitan was coined in Japanese, and roughly translated means “made of proteins.”

How to Eat It

Unlike many soy-based products, seitan actually resembles the look and texture of meat when cooked, and makes for a fun pizza topping. It can be sautéed, pan-fried, and grilled, meaning it’s easy to include in a variety of recipes. Though not for those with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, this meat-like plant-based protein is a favorite of many vegetarians and vegans.

4. Wild Rice

An aquatic grass with edible grains, wild rice contains nearly 1.5 times the amount of protein of other long-grain rice varieties like basmati and brown rice. A cooked cup of wild rice contains 7 grams of protein, along with B vitamins, fiber, manganese, copper, and phosphorus. Wild rice is not stripped of its bran (unlike white rice).

Where It Comes From

Wild rice is one of only two cereal grains that are native to North America, and it happens to be the state grain of Minnesota.

How to Eat It

In a soup, as a side, or combined with any dish to add a healthy yet filling dimension to a meal. There are many vegan dishes that include a bed of wild rice as a base.

5. Ezekiel Bread

Ezekiel bread can be made from wheat, barley, millet, spelt, soybeans, and lentils. A single slice of Ezekiel bread contains approximately 4 grams of protein.

Where It Comes From

Ezekiel bread is made from sprouted whole grains and legumes. Because it doesn’t contain added sugars, it is an organic, healthy alternative to other commercial breads. Sprouting also appears to increase the bread’s beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, and folate content.

How to Eat It

You can eat Ezekiel bread the same as you would eat any other bread: toast, French toast, sandwiches, and so on. It’s easier to digest for people with a gluten sensitivity due to a slightly reduced gluten content, and sprouted grain breads have an enhanced protein and nutrient profile over traditional breads.

6. Hemp Seeds

One tablespoon of hemp seeds (approximately 30 grams) contains 9.47 grams of protein, 50% more than chia seeds and flax seeds. Hemp seeds also contain calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc. They’re even a good source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Where It Comes From

A variety of the Cannabis sativa plant, hemp seeds do belong to the same family as the marijuana plant but contain only small trace amounts of THC. Hemp seeds may help reduce inflammation, and for women may diminish symptoms of PMS and menopause.

How to Eat It

Hemp seeds can be easily added to a diet by including them in smoothies, oatmeal cookies, homemade salad dressings, and protein bars. This valuable plant-based vegan protein is also highly digestible.

7. Chia Seeds

Speaking of chia seeds, though lower in protein than hemp seeds, chia seeds are quite high in fiber (28 grams of chia seeds delivers 11 grams of fiber). Chia seeds also contain iron, calcium, selenium, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants.

Where It Comes From

An important food for the ancient Aztecs and Mayans, chia seeds are an annual herb from the mint family and native to Mexico and Guatemala.

How to Eat It

Chia seeds have a bland taste and are able to absorb water until they reach a gel-like consistency. This makes them easy to include in a variety of recipes, from baked goods to smoothies to their own chia seed pudding.

8. Green Peas

A cup of cooked green peas contains 9 grams of protein (a little bit more than a full cup of milk), and provides more than 25% of your daily fiber requirements.

Where It Comes From

The pea is a small green seed eaten as a vegetable; the field pea was one of the very first crops cultivated by humankind.

How to Eat It

Often served as a side dish, sweet green peas can be stuffed in with ravioli filling, made into pea soup, or added to salads for delightful taste and texture. Mashed peas can be used even more creatively, as part of or an alternative to traditional avocado guacamole, as a spread for bread or crackers, or folded into other dishes for their valuable health content.

9. Pumpkin Seeds

A 100-gram serving of organic pumpkin seeds contains 15 grams of carbohydrates and 5 milligrams of protein.

Where It Comes From

From the pumpkin fruit (named after the Greek word pepon meaning “large melon”), pumpkin seeds have been found in Mexico dating back to the period between 7000-5500 B.C.

How to Eat It

You can flavor and roast pumpkin seeds in your oven, and enjoy them as a quick snack between meals. Whether plain, sweet, or salty, they can help curb your hunger during the day while adding a little extra protein to your stores.

10. Spelt

Spelt is an ancient grain, along with einkorn, barley, teff (also particularly high in fiber and gluten free), sorghum, and farro. One cup of raw spelt has 25 grams of protein and is an excellent source of complex carbs, fiber, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and manganese.

Where It Comes From

Spelt is a type of wheat that contains gluten. A member of the farro family of grains, it was originally cultivated in what is now present-day Iran.

How to Eat It

Spelt can be prepared and eaten much like rice, but can also be included in a variety of recipes, from baked goods to pizza, from polenta to risotto.

11. Chickpeas

Also known as garbanzo beans, chickpeas are a legume that contain about 5 grams of protein per cooked cup. They are also an excellent source of complex carbs, iron, fiber, folate, phosphorus, and potassium.

Where It Comes From

An annual plant of the pea family, chickpeas were likely domesticated as a crop in what is currently southeastern Turkey and Syria about 11,000 years ago.

How to Eat It

Chickpeas are a staple of Middle Eastern, African, and Indian cuisines. Often made into hummus, chickpeas can also be added to stews, mashed to form pancakes and fritters, or flavored for taste and eaten on their own.

12. Nutritional Yeast

Nutritional yeast is a deactivated form of yeast. Fortified nutritional yeast is a great source for all the B vitamins, as well as the minerals zinc, magnesium, copper, and manganese. It also provides 14 grams of protein and 7 grams of fiber per ounce.

Where It Comes From

Nutritional yeast is derived from the single-cell organism Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is grown on molasses before being harvested and heat-dried to deactivate it. Due to its being inactive, unlike baking yeast, nutritional yeast does not froth or grow, and thus has no leavening ability.

How to Eat It

Nutritional yeast can be enjoyed as a savory topping for popcorn thanks to its cheesy flavor, or sprinkled over pasta or pizza in lieu of Parmesan. It is also a popular ingredient for adding into dishes like mashed potatoes or scrambled tofu, both for its taste as well as its health benefits.

13. Quinoa

Another of the ancient grains, quinoa is gluten-free and considered a pseudocereal because it does not grow quite like other cereal grains do. One cup of cooked quinoa has 8.14 grams of protein.

Where It Comes From

A member of the goosefoot family, quinoa was widely cultivated in the Andes for its edible starchy seeds.

How to Eat It

Quinoa can be used in a powder form for adding protein content to baked goods. Otherwise it can be treated much the same as a rice dish: used as a base, a side, or eaten on its own with whatever preferred seasoning you’ve got.

14. Oats

With a good amounts of folate, magnesium, zinc, and phosphorus, oats are a cereal plant cultivated in cool climates and used for animal feed as well as human consumption. Although not considered a complete protein, 1 cup of cooked steel-cut oats has 10 grams of plant protein.

Where It Comes From

Originally considered a weed that afflicted wheat and barley, oats have since become a staple food in Western diets.

How to Eat It

Oats can be eaten in oatmeal, of course, and oatmeal cookies, but oats can also be included in veggie burgers, homemade protein bars, and mixed with yogurt for a pleasing and nutritious texture.

15. Edamame

Edamame is a green soy bean, and has 18 grams of protein per cup (a significant amount of protein).

Where It Comes From

Translated from Japanese, edamame literally means “beans on a branch,” and appears regularly in and alongside Japanese cuisine (though edamame’s roots are actually in China).

How to Eat It

You’ll recognize edamame at sushi restaurants, but it doesn’t have to stay there. In their pods, edamame can be boiled or baked and eaten as a snack. Shelled edamame can be added to salads, stews, basically any dish you want.

16. Peanut Butter

There are 65 grams of protein in 1 cup of peanut butter. Nuts and nut butters are a great source of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Where It Comes From

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (of Kellogg’s cereal) patented a process for creating peanut butter in 1895. He noted that it was a healthy protein substitute for patients without teeth.

How to Eat It

Spread it, blend it, bake it into cookies, roll it into balls with other high-protein ingredients, literally go nuts!

High-Protein Vegan Foods

While it is important to be cognizant of the protein and amino acids often missing from a vegan diet, these vegan sources of protein show that removing animal products from your diet isn’t a loss. Instead, it’s a healthy alternative that leads to a rich variety of plant-based foods.

Is Quinoa a Complete Protein? It May Just Be the Missing Link in Your Diet!

It can be hard for vegans and vegetarians to find complete proteins that meat and fish eaters source with ease. Enter Quinoa (KEEN-wah), a complete protein that some hail as a supergrain.

Vegetarians, vegans, and even the meatless Monday crowd crave the same quality nutrition that the carnivore next door gets without breaking a sweat. Which leaves many of us wondering, is quinoa a complete protein? While it’s not difficult to get garden-variety nutrients in a plant-based diet, it can be a challenge to source the complete proteins found in animal products. Enter quinoa (KEEN-wah), a complete protein source that some hail as a supergrain.

We need 20 amino acids in different combinations to create the proteins that fuel our cells and power our lives. For instance, your heart is made of 95% amino acids. But our bodies alone can only create 11 of them. The other nine essential amino acids must come from what we eat, and quinoa is one of the plant sources that supplies each of these “building blocks of life.”

Is Quinoa a Complete Protein?

Quinoa is technically not a grain, but a seed. Regardless of classification, it’s enjoyed much like other grain-based foods.

While most whole grains have some amino acids, they tend to lack the amino acid lysine or contain only trace amounts of it and don’t deliver enough protein to sustain our essential amino acid requirements. The amino acid profile of quinoa, however, can be considered complete.

Quinoa offers up a good amount of lysine and the other eight essential amino acids to help support our bodies’ amino acid needs. And research shows that the digestion of quinoa protein is comparable to that of other high-quality protein foods.

Here’s the possible catch: quinoa appears to be a high-quality protein, but that is in terms of quinoa protein isolate, which is actually of low quantity in quinoa seeds. The amino acid profile of quinoa is, for instance, significantly inferior to specially formulated essential amino acid mixtures. So, by all means, add quinoa to your diet to feed your body the essential amino acids it craves, but, if you are concerned that you aren’t meeting your protein needs, then consider supplementing with essential amino acids according to your nutritional needs.

Is quinoa a complete source of protein?

The protein in quinoa far surpasses the protein content of its grainy competitors. Take incomplete proteins such as rice and barley, for example. One cup of quinoa contains 8 grams of protein, while brown rice has only 5 grams, and barley less than that at 3.5 grams.

Is quinoa a complete protein?

On par with rice and couscous, quinoa has a nutty taste with a slight toothsomeness. For a savory approach, some toss in bay leaves, thyme, garlic powder, and other herbs and spices, while the breakfast crowd might like it a bit sweeter, boiling it with milk, stirring in fruits and nuts with a dash of cinnamon or nutmeg. You can add quinoa to soups, salads, and stir-fries, or pop it like popcorn. Here are some recipes to try.

Harvest from an Ancient Table

A seed that comes to us courtesy of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, quinoa means “the mother grain” in its original South American tongue, and dates back thousands of years. It was also called  “The gold of the Incas” because, with a belly full, warriors as old as 50 had the fortitude to scale the Andes, fight amid the harsh terrain, and vanquish their enemies.

Though this superfood remained a secret tucked away in a distant land for millennia, word has gotten around. These days quinoa crops are sprouting up in North America, China, France, and India with production picking up in Africa and the Middle East. There are 1,800 types of quinoa in a rainbow of colors, but only a few made the leap to the U.S. The white variety is milder, while the red and black boast more nutrients. The harvested seeds of Chenopodium quinoa undergo processing to remove natural saponins, a bitter-tasting husk that acts as a natural pesticide to the maturing plant.

A Cornucopia of Nutritional Goodies

Apart from being one of the best sources of protein, quinoa has small amounts of omega-3 essential fatty acids, is non-GMO, and is usually organically grown, which makes it a good find. Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti took a selfie with her pouch of quinoa aboard the International Space Station. She chose this plant protein as one of her “bonus foods,” pairing it with mackerel. Quinoa’s also held in lofty esteem by NASA scientists, who’ve explored growing it in outer space, as it reproduces and stores well, while offering nutritional bang for the buck. Aside from protein, which supports muscle, hair, collagen, enzymes, and antibodies, and fiber that helps our bodies absorb nutrients, quinoa is a strong source of:

  • Manganese (58% of the RDA): A friend to the brain, nerves connective tissue, bones, blood, hormones, and metabolism.
  • Magnesium (30% of the RDA): Gets the biochemical party started and helps with energy production.
  • Phosphorous (28% of the RDA): Teams up with calcium to give strength and structure to bones and teeth.
  • Folate (19% of the RDA): A B vitamin that hooks up with your DNA chain and percolates other genetic material.
  • Copper (18% of the RDA): Links up with iron to help form red blood cells and keep blood vessels, nerves, immune system, and bones ticking like the Swiss.
  • Iron (15% of the RDA): Important for healthy blood and transfer of oxygen from lungs and tissues.
  • Zinc (13% of the RDA): Big on cell division, cell growth, wound healing, and the breakdown of carbohydrates. If you can smell and taste, thank zinc.
  • Vitamins B1, B2, and B6 (more than 10% of the RDA): The Bs power energy level, brain function, and cell metabolism.
  • Potassium (9% of the RDA): Regulates fluid balance, muscle contractions, and nerve signals. A diet rich in potassium may help reduce blood pressure and water retention, and help prevent stroke, osteoporosis, and kidney stones.

Is quinoa a complete source of protein?

 

Fighting Disease Like an Incan Warrior

There’s a saying: Fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. And while quinoa is mainly known for the ways it supports body function, it’s increasingly becoming appreciated—in the never-say-die spirit of its Incan ancestry—for its warrior-like attributes and health benefits.

Antioxidants? Check!

Quinoa ranks high in antioxidants, which help neutralize free radicals in the body. Free radicals are believed to contribute to aging and certain diseases. A study looked at antioxidant levels in five cereals, three pseudo-cereals, and two legumes, and found quinoa to have the highest antioxidant content of them all. When added to gluten-free goods, quinoa enhanced their polyphenol content, helping to stave off certain cancers, osteoporosis, and other unwanted health effects.

Quinoa May Boost Metabolism

A study published in the European Journal of Nutrition showed that using quinoa instead of typical gluten-free breads and pastas significantly reduced blood sugar, insulin, and triglyceride levels. And research with rats indicated that quinoa in a diet high in fructose almost completely inhibited the negative effects of the fructose.

Good for Low Glycemic Diets

The glycemic index measures how foods raise your blood-sugar levels. Foods that are high on the glycemic index can stimulate hunger and lead to overeating and obesity. Obesity can be a culprit in type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Quinoa has a glycemic index of 53, which is considered low and can be an ally in blood sugar control.

Feel Fuller, Eat Less

Quinoa has been associated with weight loss by boosting metabolism and reducing appetite, possibly because its high-fiber content may increase feelings of fullness, causing one to eat less, though more research is needed to help scientists better understand quinoa’s effects on metabolism.

A Hedge Against Diabetes

Studies of Peruvian grains and legumes found that quinoa, its cousin kañiwa, and other traditional crops from Peru’s Andes have the potential to manage type 2 diabetes and associated hypertension.

Putting the Kibosh on Cholesterol

High in soluble fiber, quinoa can help bring down blood sugar levels, lower cholesterol, and increase a sense of fullness, which can, potentially, help with weight loss.

Highly Regarded, but No Halo

Quinoa attributes are undisputed, but even with a glycemic index of 53, it is somewhat high in carbs, and not as well-suited to a low-carb diet.

Another potential hitch is quinoa’s naturally occurring phytic acid, which can make it harder for the body to absorb all of its rich minerals. Soaking and/or sprouting the seed prior to cooking can reduce that effect. Other than that, though, it’s pretty hot stuff. In fact, leaders are looking at mass-produced quinoa as a way to feed the world as the effects of climate change take hold. Given its high level of genetic diversity, quinoa crops are highly resilient to extremes in soil, rainfall, temperature, and altitude, and tolerant to frost, drought, and salinity, according to a 2016 report.

So, if you haven’t already, maybe it’s time to up your protein intake and add some quinoa to the menu.

Lentil Nutrition: Do Lentils Contain All 9 Essential Amino Acids?

Lentils are legumes—cousin to foods such as beans, peanuts, and peas. But how complete is lentil nutrition, especially when it comes to protein content? And do lentils contain all 9 essential amino acids. Let’s find out!

Lentils are legumes—cousin to foods such as beans, peanuts, and peas. These edible pulses come in many colors and sizes. Green lentils add a peppery punch to salads and red lentils provide a hearty bed for baked salmon or roasted chicken. They’re inexpensive and can be stored for a long time without refrigeration, two benefits that have made lentils a diet staple of many cultures around the world, and a go-to protein source of the vegan diet. But how complete is lentil nutrition, especially when it comes to its protein content? Let’s find out!

Lentil Nutrition

Lentils are an excellent source of protein for meat eaters, vegans, and vegetarians alike. One cup of lentils (about 200 grams) contains approximately 230 calories of carbohydrate and 18 grams of protein. Lentils are also high in iron, folate, and fiber (both soluble and insoluble). Today’s discussion, however, centers on lentils as a plant protein. So let’s find out: do lentils contain all nine essential amino acids or are they an incomplete protein source?

Are Lentils a Complete Protein?

Proteins in the body are composed of 20 different amino acids hooked together in a specific sequence and amount. There are two general types of dietary amino acids: those that can be produced in the body (called nonessential amino acids) and those that must be obtained through the diet (the essential amino acids). We’ll be referring to essential amino acids as EAAs.

Now, lentils are indeed a good source of EAAs, but there is debate as to whether lentils are a complete protein. A complete protein contains all nine EAAs.

Take a look at the figure below. It shows the profile of the EAAs in lentils compared to your daily EAA requirements. Notice how the methionine content of lentil protein is quite low relative to EAA requirements. Also, less than 50% of the methionine in lentils is actually absorbed by the body. We can surmise that, although lentil protein is theoretically a complete protein, in practice it is deficient in the essential amino acid methionine.

lentils essential amino acids

Health Benefits of Lentils

For a recent epidemiological study, researchers analyzed the diets of more than 3,000 subjects and concluded that older adults at risk for cardiovascular disease who frequently consumed legumes, particularly lentils, as part of a Mediterranean diet may be at lower risk for type 2 diabetes. This effect may be due to the beneficial impact lentils have on digestion. Lentils delay gastric emptying, which is a fancy way of saying that they slow the stomach’s emptying of solids. This could help blunt spikes in blood glucose that ultimately contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes.

Lentils and Digestion

Lentils are not digested readily. Antiproteases in lentils reduce protein digestion.

Proteases are enzymes that are released from the pancreas after you eat food. They play an important role in digestion. Proteases break down ingested protein into amino acids for absorption. The antiproteases in lentils not only reduce the digestion of lentil protein but also reduce the digestion of other proteins in the meal, as well as the secreted proteases. For this reason, care must be taken in analyzing the protein quality of lentils to account for the negative impact of incomplete digestion. Poor protein digestion not only limits the nutritional value of the EAAs in lentils but can also lead to diarrhea.

Protein absorption is also limited by saponins in lentils. In addition to containing chemicals that impair protein digestion, lentils contain phytic acid, which is considered an “anti-nutrient” because it binds to minerals in the digestive system, thereby limiting their absorption.

Cook ‘em Up!

Cooking lentils properly can reduce their adverse digestive impact. Whether you’re making Indian Daal or warming up a vegan lentil soup, always rinse lentils before cooking and discard the foam that forms when boiling (the foam is the saponin). Keep in mind that even when you cook lentils correctly they still, to some extent, can impair digestion.

While impaired digestion may be a benefit in terms of minimizing peak levels of blood glucose after a meal, there are some disadvantages. Most prominently, the essential amino acids in lentils are incompletely digested and absorbed. Overall, only about 80% of the amino acids in lentils are absorbed, but the absorption of certain amino acids, including methionine, is as low as 40%. When the low digestibility of methionine is considered in the context of the exceptionally low amount of methionine to begin with, it is reasonable to consider lentils an incomplete protein, which is a protein that has low amounts of just some of the essential amino acids.

Digestion-Corrected Protein Content of Lentils

A cup (200 grams) of lentils has about 6.6 grams of EAAs and 11.4 grams of nonessential amino acids. About 80% of these amino acids are absorbed (less in the case of methionine). This means that about 5.2 grams of EAAs are absorbed from a cup of cooked lentils. While this remains a good source of EAAs, it comes at a caloric cost. Each gram of absorbed EAAs is 44 calories. To put it in perspective, this is about the same kcal/g of EAAs as is in an egg yolk.

The Need for Complementary Protein Consumption

The easiest way to make sure you’re meeting your daily EAA requirements is to eat lentils with animal proteins, such as eggs, meat, dairy products, or fish that have adequate methionine.

If you wish to stick to plant sources of protein, then balancing EAA profiles is more challenging. A variety of whole grains contain methionine, and while grains are deficient in lysine, lentils contain lysine. Therefore, serving lentils with rice or wheat products should, in theory, balance the combined EAA profile. However, grains, including whole grains, are poor sources of protein, and a lot of rice or wheat must be eaten with lentils to make up for the methionine deficiency in lentils. The result is that a high-caloric intake is required to achieve a balanced EAA profile.

EAA Supplements Are an Ideal “Complement” to Lentils

A viable alternative to complementary proteins is to supplement the diet with an appropriately balanced EAA supplement. This will amplify the beneficial effect of the eight essential amino acids in lentil protein and also provide the necessary methionine to make sure you’re getting enough protein on all counts. Also, free EAAs in a supplement do not require proteases to be digested, so the antiproteases in lentils will not negatively affect the nutritional value of the EAA supplement.

The Verdict

Lentils are a good source of eight of the nine essential amino acids. However, antiproteases in lentils limit the digestibility of lentil protein and other proteins in the meal. Complementing lentil consumption with animal protein or an EAA supplement will enhance the nutritional benefit of the EAAs in lentils.