The Best Vegan Sources of Complete Protein Beyond Rice and Beans
Whether your goal is to lose weight or build muscle on a plant-based diet, you can get all the protein you need from plants. How? By eating complete protein foods that complement each other. These six complete protein food combinations will help you get plenty of amino acids daily to stay healthy and reach your health and fitness goals.
What is a Complete Protein?
Before diving into complete protein foods, here’s a quick refresher: Protein consists of 20 amino acids (the building blocks of protein). Your body produces eleven of them, but the other nine are “essential,” meaning they can only be obtained through dietary sources.
Complete protein foods contain adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids. The reason I emphasize the word “adequate”, is that all foods (including plant proteins) contain every amino acid, albeit in varying amounts. You can also tae two foods that together have the full array of nine, and that combination becomes a "complete protein" when eaten together – or within a short amount of time from each other.
Though many plant-based foods are high in protein, most vegan protein sources are incomplete. This is because the nine essential amino acids you need to get from food—histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine—are typically found in lesser amounts in plants compared to animal-based foods.
Examples Plant-Based Complete Proteins:
- Soy products (tofu, tempeh, edamame)
- Ezekiel bread
“Many people believe we can only get complete proteins from animal-based sources of proteins, but this is incorrect,” explains Dr. Dana Ellis Hunnes, Ph.D., MPH, RD, a registered dietitian and the author of Recipe For Survival. “All plant products contain some protein in them. The most important thing is to eat a variety of plant-based proteins and you’ll be certain to get all the amino acids you need.”
What is the Difference Between Complete and Incomplete Protein?
Incomplete proteins are low or lacking in one or more of the nine essential amino acids. Fortunately, the incomplete proteins found in most plant foods can be combined with other foods to create a complete protein. Food combinations that form a complete protein are called complementary proteins. This is the best and most effective way to get enough protein on a vegan diet.
Many plant-based proteins are low in the amino acids methionine and lysine but can be combined for a full amino acid profile, says a 2018 study published in Amino Acids. For example, rice and beans are incomplete proteins that form a complete protein when eaten together. Rice is low in lysine while beans aren’t. Beans don’t have enough methionine, but rice does. The best part is you don’t have to eat complementary proteins simultaneously. You can eat one at breakfast and the other at dinner to meet your daily protein requirement. “Ultimately, what matters most is that over the course of a day, or a few days, or even a week, you're varying your protein source and getting all kinds of proteins so that you're not lacking in any amino acid,” states Dr. Ellis Hunnes.
6 Examples of Complete Protein Sources For Vegans
Rice and beans aren’t the only complete protein source for vegans. Here are six vegan complete protein food combinations that deliver all nine essential amino acids.
1. Spinach salad with chickpeas and sunflower seeds
Any legume and nut combo makes a great complete protein food. Chickpeas have limited amounts of methionine while sunflower seeds lack lysine. Put the two together and voila—you have a complete protein food.
(Add sunflower seeds to this salad with wild rice, chickpeas, and herbs for a well-rounded, protein-rich meal.)
2. Peanut butter on whole-wheat toast
Finally, an excuse to indulge in PB&J sandwiches. Peanut butter doesn’t have enough methionine, but whole-wheat bread does. Meanwhile, whole-wheat bread is low in lysine and threonine, but peanut butter has plenty. Combine the two, and you have a complete protein food on your hands.
(Start your morning off right with this Peanut Butter and Coconut Yogurt Toast.)
3. Lentils and almonds
These two may seem like an odd couple, but don’t knock it until you try it. Lentils are low in methionine and almonds are limited in lysine. So tossing a handful of almonds in with a lentil dish will complete the amino acid profile and add a nice crunch and a healthy fat boost.
(Try adding lentils to this Vegan Persimmon, Pomegranate, and Caramelized Almonds Salad for a full amino acid profile meal.)
4. Whole wheat pasta and peas
With many plant-based pasta products available today, vegan pasta lovers are in heaven. Red lentil, chickpea, black bean, edamame, and whole wheat pasta are great high-protein options, but they don’t have a full amino acid profile. Peas, however, are a legume high in protein that complement whole wheat pasta’s lack of lysine and threonine. Conversely, whole wheat complements pea’s lack of methionine.
(Next time you're craving pasta, give this Easy Spring Pasta Salad with Snow Peas a whirl.)
5. Hummus and whole-wheat pitas
Who doesn’t love hummus? Hummus is a versatile food made from chickpeas and tahini that can be used as a dip, spread, or sauce to take any snack to the next level. Eat alongside whole-wheat pitas to complement the limited amount of methionine in chickpeas and provide a full amino acid profile.
(Serve this Easy Classic Hummus with whole wheat pitas and fresh veggies for a high-protein snack.)
6. Barley and lentil soup
Barley is a whole grain low in lysine and threonine. Lentils are low in methionine. But put the two together and you have a winning combination for a complete protein meal.
(Add a whole grain to any of these protein-packed lentil recipes to create a complete protein food.)
Bottom Line: Eat a wide variety of vegan proteins to create complete protein foods.
Rice and beans aren’t the only complete protein food combination for vegans. Combine legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and vegetables at meals, or eat a variety of them throughout the day to get all the protein you need.
For more expert advice, visit The Beet's Health & Nutrition articles.