Protein is an essential part of our diet — we need it for our general health, and also for our capacity to exercise. But can you get enough protein, especially complete protein, when meat is eliminated from the equation of your diet?
Being a vegetarian or vegan isn’t the hurdle that many people think it is. Avoiding animals in your diet, and so going without animal protein, is not the death sentence of gains that you may have been led to believe.
Whether you’re a vegan veteran or just starting to think about cutting back on the meat you eat, it’s important to understand where your protein is going to come from instead, and whether it’s complete or not.
Read on to discover why this is so important, and to find out what plant-based protein alternatives you can try.
What Is A Complete Protein?
Protein is comprised of amino acids, which are essentially the building blocks of proteins.
A protein may be formed of 20 different amino acids. Nine of these are ‘essential’, meaning that your body can’t make them by itself, therefore you have to get these from external sources (i.e. the food that you eat or supplementation).
To be ‘complete’ a protein must contain all nine essential amino acids in around the same quantities.
Vegan & Vegetarian Complete Protein
Can you get your complete proteins from plant sources, though? It’s true that the likes of meat and eggs provide you with complete proteins, but it’s important to understand that while you need complete proteins, every single thing you eat doesn’t necessarily need to feature all of the essential amino acids at once.
As a vegan or vegetarian you face the reality that not all plant proteins are complete. But the term ‘balanced diet’ applies here.
Some plant proteins are complete — we’ll get to that shortly — but where others are not, you will simply need to complement them with other incomplete proteins to create a whole.
The good news is that so many plant-based diets feature such a huge range of amino acids that even if you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’re bound to get all of the amino acids you need without having to look too far.
Complete Protein Foods
Quinoa is a superfood that you need in your life, not just for its healthy protein content but also for its versatility and nutrition. It resembles couscous, making it a perfect side dish when you’ve had enough carb heavy accompaniments like rice and pasta.
It’s loaded with iron, magnesium, and fibre and can be used in recipes for just about any occasion, from breakfast cereals, to snacks, baking, and casseroles.
Quinoa is a whole grain in a similar family to spinach. It’s considered a complete protein, making it particularly beneficial — and filling — food for anyone avoiding animal products.
When quinoa is cooked, it contains 8 grams of protein per cup.
Soy is another complete protein, and as such is one of the best substitutes for the meat-free folk out there. Beans are not usually complete, as they often lack the amino acid methionine, but soy is the whole package.
Other forms of soy include tofu, along with tempeh and natto. A little tip: the harder the tofu, the higher the protein value.
Protein: 6 grams per 1 cup serving, cooked
Buckwheat often gets overshadowed by its versatile competitor, quinoa, however it’s a great source of complete protein. It’s also known to be good for your circulation, blood sugar levels, and cholesterol.
Misleadingly, it’s actually not even a wheat, and can be a great alternative to wheat products for anyone going gluten free.
Incomplete Proteins Still Worth Considering
At 10 grams per 2 tablespoon serving, hemp is a top source of protein, however it’s not technically considered complete. It falls short on its lysine content, but it compensates in all things healthy and nutritious with its magnesium, iron, calcium and zinc content.
On top of that, hemp is one of the unique vegan sources to provide you with essential fatty acids, which are easier to come by for meat eaters. These are the good kinds of fat that not only balance out bad cholesterol but help with low moods.
Chia seeds are a great source of protein at 4 grams per 2 tablespoon serving, but on top of that they provide the highest amount of omega-3 fatty acids of all plant sources, along with more fibre than nuts.
Sadly, they’re not also not quite complete, lacking lysine, so you would need to eat them as part of a balanced diet to make sure you’re getting all of the amino acids you need.
Seitan’s a bit of an ugly duckling in the plant-sourced protein world because it’s no good for wheat and gluten-free celiac sufferers.
However, it provides a whopping 21 grams of protein per third of a cup. It’s not a complete protein, but you could always pair with soy sauce or broth to top up its low lysine content.
Take Home Message
Being a vegan or vegetarian doesn’t mean that getting all of the amino acids in your diet is impossible. While meat often provides complete proteins in one serving, plant proteins can do this too, and where they fall short of an amino acid or two you can simply pair them up with other foods in your diet.