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Complete Proteins on a Plant Based Diet

One of the top two questions I get as a Nutritionist (and in life in general!) are "How do you know you are getting enough protein on a Plant Based Diet?" and "Where does your protein come from if you don't eat meat?!"

Incorporating whole, nutritious and plant-based foods has numerous benefits for both your health and the planet, but in a world where we are constantly told that protein = meat, I completely understand how confusing it can be to assure yourself you are getting enough protein through plants. Moreover, many of us may decide to go full Vegetarian or Vegan without truly understanding the types of protein we need, how much of it we actually need to be eating and how to best incorporate into our diets.

This is where I come in! This post is all about the importance of Complete Proteins (vs. incomplete proteins) and how to ensure you are properly incorporating them while enjoying a Plant Based diet.

First Off, What is a Complete Protein?

Almost all foods (including veggies!) contain some amount of protein, but it is important to note that not all proteins are created equal; Specifically, protein sources are categorized as either Complete or Incomplete based on their amino acid content.

What’s an Amino Acid, then?

Amino Acids are essentially the building blocks of proteins; The body uses them for producing things like hormones, enzymes, antibodies and muscle tissue, meaning they help to regulate sleep, mood, appetite and energy.

In total, there are 22 known Amino Acids that that different functions in the body. Similarly to proteins, these acids are divided into two categories: Non-Essential Amino Acids, which are produced by the body itself, and 10 Essential Amino Acids, which our bodies cannot produce and must be obtained through diet.

As stated above, in order to be considered complete, a protein must contain all 10 Essential Amino Acids: Arginine, Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan and Valine.

In general, animal proteins are always going to be considered Complete Proteins, while plant based proteins are mostly considered Incomplete. However - This does not mean you cannot get complete proteins on a plant based diet.... Keep reading!

How to obtain Complete Proteins if you are eating Vegetarian

Firstly, plant proteins DO contain many of the essential amino acids, but in lesser amounts and in different ratio (i.e. a nut may have 5 of the essential amino, but not all 10). As a result, when eating a plant based diet, we need to incorporate specific food combinations at each meal to ensure that all 10 of the essential amino acids are consumed (thus, giving us a complete protein).

There are 3 basic food combinations that you should aim for at each meal in order to provide you with the complete protein that you’d otherwise get from meat. These include:

1. Legumes with Nuts and/or Seeds {i.e. A mixed bean salad with any assortment of nuts}

2. Nuts and/or Seeds with Whole Grains {i.e. Whole grain toast with almond or peanut butter}

3. Whole Grains and Legumes (I.e. Quinoa salad with chickpeas/beans; add some nuts if you feel like going crazy}

A great example is my Summer Citrus Salad, which has walnuts, quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth!

Secondly, there actually are a few sources of complete proteins that come from plants! These include Hemp Seeds, Quinoa, Buckwheat, Soy and Chia, which are generally in heavy rotation in the plant based world anyway!

So there you have it - The confusion that comes with obtaining enough protein on a plant based diet is really not so tricky! All we need to do is pay a little more attention to the combinations of foods we enjoy (or, if you are like me, just sprinkle seeds on everything!).

I hope you enjoyed reading! If you are transitioning to a plant based diet and need some advice or coaching, I am always here to help. As always, please send any questions or inquiries directly to my email!


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