Protein is most often associated with foods like meat, eggs, and fish, so it would be easy to assume you can’t meet your protein needs on a vegan or vegetarian diet. However, it is possible—as long as you have your facts straight and choose your foods wisely.
Complete vs. Incomplete Proteins
“While the majority of animal proteins are what we call complete proteins, the majority of plant proteins are incomplete proteins,” explains Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., owner of eatrightfitness. “This means they don’t contain all nine of the essential amino acids necessary for adequate tissue growth in the body.”
Why this matters: “The body uses amino acids to repair tissues, make hormones, repair skin and bone, and just about everything in between,” Adams says. “If your diet does not provide all the building blocks for complete proteins, you can miss out.”
That doesn’t mean you can’t get ample amounts of these amino acids on a plant-based diet, though. “You can make plant proteins complete by combining complementary proteins together,” Adams says.
In short, you pair a food missing certain amino acids with a food that provides them. An easy example: rice and beans. While rice is high in the amino acid methionine, it’s low in lysine. Meanwhile, beans are high in lysine but low in methionine. It’s the perfect combo.
That said, plant foods that are complete proteins do exist. Incorporate these five in your diet to easily get your fill of those valuable essential aminos.
Plant Foods That Are Complete Proteins
Made from soybeans, which contain all nine essential amino acids, tofu and tempeh are go-to’s for vegans and vegetarians. One cup of tofu actually provides a whopping 21 grams of protein. It also offers a healthy serving of calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium.
Important to note: Soybeans are very commonly GMO crops. That’s why Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition and The Vitamin Shoppe Wellness Council member recommends buying organic. “Make stir-fries with firm tofu and veggies, replace eggs with tofu in scrambles, or add silken tofu to smoothies for creamy texture,” he suggests.
Another one of the few plant foods that offers all nine essential amino acids, this gluten-free ancient grain contains about eight grams of protein per cup. “Quinoa is also a good source of fiber, magnesium, iron, and zinc,” Axe says. “Both plant-based eaters and omnivores can usually use more of these.” Use quinoa in place of oats or rice in breakfast bowls or stir-fries, or try quinoa flour in healthy baked goods.
Amaranth, once a staple of Mayan and Aztec cuisines, is a surprising plant food considered a complete protein. It’s quite nutritious, too. One cooked cup contains 9.35 grams of protein, along with a solid amount of phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, iron, and zinc. “Amaranth is best consumed in breads, porridges, or as a side dish or mixed with other grains and veggies,” says Adams.
4. Hemp seeds
Hemp seeds are not only high in protein, but heart-healthy omega-3s, too. “They are also rich in iron, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, and potassium,” says Axe. Three tablespoons provide an impressive nine grams of protein along with 15 grams of healthy fat. Axe recommends adding hemp seeds to smoothies, homemade granola, yogurt, oatmeal, energy balls, and healthy baked goods. Manitoba Harvest’s Organic Hemp Hearts have a pleasant nutty flavor and delightfully chewy texture that works well in all sorts of recipes.
This blue-green algae offers quite the bevvy of health benefits. “It is a complete protein and one of the few plant-based sources of vitamin B12, says The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D.N. “It also contains iron, antioxidants, and gamma-linolenic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid.” Spirulina is most often taken in a tablet or powder form. Try adding the powder (we like The Vitamin Shoppe brand’s Spirulina Powder) to smoothies, drinks, dressings, and sauces.