A Quick Brief on Protein – Why the big deal?
The issue for non animal ‘eaters’ is that ALL ANIMAL PROTEIN is ‘complete protein’. Meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, and cheese are all complete proteins — high in protein with sufficient percentages of each essential amino acid.
What do I mean by ‘complete’?
* A complete protein provides all essential amino acids (needed by the body for essential growth and repair) and in sufficient combined amounts.
* An incomplete protein is either low in one or more essential amino acids, or low in total protein.
Vegetables and grains do contain the essentials but of insufficient amounts. Therefore we would say that not all vegetable sources of protein are as ‘complete’. Sometimes, to obtain complete protein – two or more complementary sources of protein should be combined.
So complementary proteins combine to provide adequate amounts of all essential amino acids and adequate total protein.
Let’s go abit deeper on this for those who you are interested..
There are eight essential amino acids, and several semi-essential amino acids. But I’ll simplify it for you. The vast majority of dietary patterns, whether based on cereals (grains, pseudo-cereals), pulses (beans, peas, etc.), seeds/nuts, or tubers (potato, yam, etc.) provide sufficient amounts of all essential amino acids, with a few exceptions.
The essential amino acids that are most likely to be lacking in any diet are:
- lysine (lacking in grains), or
- methionine (lacking in pulses), or
- tryptophan (lacking in various foods).
Even though other amino acids are essential, for practical purposes they are unlikely to be in short supply, as long as you have some source with sufficient total protein.
Let’s start with how much protein you really need:
The research tells us that we only need 0.8g of protein per kg of bodyweight. Keep in mind, the average person gets about twice that amount of protein. However if you are missing one of the essential amino acids in your diet you could find yourself lacking one of the essential building blocks necessary for protein to do its job in the body. This however would be very hard to do …
If you weigh 60kg, you would only need around 48 grams of protein. Now, if you were
exercising 5 times per week you can increase that to around 1g/kg (or 60g protein in your case). Easy to remember!
48-60 grams of protein is not hard to attain.
Let’s look at an example for a vegan dinner. If you make a bowl of brown rice with veg, which includes the following:
1 cup brown rice
1 sweet potato
8 cherry tomatoes
You would ingest 23 grams of protein! Now that’s almost HALF your daily requirement right there. Add an Almond Milk Smoothie for breakfast, and throw in some hemp seeds, and you’re almost at your protein goal for the day.
You see, as a vegan, getting enough protein is not as complicated you just have to be properly informed.
For those who would consider adding eggs – this is a tremendous complete amino acid protein source for non meat and fish eaters!
Whilst it is true that many vegetable sources of protein are not complete, and need to be complemented by other protein sources, there are some common misconceptions about which sources of protein are complete, and which are complementary to one another.
So what foods have what protein?
Lets start with dairy sources of protein:
Milk and various cheeses are each high in protein and have all essential amino acids in ideal or nearly ideal percentages. Yogurt has less than the ideal percentage of tryptophan, an essential amino acid, but still has enough tryptophan to be considered complete for practical purposes. No complementary protein is needed with dairy.
PLANT FOOD PROTEIN COMBINATIONS:
Let’s separate vegetarian foods into the following 4 groups:
GROUP #1 “Breads, Cereals, Grains”
Bread, Rice, Whole wheat products & Wholegrain cereals.
These include: breakfast cereal, pasta, spaghetti, noodles, wheat products, flour products, etc.
Now, generally speaking, any item from group # 1 above to be combined with any item from the three groups below.
Group # 2 “Legumes”
Peas, Beans & Lentils:
including all dried beans & peas – aduki, kidney, runner, soya, chick peas, mushy peas, processed peas, baked beans, petit pois, beansprouts
Group # 3 “Vegetables”
Potatoes & other Vegetables including frozen vegetables
Group # 4 Nuts & Seed
Walnuts, Cashews, Peanuts, etc Sunflower, Sesame & other seeds
Legumes – what is missing?
Many legumes are actually a complete protein — so like dairy, most need no complementary protein to provide sufficient essential amino acids.
Examples of complete protein legumes include:
- split peas (dried)
- soybeans (mature seeds, not *Edamame)
*The Edamame type soybeans, picked fresh, are not a complete protein; they have one third of the protein of dried soybeans and not enough methionine (an essential amino acid).
TO BE SURE, TEAM UP LEGUMES WITH GRAINS OR SEEDS!
The legumes that are not complete proteins tend to lack only methionine. Those legumes that are not complete benefit more from being paired with grains or seeds. Although dairy is not high enough in methionine to compensate for the lack of that amino acid in certain legumes.
GRAINS what is missing?:
Grains tend to be lacking in lysine. An adult needs between 2 and 3 grams of lysine per day. Grains such as rice and wheat have less lysine than ideal, but still enough lysine to be sufficient.
To improve the lysine content of your food, add Diary (if you eat dairy). Many dairy sources, especially cheeses, are high in lysine. The best protein and lysine sources are the hard cheeses, especially those that are lower in fat. These have less water and less fat, and hence more protein. Examples include low-fat Swiss cheese, parmesan cheese, Romano cheese, and hard cheddar cheeses.
A note about Pseudo-cereals
Amaranth and quinoa are often called grains but are each a complete protein: high in total protein and having all essential amino acids in ideal proportions. No complementary protein is needed.
Do Legumes compliment Grains?
Some legumes provide little additional lysine because they are low in total protein. For example, green peas (fresh) are only 5.4% protein, and green (snap) beans are only 1.8% protein. The low total protein means that they cannot offer much lysine to complement the grains.
By comparison, dried split peas are 24.5% protein and have a higher percent of lysine as well. Soybeans and adzuki beans (both as mature dried seeds) are high in protein and high in lysine, as are lentils and chickpeas. Lentils however are not a complete protein; they lack methionine — except if they are sprouted. Lentils are one of the few seeds that have a better essential amino acid profile after sprouting.
Seeds what is missing??
Sunflower seeds have less than the ideal percent of lysine (at only 88% of ideal). However, they are so high in total protein that they provide more lysine than many complete proteins. So sunflower seeds are, for practical purposes, a complete protein. Pumpkins seeds are high in total protein and have an ideal essential amino acid profile, so no complement is needed. Seeds tend to be high in methionine, so they do improve the essential amino acid profile of legumes. But both seeds and legumes are too high in fiber. You might not want to eat only legumes and seeds as your protein sources.
Potatoes and Yams (tubers) what is missing?
Potatoes are nearly a complete protein. They are somewhat lacking in leucine, in terms of percent (87% of ideal); but anything over 80% is usually sufficient for practical purposes. Yams (true yams) and sweet potatoes lack only lysine (76% and 82% of ideal, respectively). But the main issue with tubers is the low total protein. Most tubers are less than 2% protein. So they need a complementary source of protein, not so much because of their essential amino acid percentages, but to provide more total protein. For this purpose, any high protein source is useful: cheese, or seeds, or dried legumes.
You can quickly look up any food for its amino acid content here:
Example of popular combinations:
Clinical Dieticians often suggest combining sources of protein as it may increase protein absorption by about 30%. For this reason, I have included some popular suggestions:
- Corn and beans
- Brown rice and beans
- Oat bran and soy milk
- Buckwheat and millet
- Brown rice and green peas
- Tofu or Tempeh on whole wheat bread
- Whole grain bread and peanut butter
- Yogurt with walnuts
- Tofu with tahini (sesame seed paste)
- Brown rice with almonds, cashews or pecans
- Avocado, sprouts & almond butter on whole wheat bread
- Chickpea hummus (made with sesame seed paste) on pita
A final thought.. don’t obsess with every meal !!!!
Although I have included some combination suggestions, I want to point out that the concept of protein combos / meals are not absolutely necessary as the body makes its own proteins from amino acids so as long as overall we are eating a wide range of foods (as above) – all the amino acids are made available to make the proteins from. No need to try and make ‘complete proteins’ at every meal. There is a constant ‘amino acid’ pool of spare parts that the body uses to fill any gaps in any one meal!
Just choose combinations throughout the day and you will be fine!