In the quest to eat for our weight loss goals, naturally we’d want to go for nutrient dense, lean protein. That’s why you’ll hear debates on different types of proteins. However these differences may not mean much for your health.
Here, we look at what makes something a complete protein, and how it affects vegetarian and vegan diets and what sources you should prioritize.
How Are Proteins Different?
A food that is looked at as a “complete” protein has all the essential amino acids the human body needs but can’t produce on it’s own. This stands to the opposite of “incomplete” protein, which usually lacks one or two key amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks the body uses to build and rebuild at all levels, from body cells to bigger tissues and organs.
Different proteins from food contain a variation of amounts of 20 common amino acids. Of the 20, only 9 are considered essential. All animal products (such as: eggs, meat and fish) are complete proteins but very few plant foods meet this criteria.
Vegetarian sources of complete proteins include quinoa, tofu, tempeh, soy milk, buckwheat and seeds such as hemp, chia and pumpkin. Some cheese, yogurt and other dairy products are also complete protein sources.
Should Vegetarians Be Concerned?
For many years, the concept of complete protein helped point people toward animal proteins. However, it’s a common misconception that vegetarian and vegan diets will not satisfy our needs for essential amino acids.
Still a vegetarian or vegan diet can meet and exceed protein needs providing you’re not being overly restrictive with your food intake. You can still get essential amino’s from plant based sources by eating them in combination with each other. In reality pairing foods is tasty but not always necessary. Protein metabolism is fluid and dynamic. The amino acids you can get from food or from recycling old cells and tissues join up and “pool” together. The pool is freely available for all cells to tap into when they need it. In other words, vegetarians and vegans don’t need to worry about finding complete proteins or pairing foods together within the same meal. They just need to eat a diet that contains a variety of plant proteins.
Don’t worry about various types of proteins unless you are aiming to get another macronutrient from that source. Instead carnivores and vegetarians can benefit from eating high-protein plant based foods from a variety of sources including grains, beans, nuts and seeds.