Eat These Vegan Food Combinations That Are Complete Proteins

Whether your goal is to lose weight or build muscle on a plant-based diet, you can get all the protein you need from plants. How? By eating whole protein foods that complement each other. These six complete protein food combinations will help you get plenty of amino acids daily to stay healthy and achieve your health and fitness goals.

What is a complete protein?

Before we dive into whole protein foods, here’s a quick refresher: Protein is made up of 20 amino acids (the building blocks of proteins). Your body produces eleven of them, but the other nine are “essential,” meaning they can only be obtained through dietary sources.

Whole protein foods contain adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids. The reason I emphasize the word “adequate” is that all foods (including plant proteins) contain all amino acids, albeit in varying amounts. You can also take two foods that together have the full range of nine, and this combination becomes a “complete protein” when eaten together – or within a short time of each other.

Although many plant-based foods are high in protein, most vegan protein sources are incomplete. It is because the nine essential amino acids you need from food – histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine – are usually found in lower amounts in plants compared to foods of animal origin.

Examples of complete vegetable proteins:

“A lot of people think we can only get complete protein from animal protein sources, but that’s not true,” says Dr. Dana Ellis Hunnes, Ph.D., MPH, RDdietitian and author Recipe for survival. “All plant products contain protein. The most important thing is to eat a variety of plant proteins and you will be sure to get all the amino acids you need.

What is the difference between complete and incomplete proteins?

Incomplete proteins are weak or lacking in one or more of the nine essential amino acids. Fortunately, the incomplete proteins found in most plant foods can be combined with other foods to create a complete protein. Food combinations that form a complete protein are called complementary proteins. This is the best and most efficient way to get enough protein on a vegan diet.

Many plant proteins are low in amino acids methionine and lysine but can be combined for a complete amino acid profile, according to a 2018 study published in Amino acids. For example, rice and beans are incomplete proteins that form a complete protein when eaten together. Rice is low in lysine while beans are not. Beans don’t have enough methionine, but rice does. The best part is you don’t have to eat complementary proteins simultaneously. You can eat one for breakfast and the other for dinner to meet your daily protein needs. “At the end of the day, what matters most is that over the course of a day, or a few days, or even a week, you vary your protein source and get all kinds of protein so you don’t lack any amino acids,” says Dr. Ellis Hunnes.

6 Examples of Complete Protein Sources for Vegans

Rice and beans aren’t the only complete protein source for vegans. Here are six whole vegan protein food combinations that provide all nine essential amino acids.

1. Spinach salad with chickpeas and sunflower seeds

Any combination of legumes and nuts makes an excellent complete protein food. Chickpeas have limited amounts of methionine while sunflower seeds lack lysine. Put the two together and voila, you have a complete protein food.
(Add sunflower seeds to this salad along with wild rice, chickpeas and herbs for a complete, protein-packed meal.)

2. Peanut Butter on Whole Wheat Bread

Finally an excuse to indulge in PB&J sandwiches. Peanut butter does not contain enough methionine, unlike whole wheat bread. Meanwhile, whole-wheat bread is low in lysine and threonine, but peanut butter is high. Combine the two, and you have a complete protein food in your hands.
(Start your day off right with this peanut butter and coconut yogurt toast.)

3. Lentils and almonds

These two might seem like an odd couple, but don’t hit it until you’ve tried it. Lentils are low in methionine and almonds are limited in lysine. So mixing a handful of almonds with a dish of lentils will complete the amino acid profile and add a nice crunch and fat boost.
(Try adding lentils to this vegan salad of persimmon, pomegranate and caramelized almonds for a full amino acid meal.)

4. Whole wheat pasta and peas

With many plant-based pasta products available today, vegan pasta lovers are in heaven. Red lentils, chickpeas, black beans, edamame, and whole-wheat pasta are great protein-rich options, but they don’t have a complete amino acid profile. Peas, however, are a high-protein legume that supplements the lack of lysine and threonine in whole-wheat pasta. Conversely, whole wheat supplements pea’s lack of methionine.
(The next time you’re craving pasta, try this easy springtime snow pea pasta salad.)

5. Whole wheat hummus and pitas

Who doesn’t love hummus? Hummus is a versatile chickpea and tahini-based food that can be used as a dip, spread, or sauce to take any snack to the next level. Eat with whole wheat pitas to supplement the limited amount of methionine in chickpeas and provide a complete amino acid profile.
(Serve this Easy Classic Hummus with whole-wheat pitas and fresh veggies for a high-protein snack.)

6. Barley and lentil soup

Barley is a whole grain low in lysine and threonine. Lentils are low in methionine. But put the two together and you have a winning combination for a complete protein meal.
(Add a whole grain to one of these protein-rich lentil recipes to create a complete protein food.)

Bottom Line: Eat a wide variety of vegan proteins to create whole protein foods.

Rice and beans aren’t the only complete combination of protein foods for vegans. Combine legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds and vegetables with meals, or eat a variety throughout the day to get all the protein you need.

For more expert advice, check out The Beet’s health and nutrition articles.