There are plenty of reasons to eat more meat-free meals: They’re nearly always cheaper, lower in calories, and better for the environment. It’s easy to get enough protein without eating animals, but the doubters often have another concern: Are these meat-free protein sources complete?
The term "complete protein" refers to amino acids, the building blocks of protein. There are that can form a protein, and that the body can’t produce on its own. These are called —we need to eat them because we can’t make them ourselves. In order to be considered “complete,” a protein must contain all nine of these essential amino acids in roughly equal amounts.
Yes, meat and eggs are complete proteins, and beans and nuts aren’t. But in every bite of food in every meal they eat; we only need a sufficient amount of each amino acid every day . American Dietetic Association; Dietitians of Canada. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2003 Jun;103(6):748-65.. Most dietitians believe that plant-based diets contain such a wide variety of amino acid profiles that vegans are to get all of their amino acids with very little effort . Millward DJ. Proceedings Of The Nutrition Society, 1999 May;58(2):249-60..
Still, some people want complete proteins in all of their meals. No problem—meat’s not the only contender. also fit the bill, which is an easy get for the vegetarians, but there are plenty of other ways to get complete proteins on your next meatless Monday. Here are some of the easiest:
Protein: per 1 cup serving, cooked
A food so healthy that NASA hopes we’ll , quinoa looks a lot like couscous, but it’s way more nutritious. , iron, magnesium, and manganese, quinoa is a terrific substitute for rice and it’s versatile enough to make muffins, fritters, cookies, and breakfast casseroles Nutritional Quality of the Protein in Quinoa Seeds. Nair, BM, Raules, J. Foods for Human Nutrition Jan. 1992; 42(1): 1-11.
Protein: per 1 cup serving, cooked
Buckwheat is, in fact, not a type of wheat at all, but a relative of rhubarb. While the Japanese have turned the plant into funky noodles called soba, most cultures eat the seeds by either grinding them into flour (making a great base for !) or cooking the hulled kernels, or “groats,” similarly to oatmeal. Buckwheat is crazy healthy: Some studies have shown that it may improve circulation, lower blood cholesterol and control blood glucose levels . Metzger, B.T., Barnes, D.M., Reed, J.D. Department of Animal Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2007 Jul 25;55(15): 6032-8. . Kawa, J.M., Taylor, C.G., Przybylski, R. Department of Human Nutritional Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2003 Dec 3;51(25): 7287-91.
Protein: per ½ cup serving (firm tofu), per ½ cup serving (tempeh), per ½ cup serving (natto)
While beans are normally low in the amino acid , soy is a complete protein and thoroughly deserves its status as the go-to substitute for the meat-free (but go easy on the processed varieties). and natto are made by fermenting the beans, but tofu is probably the best known soy product. If protein’s a concern, it’s important to choose the available—the the , the higher the protein content.
4. Mycoprotein (Quorn)
Protein: per ½ cup serving
Originally developed to , mycoprotein is sold under the name “Quorn” and is made by growing a certain kind of fungus and turning it into meat substitutes that are packed with . Admittedly, it’s a little weird-sounding, but mycoprotein is sometimes considered , and while there are some allergen concerns, only people experience adverse reactions. To the rest, it’s pretty darn tasty. Since it’s usually bound together with , Quorn is not technically vegan-friendly, but the company does have some .
5. Rice and Beans
Protein: per 1 cup serving
One of the simplest, cheapest, and vegan-est meals in existence is also one of the around. Most are low in methionine and high in lysine, while is low in lysine and high in methionine. , and whaddaya got? Protein content . Subbing lentils or chickpeas for beans produces the same effect. are a great way to load up on protein and carbohydrates after an intense workout.
6. Ezekiel Bread
Protein: per 2 slice serving
“Take wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt, put them in one vessel and make them into bread for yourself.” This fragment of , while to help a besieged Jerusalem make bread when supplies were low, turned out to be a recipe for an loaf that contains all of the essential amino acids. It’s also usually made from sprouted grains, a process which significantly increases the bread’s fiber and vitamin content, as well as its digestibility . Koehler P, Hartmann G, et al. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2007 Jun 13;55(12):4678-83. . Chavan JK, Kadam SS. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 1989;28(5):401-37..
- (Note: Requires a flour grinder)
Protein: per 1/3 cup serving
Wheat gluten gets demonized by a lot of people these days, but with the obvious exceptions of celiac-sufferers and the gluten intolerant, it’s nothing to be afraid of. First created more than a thousand years ago for Chinese Buddhist monks, seitan is mixing gluten (the protein in wheat) with herbs and spices, hydrating it with water or stock, and simmering it in broth. But this one’s on it’s own—it needs to be cooked in a soy sauce-rich broth to add gluten’s missing amino acid (lysine) to the chewy, very meat-like final product.
8. Hummus and Pita
Protein: per and of hummus
The protein in is pretty similar to that of , in that it’s only deficient in lysine. But chickpeas have , giving us all the more reason to tuck into that Middle Eastern staple: hummus and pita. Chickpeas have a pretty similar amino acid profile to most legumes, so don’t’ be afraid to experiment with hummus made from cannellini, edamame, or other kinds of beans.
9. Spirulina With Grains or Nuts
Protein: per 1 tablespoon
Contrary to popular belief, this member of the algae family is not a complete protein, since it’s in . Clément G, Giddey C, et al. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 1967 Nov;18(11):497-501.. All that’s needed to remedy this is to add something with plenty of these amino acids, such as grains, oats, nuts, or seeds (Check out the recipes below for more suggestions.).
10. Peanut Butter Sandwich
Protein: per 2-slice sandwich with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter
See how easy this is? Every time legumes like beans, lentils, and peanuts are combined with grains like wheat, rice, and , a complete protein is born. Peanut butter on whole wheat is an easy snack that, while pretty high in calories, provides a heaping dose of and plenty of healthy fats to boot.
Close But Not Quite
Protein: per 2 tablespoon serving
Chillax, bro, this hemp won’t get anyone stoned. This relative of the popular drug contains of all nine essential amino acids (though it's too low in lysine to be considered complete), as well as plenty of magnesium, zinc, iron, and calcium. They’re also a rare vegan source of essential fatty acids, like , which can help fight depression without the need to get high!
Protein: per serving
No longer used to grow fur on , chia seeds are of omega-3 fatty acids, and they contain more fiber than flax seeds or nuts. (However, like hempseed, they are a bit low in lysine.) Chia is also a of iron, calcium, zinc, and antioxidants, but the best thing about these little seeds is that they form a goopy gel when combined with milk or water. This makes them fantastic for making healthy puddings, thickening smoothies, or replacing eggs in vegan baking.