Best Complete Proteins for Vegetarians and Vegans
Vegetarian complete proteins and vegan complete proteins are an important part of any plant-based diet. You can easily have meat-free, healthy, balanced meals that contain plenty of protein (in the form of 9 essential amino acids) from a variety of vegan and vegetarian-friendly sources.
Proteins contain little building blocks of various amino acids. A “complete protein” has all 9 essential amino acids that the human body cannot produce on its own, but that are required for survival. Note, you will sometimes hear there are 8 essential amino acids, but it was recently discovered that the human body cannot create histidine, the 9th addition, required for the production of red and white blood cells. Essential amino acids must be procured for the body from outside sources through proper diet to ensure balance in the body and overall wellness.
Vegetables do contain a wide variety of amino acids, and the additional incorporation of complete proteins ensures your body is receiving all the vital nutrients it needs to thrive. Need some inspiration? Here is a story about the vegan diet of a 300 pound defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears. Feeling motivated? Look through the below is a list for some of the best, meat-free complete protein sources around.
VEGETARIAN COMPLETE PROTEINS:
1. Eggs. Eggs are quite possibly one of my favorite foods on the planet. I eat them daily on a bed of sautéed greens or stewed vegetables. Lately, I’ve eaten them with stewed Eggplant an Tomatoes from my garden. Yum! If you have access to pasture raised eggs you’ll receive even greater health benefits. Compared to commercially farmed eggs, pastured eggs contain more omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins, and less saturated fat and cholesterol.
2. Dairy. For Dairy, the best protein sources are Greek Yogurt and Cheese. In this category, you should always buy Organic to avoid hormones and antibiotics used in conventional Dairy production. For Greek Yogurt you must read the labels. Don’t buy flavored or fruity versions that are loaded with sugar. Sweeten plain Greek Yogurt on your own with raw, local Honey. Also, sprinkle in some Chia Seeds or Hempseeds for an extra protein punch. For Cheese, Goat, Sheep and Grass-fed Cow’s Milk Cheeses are the easiest to digest and generally offer the greatest health benefit. (I’ll be posting more about the benefits of Grass-fed cow’s products in a future article.) Add cheese to gluten-free, seeded crackers like Mary’s Gone Crackers.
3. Sprouted Grain Breads (like Ezekiel). Not all breads and baked goods are created equal, and in the world of grocery store breads, you rarely find better than Ezekiel, a sprouted grain bread found in the organic foods freezer section. Sprouted grain breads contain much higher levels of protein (compared to other breads), and have bioavailable minerals and vitamins. If you’re not gluten-free and want a “healthy” bread, this is as good as it gets. Add some nut or seed butter (Peanut, Almond or Sunflower) to this bread for even greater protein punch. Be sure to read labels on these butters; the only ingredients should be nuts or seeds and sea salt.
4. Bee Pollen Bee Pollen is considered to be one of the most nutritionally complete foods found in nature, and is 40% protein. This amazing substance cannot be reproduced in a lab and benefits sinus health, immunity building and allergy prevention in addition to being a complete protein food. I list this in the Vegetarian category because some Vegans do not eat bee-based products, but others do. Bee Pollen is a great addition to oatmeal, yogurt, salads and smoothies.
VEGETARIAN AND VEGAN COMPLETE PROTEINS:
1. Beans and Rice. Beans and Rice are not complete proteins individually, but their combined amino acids do make a complete protein source. My favorite combination is Basmati Brown Rice and Black Beans tossed with a little fresh chopped Parsley, Himalayan Sea Salt and Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
2. Quinoa. This ancient edible seed was loved by the Inca and has been used as a source of protein in Central America for a very long time. Quinoa can be baked and added to your breakfast for extra crunch, wrapped into spring rolls with vegetables, and tossed into soups and salads for extra protein. Be sure to rinse Quinoa in cold water before cooking, and to dump it into a fine mesh strainer when cooling so it can cool from all sides and doesn’t clump together.
3. Tofu and Tempeh. Everyone is familiar with Tofu, but Tempeh is Tofu’s close cousin. Tempeh, a fermented soy bean cake (much tastier than it sounds!) is easily digestible thanks to the fermentation process. Tempeh contains higher fiber, protein and bioavailable calcium and has a lovely texture thanks to the whole soy beans throughout. For Tofu, the firmer varieties tend to contain more protein. Both are lovely fried-up in some Coconut Oil with a stir fry.
4. Amaranth. Amaranth is a whole grain from Central America that has 3 times more calcium than other grains, and is the only known grain to contain Vitamin C. Amaranth can be made into a delicious warm breakfast porridge or cooked as a risotto with Buckwheat.
5. Buckwheat. Despite the name, Buckwheat is a relative of Rhubarb, not Wheat. Buckwheat Groats are a triangular seed of the plant, and are popular in Eastern Europe where they are eaten as Kasha. Buckwheat is loaded with healthy phytonutrients and fiber, and can be very filling. Buckwheat can be used in place of Oats in overnight refrigeration recipes (just omit the Chia or Flax seeds as Buckwheat has its own gelatinous thickener), and it can be cooked with Amaranth into a risotto.
6. Chia Seed or Hempseed. Chia Seeds and Hempseeds are both loaded with protein and healthy Omega Fatty Acids. Add these to smoothies, oatmeal, salads and soups for more protein. The texture of Hempseeds are especially yummy on salads and oatmeal, and are great in smoothies.
7. Spirulina combined with Oats, Seeds or Nuts. There is some debate about the complete protein properties of Spirulina, a popular dried seaweed product in the health food world. But everyone seems in agreement that Spirulina combined with some Oats, Seeds or Nuts is a complete protein. Look for organic varieties of Spirulina sourced in the U.S. (not China). Whip up a smoothie that contains a Spirulina based Powder and Oats, Seeds or Nuts. I LOVE Oats and Nut Butter added to a smoothie.
8. Pumpkin Seeds. Pumpkin Seeds might be one of the healthiest, more common seeds on the planet. You don’t need to eat the tough outer shell you came to know as a kid, as the kernels (or Pepitas) can usually be found in most grocery stores. In addition to being a tiny protein powerhouse, Pumpkin Seeds contains many phytonutrients and antioxidants. Add them to Salads and Oatmeal, or carry them with you for a quick and easy pick-me-up snack.