Whether you’re a vegetarian or not, this information is good to know, especially as an athlete who requires more protein than a non-athlete. One thing that is certain in life is it’s uncertainty, and one day you may find that your path has you questioning the importance of meat to your existence. Whether you choose to forego meat for one day, one month, or 10 years, as I did, this knowledge will help you make better decisions to support your lifestyle.

What is Protein?

Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids. There are 22 protein building (proteinogenic) amino acids. All can be produced by the body except for the 9 essential amino acids – histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lycine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. They are referred to as essential because in order to get them, they must be consumed.

The quality of a protein is determined by the amino acids present in that food, not the amount of protein itself. When all 9 essential amino acids are present in a certain proportion, the protein is considered to be ‘complete’. This matters because a protein must be complete in order for it to do it’s job of cell and muscle building and repair.

Animal Based

Animal proteins are the best source of complete proteins. You can eat one food with all the necessary components and the body can do it’s job. It can’t get much easier than that. This is what is meant when you hear that animal protein is the most bio-available protein.


However, the quality of this protein matters. Remember that quality is determined by the amount of amino acids present. And if you are eating malnourished (meaning nutrient deficient) animals, you might not be getting the protein you think you are.

Plant Based

There are no plant based sources of complete proteins. This isn’t a bad thing, it just means you need to know which foods are most balanced and how to properly pair your foods in order to get the most value from them.

There are some foods that you might have seen recognized as complete because they do contain all 9 essential amino acids. However, the ratio of the amino acids are not adequate to be useful to the body alone, so technically they are incomplete. But they are still the shining stars for vegetarians. These include quinoa, spirulina, amaranth, buckwheat, and hempseed. When you eat these foods, chances are high that another food you are eating will have the missing ratio of amino acids and voilà – you are complete!

Getting Complete

If you are just starting out, a rule of thumb is to pair legumes and grains or legumes and seeds to be sure you are getting a high protein value. However, this is not a hard and fast rule, so if you want to do optimal pairing, there is more to know.

In research documented by PLoS ONE and Foodwiki, when evaluating amino acid complements from plant-based foods, there was no statistical finding that pairings by food group was most appropriate. “Food groups are poor predictors of IAA (indispensable amino acid) patterns. Traditional protein pairings of legumes and grains are based on the assumption that legumes are generally limited in methionine or cysteine, while grains are limited in lysine. While this observation is often true, each food has a somewhat different IAAs pattern that has better and worse complements. Furthermore, there are apparently other foods that provide at least as good if not better complements that are in different food groups.”

So the take-away is that it’s best to look at individuals foods and how they pair instead of the food group as a whole. But I recognize that we are all very busy and this isn’t alway possible, so don’t go crazy, just use the general rule and be sure to include the most balanced foods more often.

Helpful Resources

The tool vProtein was created from this study and provides useful information on individual food pairings. The tool provides a lot of soy based pairings, which I caution you against. I’ll write more on my soy opinions in a future post. However, if you skip over those suggestions, you will find the best whole foods to pair together.

The following chart shows the individual plant based foods that have the most balance amino acid patterns as determined by the Wikifood research.

Table 1

So, you tell me, is it time to cut back on the animal protein?

Feel good, do what you love,