8 Complete Protein Combinations for Plant-Based Foodies
If you follow a plant-based diet and worry that your protein intake might be lacking, there’s great news for you! As a dietitian, I was originally taught that complete protein combinations were key for anyone following a 100% plant-based or vegan diet. Why? There are 20 amino acids which are the building blocks used to make protein. These play multiple roles in our bodies as components of muscle, bone, skin, hair, and organs. We also require amino acids to break down food, make hormones and brain chemicals, and as an energy source.
Out of those 20 amino acids, nine are considered “essential”, which means our bodies cannot manufacture them and we must consume them in our daily diets. These include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Complete proteins like meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy contain all 20, while most plant protein sources are limited in at least one essential amino acid.
“Up until recently, it was a commonly held belief that plant foods are ‘missing’ some of the essential amino acids,” says Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, author of Planted Performance and founder of Greenletes. “A more accurate statement would be that the amino acid distribution is limited in some plant-based proteins. For example, lysine is present in very small amounts in grains, and methionine and cysteine are low in legumes.”
It’s easier than we once thought for plant-based foodies to meet their protein needs.
While we used to believe that it was necessary to consume all the essential amino acids at the same time in complete protein combinations, we now know that “as long as you eat a variety of plant-based proteins throughout the day, you will get plenty of essential amino acids,” says Rizzo. There are a few plant-based foods that do contain all nine essential amino acids which qualify them as a complete protein source, including soy (tofu, tempeh, edamame or soymilk), quinoa, buckwheat, and pistachios.
According to the International Food Information Council 2022 Food and Health Survey, three in ten Americans report eating more protein from whole plant food sources than in years prior. If you want your meals and snacks to contain complete protein combinations, the following delicious pairings will do the trick.
1. Rice and beans
Historically the quintessential meal for plant-based eaters, rice and beans go together like ball and glove. Get creative and experiment with varieties of each such as kidney, black, white, garbanzo, or pinto beans, paired with wild, basmati, brown, white, or black rice. Elevate the meal to a vegetarian chili containing several beans atop your rice.
2. Tofu and vegetables
According to Sharon Palmer, registered dietitian, author, and blogger at The Plant-Powered Dietitian, “in Asian countries, like Japan and China, this combination of foods is very common. Tofu made from soybeans is a high-quality protein eaten frequently in these diet patterns in many ways, including stir-fries and soups. There are usually lots of regional vegetables that are served at the meal with tofu, including fermented pickles, greens, turnips, peas, and carrots. Follow suit by combining tofu in your favorite veggie-rich dishes, such as a broccoli tofu stir-fry, vegetable curry, or a grain bowl with kale and peanut sauce.”
3. Chickpeas and wheat
“Chickpeas are protein-rich pulses with roots back to Mediterranean diets, the same place where wheat originated,” says Palmer. “It’s no wonder that you find this combo in so many classic dishes, such as falafels with pita bread, chickpea couscous, and chickpea salads served with wheat bread. The wheat and chickpea proteins combine beautifully to fill in those amino acid gaps to provide a good source of protein to your day.”
4. Peanut butter on whole wheat toast
Combining whole wheat and nuts provides all the essential amino acids and the classic PB&J sandwich is one of the easiest, fastest complete protein combinations to whip up in minutes. Swap in different varieties of nut butter like almond or cashew, and spread some on your favorite whole-grain bread or crackers.
5. Pinto beans and corn
“In Mexico, the simple, delicious combo of pinto beans and whole corn tortillas is a staple providing a nutritious source of plant protein through the centuries,” says Palmer. “Served with other vegetables, such as cabbage, tomatoes, avocados, radishes, and peppers, this ideal combination creates a balanced meal. Rich in fiber, amino acids, minerals, and vitamins, this nutritious pairing forms the foundation of classic dishes we all love today, including tacos, burritos, and tostadas.”
6. Whole wheat pasta and peas
Whole wheat pasta is an ideal canvas for building a protein and fiber-filled plant-based meal. Create pasta primavera with peas, a variety of roasted veggies, and marinara sauce. Get fancy and whip up a cashew cream sauce to mimic the classic dairy-based alfredo.
7. Lentils and rice
“In India, the delicious combo of lentils (dal) served in a rich, spicy curry served over a mound of whole grain basmati rice is a beloved staple that is celebrated to this day,” says Palmer. “This classic pairing shows how you can make a stunningly flavorful dish with such humble ingredients! And that combination of proteins from the lentils and the brown basmati rice provides a good source of amino acids, as well as fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.”
8. Oatmeal and pumpkin seeds
Don’t forget about breakfast! Top a hearty bowl of oatmeal with pumpkin seeds to round out the amino acid profile and enjoy a bonus of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids. Pump up your protein content even more by preparing the oats with soymilk.
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