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What are complete proteins?

black bean burger photo
Gratuitous photo of a complete protein dinner: This black bean burger includes feta, eggs, and wheat!

In the contentious world of nutrition, protein seems to be the macronutrient everyone can agree upon (more or less). Unlike fat or carbohydrates, there is no “low protein” diet plan that is supposed to bring you ultimate health, weight loss, and vitality. And there’s a good reason why the madding crowds are silenced in the face of protein: we can’t function without it! Protein is not just a source of calories, it is responsible for proper cellular growth, repair, and functioning (through enzymes). And while eating too much protein can eventually lead to sugar production and fat storage, that only occurs after your body has made well sure that the amino acids (protein building blocks) can’t be used for growth or repair elsewhere.

In my recipe for mujadarra, I brought up the notion of a complete protein, that is, a protein that contains all of the amino acids we need to keep our body functioning correctly. 9 of these 20 amino acids are essential – we have to get them from our diet. The other 11 we can synthesize in our own bodies, though it takes a bit more work. (more about amino acids here)

Amino acids are not stored in the body – we need to consume those essential amino acids daily, so they will be available for use when needed. If a needed amino acids is missing, even if we have tons of other amino acids, we may be unable to adequately build and repair whatever cells need help!

Getting all of the needed amino acids

The good news is that it is really easy to get all of the necessary amino acids if you’re eating a varied diet of whole foods. Growing children and people who exercise or lift weights have higher protein requirements than most; but in general, as long as we get protein from a variety of sources throughout the day, our bodies will keep on going strong.

In terms of optimal cellular growth and repair, however, vegetarian sources of protein can get a bad wrap. Animal sources of protein have all the amino acids our bodies need, and thus are considered “complete” proteins. Vegetarian sources of protein, on the other hand, tend to be missing one or two amino acids (or have them in very low amounts), and thus are termed “incomplete” proteins. Unused amino acids will remain in our blood stream at least 4 hours after we consume food, but if we consume all of the amino acids at a given time, we provide our bodies with all the amino acids it needs and make the entire cellular repair process more efficient.

So let’s talk complementary protein sources! Luckily, forming a complementary protein from vegetarian sources is not difficult – many traditional foods inadvertently include complementary protein sources that equal out to a delicious, complete protein. Furthermore, eggs and milk are complete proteins, as is quinoa (which is why the people love this little seed!)

But building complementary proteins can actually be a fun culinary adventure:

  1. Go to Mexico: Beans and corn are complementary protein sources found in these taco recipes from A Couple Cooks and Cookie and Kate.
  2. To the Middle East and India: Rice and lentils make great Mujadarra and green lentil curry.
  3. Vietnam and Japan: Mix whole wheat, soybeans, and sesame seeds: Black sesame otsu or Soba Noodle & Herb Tofu Salad

Essentially, it all comes down to the fact that having variety in your diet is a good thing — mixing grains and legumes, or nuts and dairy can keep your body running efficiently. Remember that whole, unprocessed foods are likely to have higher levels of amino acids (and vitamins and minerals) than their processed counterparts (think whole grains vs white flour). And as always, you know your body best – do what feels right for you!

More Amino acid resources around the web:

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