No, I am not trying to jump on the bandwagon and promote veganism/vegetarianism. To each his own. But, for a starter, incomplete protein tends to be a popular term in those dietary groups’ communities. Some claim that those who rely solely on plant-based protein hardly reach their required daily protein intake and that they should either increase their protein intake or eat some meat or dairy products. Some claim this is complete bullshit and our fellow herbivores are not in danger of extinction. As usual, the truth is somewhere in between! Should people who rely on plants to get their protein -and other nutrients and macronutrients for that matter- give up their values or lifestyles and join us omnivores? Is incomplete protein useless? How can those individuals with special dietary guidelines still follow their beliefs/values without risking their health? These are all questions that will be covered in this article.
What is an incomplete protein?
If you read my free custom diet plan guide, you should know what complete and incomplete proteins are! Oh, and if you have been searching for a guide to teach you how to create a customized diet plan for free, click here! With that said, an incomplete protein is a protein that does not contain all the 9 essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are amino acids our bodies need but cannot make, thus our bodies need to get those amino acids from external sources (food). Those 9 essential amino acids are:
* The 3 above amino acids are also referred to as BCAA’s, or branched chain amino acids.
Note: Very often you will come across supplement companies or websites stating there are only 8 essential amino acids, however, this is false! The cause of this confusion is simple: L-tryptophan, an essential amino acid, is often left in the dust when talking about essential amino acids. Whether those “educational sources” like it or not, tryptophan is an essential amino acid that cannot be made by the body.
So, if a certain food contains incomplete proteins, it will often lack one or more of the above-listed essential amino acids. For instance, a food’s protein make-up could have lysine, histidine, threonine, phenylalanine, methionine and tryptophan but lack leucine, isoleucine and valine! Thus, we would consider the protein in that food an incomplete protein.
Is incomplete protein useless?
Short answer, no. Long answer, it depends. The truth is that excluding meats, dairy and poultry, very few foods have complete proteins. Yes, plants that have complete protein do exist, but they aren’t many. Many people believe if you don’t consume all 9 essential amino acids (complete protein) at once, whatever protein you eat will go to waste and won’t be used for any bodily functions. This is false! Before I get into what really happens, allow me to mention two real life examples:
Hinduism and Sikhism are two popular religions in the mid-Southern region of Asia. These two religions are two of the oldest religions with a history that dates back to thousands of years. As part of their beliefs, followers of both religions refrain from eating any meats, though not mandatory, but majority of them willingly refrain from eating meats. Additionally, their preferred diet is what’s called a lacto-vegetarian diet. Meaning, they eat vegetables, fruits and dairy products like milk and cheese. Now, one might argue that dairy products do contain complete proteins, which is true, but in reality, most of those religions’ followers rely mainly on vegetables, nuts, and fruits to fulfill their dietary needs.
And as far as I am concerned, both religious groups with an estimated total number of 500 million – 1 billion followers did not die because of protein deficiency, if that even exists.
Another more contemporary example would be our fellow vegans. They live among us and we see them on our way to work, school or home. Have you heard of any of them suffering of protein deficiency? Neither have I!
The truth is that if our bodies had no use of incomplete protein, we would’ve gone extinct a very long time ago when food wasn’t as conveniently accessible as it is today. Our ancestors did not eat meat every day. In fact, there were many days where they did not eat at all! Some days, the only food they could feast on were vegetables and fruits, both notorious for having incomplete protein.
Your body is smarter than you may think. The human body is capable of making its own complete protein! Wait, but aren’t essential amino acids impossible for the body to make? Yes, BUT the human body can collect different amino acids from different foods to compensate for lack of amino acids. Confused? Let’s look at an example:
John decides to eat food X. Food X only has 7 of the essential amino acids and lacks two amino acids: leucine and valine. John decides to eat another food called food Y. Food Y also contains incomplete protein and also lacks two essential amino acids. However, food Y lacks the amino acids: histidine and methionine.
Give those facts, food X already contains histidine and methionine which are both missing from food Y. Food Y contains leucine and valine, which are both missing from food X.
John’s body will combine all those amino acids together to form a complete protein! Viola! Thus, John’s body will use the histidine and methionine from food X to complete the essential amino acids chain in food Y. It will also use leucine and valine from food Y to complete the protein chain in food X.
Eventually, this works out well for John! He still gets to follow his own dietary guidelines and get his protein in. Kudos to John!
But, what if john eats just one food that happens to have incomplete protein? The human body works with whatever it has access to. In this case, John’s body will take the amino acids contained in that food and use them for the best of its ability to perform tasks. Meaning, those amino acids John consumed are still usable and he will be fine.
Complete vs incomplete protein
So, the human body is capable of combing amino acids from different food sources to complete a protein’s chain, but realistically, this isn’t ideal. Yes, those people will still get a decent amount of protein in, however, given their dietary habits and the low protein content of fruits and vegetables in general, a complete protein source like meat, poultry or dairy will always be more convenient in terms of consuming a specific amount of protein. So, omnivores will usually have higher intakes of protein because of the natural high-protein content of their food selections. The point remains the same, vegans or vegetarians won’t die because of protein deficiency. They will live and they will be okay.
With that being said, I have some good news for you, plant eaters! Some plants do contain complete proteins and they are also conveniently accessible. Here is a list of foods that are high in complete protein:
- Quinoa. Often used as a substitute for grains. Additionally, quinoa is delicious and satiating!
- Tofu. Tofu is a soy-based product. Soy is one of the few plants that has complete protein. If you are a male, you may want to refrain from eating too much tofu or soy in general.
- Plant-based protein powders
Note: this is not a definitive list of vegan-friendly foods that are rich in complete protein, however, it’s a good list to get you started. Feel free to explore more options online.
The human body is smarter and more complex than anyone thinks. Your body will utilize whatever nutrients or macronutrients you feed it to perform optimally and keep you alive. In the case of complete protein vs incomplete protein, there are many plant-based foods that are high in complete protein. Additionally, the body is capable of combining amino acids through different food sources to form complete protein chains that are usable for tissue repair and other bodily functions. Moreover, our bodies will use any nutrients we feed them to the best of their ability. In other words, you can keep eating your “incomplete” protein and sleep at night knowing you will be okay. Just eat more protein and your body will take care of everything else. In terms of other nutrients, this is another highly-debated subject that will be covered in one of the next few articles. Stay tuned!