What are Complementary Plant Proteins? – KOS.com

What are Complementary Plant Proteins?

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Complementary Proteins are a way to assure we are getting the full daily recommended protein quotient from our vegetarian diet. The plant kingdom does indeed provide a "complete" protein. It's just a matter of mixing and matching.

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Complementary Plant Proteins

In the "dietary protein" discussion, it's long been held that animal proteins are "complete" proteins containing all 9 essential amino acids, and that plants are a healthy but lesser protein alternative because they are incomplete proteins. 

This is not accurate. 

As a brief refresher on the subject, your body needs 20 specific amino acids in order to work properly. These 20 amino acids that make up your proteins combine in various ways to form functioning proteins, and the amino acid combinations that result define what sort of working protein your body will create.

You may remember that the essential amino acids — histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine (in alphabetical order!) are those which the human body can't produce. 

That's right. Of the 20 amino acids required for survival, the nine "essentials" are not produced in your body. To get those nine essential amino acids into your system, you need to eat them, as unscientific as that sounds. Especially the way some people eat. Another subject. 

Since the object of eating is (partly, anyway) to get these nine essential amino acids into us, there is lots of conversation on where best to find these amino acids. In that conversation, plants have always taken second place. 

Conventional wisdom has always said, "...meat is your go-to for a complete protein profile. Plants are an incomplete protein that don't measure up."

Complementary Proteins and the Myth of Incomplete Plant Aminos

Contrary to popular opinion, plant-based protein sources are not incomplete proteins. Let's say that again: plant-based protein sources are not incomplete proteins. If a food (or collection of foods) offers “sufficient” amounts of all nine essential amino acids, it is considered to be a complete protein source. 

As it so happens (and this shouldn't surprise us), plants use the same 20 amino acids as humans to build their proteins. Yes, the genetic code is ubiquitous where life is concerned. Animals get their protein from plants, which are consumed (directly by herbivores or indirectly by herbivore-eating carnivores) via the food chain. 

But because some plants have greater or lesser amounts of the nine essential amino acids, we have come up with the idea of Complementary Proteins; plant-based eating where the variety of plants being eaten allows them to complement each others' amino acid profiles and thus provide the crown jewel — a complete serving of daily protein. From plants!

Plant-Based Protein Sources 

An example: Lysine is not missing from grains, seeds, or nuts, despite low levels in all three. Nuts are the lowest in Lysine, at around 15% lower than ideal, whole grains and seeds are the highest in Lysine, at about 100%. What's this mean? 

In practice, it simply means that in order to get enough lysine, you have to hit your total daily protein, by adding some plants that aren't nuts to your daily protein pursuit. Kapow. 

Mix and match a few plants and you are right there in "steak protein" territory. 

This mixing and matching of plant-based proteins goes by two exotic names: "Complementary Proteins" and "Salad".

Why the misunderstanding about plants? The way we define “fullness” and “enoughness” (not a real word) explains some of this mistaken thinking around plant protein. To get a “full" dose of recommended daily protein, we have to eat all nine essential amino acids — in one day. NOT IN ONE SITTING. 

As Dr. Chana Davis so eloquently (and rhetorically) asks in her terrific article — of which this essay is an attributive shadow— "...is milk an incomplete source of calcium because it takes more than one serving to meet your daily needs?" 


Vegetarian diets DO provide enough essential amino acids to meet your protein needs without meat, and with as robust a protein profile as your Porterhouse steak -- but without the artery-threatening saturated fats that are marbling your slab of beef. 

"Protein without hassle" should be the label affixed to every edible plant on earth. That project would take some effort, of course.

Complementary Proteins Examples? You got it.

Plant protein has thus emerged as a natural and completely viable alternative to animal protein. A plant-based diet can be a healthy and sustainable protein party just by varying the leafy, nutty stuff you eat. 

Remember that our bodies will be supplied with what they need as long as complementary proteins are eaten throughout the day. It doesn't have to happen in one sitting. Hence the phrase "daily recommended protein guidelines". 

You have a day to get your recommended protein fix, and you don't need to gnaw on a hunk of meat to get there. Period. 

Here are some examples of complementary protein combos: 

Lentils or legumes with grains, nuts/seeds or dairy; a peanut butter sandwich or peanut butter spread on grainy crackers; hummus (crushed garbanzo beans) on bread or crackers; tofu with rice, quinoa, barley, or buckwheat; lentils, legumes, or beans served with (preferably atop!) pasta; lentil soup served with bread; beans with tortillas, rice or tacos; yogurt with nuts or with muesli. And so on!

Your Complementary Proteins Await

To mix and match your fruits and veggies to get the right protein profile, you can use the USDA's Food Data Central resource, or reference the extremely handy chart put together by Dr. Chana Davis here

Meat as the King of Protein may be an idea whose time has come and gone, given the complex and seemingly irresolvable issues around the broken food system, and meat's resource-intensive and strangely lame caloric payout. The world's starving need their protein, too. There is plenty to go around. Step one is getting these protein misunderstandings sorted out. Step two may well be a world without hunger.


What are the benefits of eating complementary proteins?

By routinely mixing up and combining our vegetarian food sources, we can get the complete protein we once believed was only possible through the eating of meat. You can get your full serving of recommended proteins every day without eating meat. 

What are the side effects of protein powder?

The side effects of protein powder depend on the ingredients. Some protein powders may contain large amounts of caffeine or other stimulants. Others may contain hormones or steroids that can have negative side effects, especially for people with pre-existing medical conditions. Look for a plant-based protein that is clean, flavorful, and natural. Preferably one that takes its mission seriously, wears its message lightly, and has won awards for its deliciousness. 

Which protein powder is best for the immune system?

There is no one protein powder that is best for the immune system. However, some people may find that cattle-based protein powders made from whey help to boost their immunity. That may be because the gas and bloating associated with whey-based protein clears the room of any other persons from whom we might catch an illness.


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