13 Complete or Nearly Complete Protein Sources
There are many ways to get enough protein on a vegan or vegetarian diet.
Not all plant-based proteins are complete proteins, meaning protein sources that contain adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids.
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. While your body can make some of them, nine have to be obtained through your diet. These are referred to as “essential” amino acids and include:
Animal products like beef, fish, dairy, and eggs contain enough of every one of these essential amino acids. Thus, they're considered complete proteins. BUT they are mostly acid forming and our bodies prefer alkaline as alkalinity is the environment that discourages many pathogens from multiplying and taking over our healthy cellular function.
However, many plant sources of protein are too low in or missing one or more of these essential amino acids. They're considered incomplete protein sources.
Still, given that plant foods contain varying amounts of amino acids, you can manage to get enough of each essential amino acid throughout the day by eating a varied diet and combining complementary plant proteins.
For example, grains like rice are too low in lysine to be considered a complete source of protein. Yet, by also eating lentils or beans, which are higher in lysine, throughout the day, you can be sure to obtain all nine essential amino acids. Yea for burritos!
Nevertheless, some people like knowing they're getting complete proteins in a particular meal.
Fortunately for vegans and vegetarians, and those in transition, several plant-based foods and combos contain adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids. PLUS they have a much larger variety of textures and flavors.
Here are 13 nearly complete protein sources for vegetarians and vegans.
Quinoa is an ancient grain that looks similar to couscous or rice but depending on the quinoa, as both a cooked cereal or crunchy texture and nutty flavor.
As it doesn't grow from grasses like other cereals and grains, it's technically considered a pseudocereal and naturally gluten-free. It is actually a seed.
One cup (185 grams) of cooked quinoa provides approximately 8 grams of protein.
In addition to being a complete protein, quinoa provides more magnesium, iron, fiber, and zinc than many common grains.
You can use quinoa in place of rice in most recipes. It can also be simmered in a plant source milk for a creamy, protein-rich breakfast porridge. I always have a batch of pre cooked in the fridge and add it to many soups to “beef”’ up the protein.
Quinoa contains 8 grams of protein per 1 cooked cup (185 grams). It's also a good source of several minerals, including magnesium, iron, and zinc.
Tofu, tempeh, and edamame are all made from soybeans and make for excellent plant-based protein sources. Many are shying away from soy due to GMO and allergy but when fermented or coagulated it can be less reactive.
Tofu is made from coagulated soy milk that's pressed into white blocks and comes in a variety of textures, including silken, firm, and extra-firm. As it's quite bland, tofu tends to take on the flavor of the foods with which it's cooked.
A 3-ounce (85-gram) serving of tofu provides approximately 8 grams of protein. It also offers 15% of the Daily Value (DV) for calcium, as well as smaller amounts of potassium and iron.
Tempeh is much chewier and nuttier than tofu and made from fermented soybeans, which are often combined with other seeds and grains to form a firm, dense cake.
Meanwhile, edamame beans are whole, immature soybeans that are green and have a slightly sweet, grassy flavor. They're usually steamed or boiled and can be enjoyed on their own as a snack. Alternatively, they can be added to salads, soups, or grain bowls.
Three ounces (85 grams) of tempeh contain 11 grams of protein. This serving is also a good source of fiber and iron and contains potassium and calcium.
A 1/2 cup (85 grams) of whole edamame provides 8 grams of protein along with a good amount of fiber, calcium, iron, and vitamin C.
Amaranth is a plant. The seed, oil, and leaf are used as food. The entire plant is used to make medicine.
In foods, amaranth is used as a pseudocereal that's a complete source of protein.
Once considered a staple food in Incan, Mayan, and Aztec cultures, it has become a popular gluten-free grain alternative.
Amaranth is a versatile grain that can be boiled for a side dish or porridge, or popped in a skillet to add texture to granola bars or salads. Similarly to quinoa, it has a delicate, nutty taste and retains its crunch even when cooked.
When ground into a flour, amaranth can also be used in gluten-free baking.
One cup (246 grams) of cooked amaranth provides approximately 9 grams of protein. It's also an excellent source of manganese, magnesium phosphorus, and iron.
In fact, 1 cup (246 grams) of cooked amaranth provides more than 100% of the DV for manganese, an essential mineral that's important for brain health.
While it's not as high in protein as quinoa or amaranth, buckwheat is another pseudocereal that's a plant-based source of complete protein. Buckwheat is a nutrient-rich, gluten-free plant source.
Nutty in flavor, the hulled kernels, or groats, can be cooked similarly to oatmeal or ground into a flour and used in baking. In Japanese cooking, buckwheat is most commonly consumed in the form of noodles, which are called soba.
One cup (168 grams) of cooked buckwheat groats provides approximately 6 grams of protein.
This pseudocereal is also a good source of many essential minerals, including phosphorus, manganese, copper, magnesium, and iron.
Ezekiel bread is made from sprouted whole grains and legumes, including barley, soybeans, wheat, lentils, millet, and spelt. Studies suggest that sprouting grains and legumes increases their amino acid content, especially their content of the amino acid lysine. The “sprouting” implies the negatives of grains are neutralized but I fail to see how as the enzymes created from sprouting are destroyed by heat during the cooking process. Your call.
Two slices (68 grams) of the bread contain 8 grams of protein.
Unlike most breads, the combination of whole grains and legumes in Ezekiel bread provides all nine essential amino acids.
Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae that's a popular supplement that I classify as a superfood along with AFA, an extremely nutrient rich aqua botanical.
While it can be purchased as tablets, which I prefer due to its strong fishy/algae smell, the powdered form of spirulina can be easily added to smoothies, granola bars, soups, and salads for a boost of nutrition.
Just 1 tablespoon (7 grams) of dried spirulina provides 4 grams of protein.
In addition to being a source of complete protein, spirulina is rich in antioxidants and a good source of several B vitamins, copper, and iron.
Years ago, in the 1940s, two Japanese PhDs, as a favor to the Emperor of Japan who was looking for alternative food sources for his people, lived on nothing but Spirulina and Water for several years. They stayed healthy. I knew Christopher Hills, who with Hiroshi Nakamura, developed the farming techniques for spirulina.
Coming from the hemp plant Cannabis sativa, hemp seeds are members of the same species as marijuana, but they contain only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of marijuana.
As a result, hemp seeds are unlikely to contain enough THC to cause a high feeling or any of the other psychoactive effects that are associated with marijuana.
However, there is concern that hemp seeds could become contaminated with TCH from other parts of the plant during harvesting or storing. Therefore, it's important to purchase seeds from trusted brands that test for THC.
Technically a nut, the edible whites inside of hemp seeds are referred to as hemp hearts and incredibly nutritious.
In addition to being a source of complete protein, hemp hearts are particularly rich in the essential fatty acids linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3).
Three tablespoons (30 grams) of raw, hulled hemp seeds boast an impressive 10 grams of protein and 15% of the DV for iron. They're also a good source of essential fatty acids, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and zinc.
Hemp hearts have a mild nutty flavor and can be sprinkled over yogurt or salads, added to smoothies, or included in homemade granola and energy bars.
Chia seeds are tiny round seeds that are often black or white.
They're unique in that they can absorb liquid and form a gel-like substance tha acts as a fiber source for improved lower bowel function/elimination. As a result, they can be used to make puddings and pectin-free jams. They're also commonly used as an egg substitute in vegan baking.
Two tablespoons (28 grams) of chia seeds provide 4 grams of protein. They're also a good source of omega-3s, iron, calcium, magnesium, and selenium.
I often add a heaping tablespoon in my juice or protein smoothies
Nutritional yeast is a deactivated strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae that's grown specifically to be a food product.
Commercially, nutritional yeast is sold as a yellow powder or flakes and has a distinctive umami flavor that can be used to add a cheese-like flavor to vegan dishes, such as popcorn, pasta, or mashed potatoes.
A 1/4-cup (15-gram) serving of nutritional yeast provides 8 grams of complete protein.
When fortified, nutritional yeast can also be an excellent source of zinc, magnesium, copper, manganese, and all the B vitamins, including B12.
I often add a heaping TSP in my smoothies.
Rice and beans are a classic pairing that's a source of complete protein.
Both brown and white rice are low in lysine but high in methionine. In contrast, beans are high in lysine but low in methionine. As such, combining them allows you to get enough of each, as well as the remaining seven essential amino acids, to count as a complete protein.
One cup (239 grams) of rice and beans provides 12 grams of protein and 10 grams of fiber.
A lunch box staple, natural peanut butter sandwiched between gluten free or whole grain bread is another common combination that results in a complete protein source.
As mentioned earlier, wheat is low in lysine while pulses like peanuts make up for it by being high in lysine.
amount of protein may vary depending on the brand of bread you buy.
When choosing a peanut butter, aim for a product with minimal ingredients, ideally only peanuts and maybe a bit of salt.
Mycoprotein is a meat substitute product that's marketed under the name Quorn.
Made from a naturally occurring fungus called Fusarium venenatum, it's sometimes mixed with eggs or milk protein before being shaped into patties, cutlets, or strips. As a result, not all mycoprotein products are vegan.
There are some concerns that the fungal ingredient in it can cause dangerous allergic reactions in some individuals.
Still, as it's a rich source of essential amino acids and low in sodium, sugar, and fat, it's a popular option for those looking for a plant-based alternative to chicken.
While the amount of protein varies by product, one 75-gram Quorn Chik'N patty contains 9 grams of protein.\
The Bottom Line
Despite some concerns over being able to get adequate protein on a vegan or vegetarian diet, many high protein, plant-based foods are available. Watching the Documentary Game Changers will show you how even the body building “monsters”’ can bulk up with zero animal proteins.
To ensure you're meeting your amino acid needs on a vegan or vegetarian diet, try incorporating a variety of these complete protein sources or combinations of nearly complete choices into your plant-based diet.
There are several online bulk foods sources.