There are plenty of reasons to eat more meat-free meals, they’re more often than not cheaper, healthier, and better for the environment. It’s easy enough to get protein without eating animals, but some have another concern: “Are these meat-free protein sources complete?”
The term “complete protein” refers to amino acids, the building blocks of protein. There are twenty different amino acids that can form a protein, and nine that the body can’t produce on its own. These nine are referred to as ‘essential amino acids’, we need to eat them because we can’t make them ourselves. In order to be considered “complete,” a protein must contain all nine of the essential amino acids.
Humans don’t need every essential amino acid in every bite of food in every meal they eat, we only need a sufficient amount of each amino acid every day. Most dieticians agree that plant-based diets include such a wide variety of amino acid profiles that vegans are pretty much guaranteed to get all of their amino acids without much effort. But, some people would like complete proteins in all of their meals. No problem, for vegetarians, eggs and dairy also fit the bill. But there are plenty of other ways to get complete proteins for vegans too. Here are some easy examples:
Seitan cooked in Soy
Protein: 21 grams per 1/3 cup serving
Wheat gluten gets a lot of bad press these days, but with the obvious exceptions of celiac sufferers and the gluten intolerant, it’s nothing to be afraid of. Seitan was first created over a thousand years ago as a meat substitute for Chinese Buddhist monks, it is made by mixing gluten (the protein in wheat) with herbs and spices, hydrating it with water or stock, and simmering it in a broth. This is where you need to pay attention, in order to be a complete protein it needs to be cooked in a soy sauce-rich broth to add gluten’s missing amino acid (lysine) to the final product, which is chewy and very meat-like.
Peanut Butter Sandwich
Protein: 15 grams per 2-slice sandwich with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter
Every time legumes (like peanuts) are combined with grains (like wheat, rice, and corn), a complete protein is found. Peanut butter on whole wheat bread provides a heaping dose of all the essential amino acids and plenty of healthy fats too.
Protein: 10 grams per ½ cup serving (firm tofu), 15 grams per ½ cup serving (tempeh), 15 grams per ½ cup serving (natto)
While beans are normally low in the amino acid methionine, soy is a complete protein and deserves its place as the go-to substitute for the meat-free (but beware of GM crops and go easy on the processed varieties). Tempeh and natto are made by fermenting the beans, but tofu is probably the most well known soy product. If protein is a concern, choose the firmest tofu available; the harder the tofu, the higher the protein content.
Protein: 13 grams per ½ cup serving
Originally developed to combat global food shortages, mycoprotein is most recognizable under the name “Quorn” and is made by growing a certain kind of fungus in vats and turning it into meat substitutes that are packed with complete protein. Mycoprotein is sometimes considered a part of the mushroom family. Since it’s usually bound together with free range egg whites, Quorn is not technically vegan-friendly, but there are some vegan mycoprotein products.
Protein: 10 grams per 2 tablespoon serving
Hemp seeds contains significant amounts of all nine essential amino acids, as well as plenty of magnesium, zinc, iron, and calcium. They are a rare vegan source of essential fatty acids like omega-3s, which can help fight depression.
Protein: 8 grams per 1 cup serving, cooked
Quinoa looks similar to cous cous, but is far more nutritious. Full of fiber, iron, magnesium, and manganese, quinoa is a good substitute for rice and is versatile enough to make muffins, fritters, cookies, and breakfast casseroles.
Protein: 8 grams per 2 slice serving
A recipe of wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt, made into a bread. While initially intended to help a besieged Jerusalem make bread when supplies were low, it turns out to be an extraordinarily nutritious loaf that contains all of the essential amino acids. It’s usually made from sprouted grains, which significantly increases the bread’s fiber and vitamin content, as well as its digestibility.
Legumes with Rice
Protein: 7 grams per 1 cup serving
One of the simplest, cheapest, vegan meals in existence is also one of the best sources of protein around. Most beans are low in methionine and high in lysine, while rice on the other hand is low in lysine and high in methionine. Put them together, and you get protein content on par with that of meat. Exchanging beans for lentils or chickpea produces the same effect.
Hummus and Pita
Protein: 7 grams per 1 whole-wheat pita and 2 tablespoons of hummus
The protein in wheat is quite similar to that of rice, in that it’s only deficient in lysine, while chickpeas have plenty of lysine. Chickpeas have a pretty similar amino acid profile to most legumes, so don’t’ be afraid to experiment with hummus made from other types of beans.
Protein: 6 grams per 1 cup serving, cooked
Buckwheat is not actually a wheat, but a relative of rhubarb. While the Japanese have turned the plant into noodles called soba, most cultures eat the seeds by either grinding them into flour (making a great base for gluten-free baking) or cooking the hulled kernels, or “groats,” similarly to oatmeal. Buckwheat is healthy in other ways too; some studies have shown that it may improve circulation, lower blood cholesterol and control blood glucose levels.
Protein: 4 grams per 2 tablespoon serving
Chia seeds are the highest plant source of omega-3 fatty acids, and they contain more fiber than flax seeds or nuts. Chia is also full of iron, calcium, zinc, and antioxidants. They also form a gel when combined with milk or water, making them a great ingredient for healthy puddings, thickening smoothies, or replacing eggs in vegan baking.
Spirulina with Grains or Nuts
Protein: 4 grams per 1 tablespoon
Contrary to popular belief, this member of the algae family is not a complete protein, since it’s lacking in methionine and cysteine. But add something with plenty of these amino acids, such as grains, oats, nuts, or seeds, and you’re good to go.