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What is a complete protein?

While it's important to get enough protein in your diet, it's also crucial to ensure you're getting the right type of protein.

A quick refresher from science class: Protein is comprised of 20 amino acids; 11 of these amino acids are produced by the human body. For good health, we must get the other nine amino acids (called "essential amino acids") from the foods we eat. When a food contains all nine of these amino acids, it is called a "complete protein."

Which foods are complete proteins?

Animal proteins are complete, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy. There are also a few plant-based sources of complete protein, including:

  • Quinoa

  • Buckwheat

  • Hempseed

  • Blue-green algae

  • Soybeans

Note: these sources may not contain as much protein per serving as animal products.

"Don't get hung up on having to have a complete protein with every single meal," says Shayna Komar, a licensed and registered dietitian at Thomas F. Chapman Family Cancer Wellness at Piedmont. "Instead, aim for variety in your whole day."

Combining incomplete proteins to form a complete protein

If you're a vegetarian or vegan, or if you limit the amount of animal products you consume, you can combine incomplete, plant-based proteins to meet your body's needs. Combinations include:

  • Nuts or seeds with whole grains (peanut butter on whole wheat toast)

  • Whole grains with beans (beans and rice; hummus and pita bread; bean-based chili and crackers; refried beans and tortillas)

  • Beans with nuts or seeds (salad with chickpeas and sunflower seeds)

"You don't have to eat all of those in every single meal and not even in your full day," says Komar. "But it's a good idea to get a variety."

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