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Protein Combining

15th Nov, 2022


As I’m sure for most people that have chosen to stop eating meat have experienced, one of the most common responses is one of great concern of your protein intake. However, as many of us veg fanatics know, this isn’t quite such a challenge as it seems. 

Amino Acids 

Like all the macronutrients, protein is a chain of smaller molecules. The building blocks of protein are called amino acids, of which there are 20. Within the 20, there are 2 groups called the essential amino acids and the non-essential amino acids. The 9 essential amino acids can only be obtained through the diet, where these can then be broken down and reformed to make the 11 non-essential amino acids. Conveniently, almost all animal derived proteins contain all 9 amino acids so are called ‘complete’ proteins. Less conveniently, there aren’t a huge number of plant foods that are ‘complete’ proteins, some listed below. 

Complete Plant Proteins:

  • Quinoa 
  • Buckwheat 
  • Soy 
  • Seitan 

So, if not many plant-based foods have a complete amino acid profile, how to we ensure that we are meeting our protein needs?

Enter Protein Combining.

Most commonly nuts, seeds, beans, legumes and their byproducts (tofu and tempeh) are championed for their protein content, but still there are few that are ‘complete’. This is when you can start thinking about protein combining.

Protein combining just means choosing plant-based foods whose amino acid profiles complement each other to provide all essential amino acids. By happy coincidence, often the complementary amino acids to beans and legumes are found in carbs like grains that you would likely eat with these foods anyway. You’d be surprised at just where you can get protein from like vegetables, grains and legumes. So, provided you are continuing to eat a varied and balanced diet you can quite easily meet your protein needs. 

If specifically planning meals to include complementary proteins seems all a bit much, then fear not! Research has found that the body actually keeps a stock of free amino acids that have been consumed without the day (1). So, if you find that in the morning you are eating oats (all amino acids but low lysine) and in the evening you have a lentil dhal (6 of the 9 essential amino acids) despite being consumed at different times in the day, your body will still be able utilize all the amino acids to conjugate the non-essential amino acids.

Examples of Complete Protein Meals:

  • Brown rice and mixed bean Chilli 
  • Whole wheat pasta with hemp seed pesto 
  • Hummus and whole wheat pita 
  • Nut butter on rye or whole wheat toast 
  • Tofu satay with buckwheat noodles 

by Lulu Gibbons

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