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(Last Updated On: August 18, 2023)

Protein plays an essential role in maintaining a healthy body, repairing tissues, and supporting functions like hormone production and muscle growth. Complete proteins are unique because they contain all nine essential amino acids that the human body cannot produce on its own.

Protein foods

Complete proteins are typically found in animal-based food sources like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products. However, many plant-based sources also provide complete protein, including quinoa, buckwheat, hemp seed, blue-green algae, and soybeans. A balanced diet that includes complete proteins is crucial for overall health and wellbeing.

In contrast, incomplete proteins lack one or more of the essential amino acids. While they still provide nutritional benefit, it’s necessary to mix different sources of incomplete proteins to ensure adequate intake of all the essential amino acids. By understanding the importance of complete proteins and incorporating them into your diet, you can make informed choices to support a healthier lifestyle.

Table of Contents

Complete Protein vs. Incomplete Protein

As someone who wants to better understand proteins, it’s important to be aware of the distinction between complete and incomplete proteins. Complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids that your body needs, whereas incomplete proteins lack one or more of these crucial amino acids.

Essential amino acids are vital because your body cannot produce them on its own. You must obtain them through the food you eat. Complete proteins offer you all of these in the correct proportions, making them an essential component of a balanced diet.

Some examples of complete protein sources include animal-based foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products. However, there are also plant-based complete protein sources like quinoa and soy. On the other hand, incomplete protein sources feature foods such as nuts, seeds, and legumes.

When incorporating incomplete proteins into your diet, it is possible to combine different sources to make up for the missing amino acids. These are known as complementary proteins. For example, pairing beans with rice or hummus with whole-grain pita creates a meal that contains all nine essential amino acids.

Understanding the difference between complete and incomplete proteins is crucial for maintaining good overall health and ensuring that your body receives the necessary building blocks for growth, repair, and other vital functions.

Understanding Proteins

Amino Acids

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which play a vital role in your body’s structure, function, and overall health. There are 20 different amino acids, and nine of them are essential, which means you need to get them from your diet. These nine essential amino acids include:

  • Valine
  • Histidine
  • Tryptophan
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Threonine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine

Your body uses these amino acids to create proteins that support various functions, such as muscle growth, tissue repair, and hormone production.

Types of Proteins

  1. Complete proteins: These proteins contain all nine essential amino acids in adequate amounts. Most complete proteins come from animal sources such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products. However, some plant-based sources, like quinoa, buckwheat, soy, hemp, and chia seeds, also offer complete proteins.
  2. Incomplete proteins: These proteins lack one or more essential amino acids or have them in insufficient amounts. Incomplete proteins are usually found in plant-based sources like fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. To get all necessary amino acids, you can mix and match different incomplete protein sources in your meals.

Importance of Proteins

  • Muscle: Protein intake helps in the growth and repair of muscle tissue. It’s vital for maintaining lean body mass, especially if you’re physically active or trying to lose weight.
  • Tissues and organs: Proteins make up a significant portion of tissues like your skin, blood, and organs. Having an adequate dietary protein intake ensures these tissues function properly and effectively.
  • Hormones: Many essential hormones in your body, such as insulin and growth hormone, are protein-based. Consuming enough protein supports hormone production and regulation, impacting your overall health and well-being.

Impact on Health

Importance for Heart Health

Incorporating complete proteins in your diet is crucial for maintaining heart health. Complete proteins, such as those found in rice and beans, provide all nine essential amino acids that your body needs for various functions. A balance of complete and incomplete proteins in your meals can help in maintaining healthy cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of heart disease.

Impact on Brain

Complete proteins play a crucial role in the optimal functioning of your brain. Amino acids found in such proteins are the building blocks of neurotransmitters, which are responsible for communication between brain cells. Consuming a diet with complete proteins supports cognitive function, memory, and mood regulation. A combination of complementary proteins, like rice and beans, ensures that you receive all the essential amino acids for supporting your brain health.

Immune System

Your immune system needs complete proteins to function properly. These proteins help in the production of antibodies, which are crucial for fighting off infections and maintaining overall health. Incomplete proteins may not provide all the necessary amino acids required for a strong and efficient immune system. Thus, incorporating complementary proteins in your diet can enhance the body’s ability to combat various diseases and infections.

Complete Proteins in Your Diet

Animal-Based Foods

When it comes to complete proteins, animal-based foods are often the first that come to mind. These sources are rich in essential amino acids, providing a comprehensive profile of the building blocks your body needs. Some examples of animal-based foods high in complete proteins include:

  • Fish
  • Poultry (chicken, turkey, and duck)
  • Eggs
  • Dairy products (milk, yogurt, and cheese)
  • Beef
  • Pork

Plant-Based Foods

A plant-based diet doesn’t mean you have to compromise on protein intake. While many plant-based sources are considered incomplete proteins, some plant foods contain all essential amino acids, making them complete proteins. Examples of plant-based complete proteins:

  • Soybeans (tofu, edamame, tempeh, and miso)
  • Quinoa
  • Buckwheat
  • Chia seeds
  • Blue-green algae (spirulina)

Additionally, you can combine incomplete protein sources, like beans and rice or lentils and whole grains, to create a meal with a complete amino acid profile. Plant-based protein sources also provide essential nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals, making them a valuable addition to your diet.

Pre-packaged Foods

In today’s fast-paced world, sometimes it’s easier to reach for pre-packaged foods to meet your protein needs. Many of these items offer a convenient, yet nutritious option for incorporating complete proteins into your diet. Some examples of pre-packaged foods containing complete proteins are:

Keep in mind, pre-packaged foods can sometimes be high in calories, sodium, or added sugars. It’s important to read nutrition labels and choose options with minimal added ingredients to ensure you’re fueling your body with high-quality complete proteins.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is quinoa a complete protein?

Yes, quinoa is a complete protein. It contains all of the essential amino acids your body requires. This makes it an excellent choice for those looking for plant-based protein sources.

Is milk a complete protein?

Milk is indeed a complete protein. It contains all the essential amino acids necessary for proper repair and function of your body.

Is chicken a complete protein?

Chicken is a complete protein as it contains all the essential amino acids your body needs. It’s a great source of high-quality protein for muscle repair and overall health.

Are nuts a complete protein?

Nuts are not considered complete proteins, as they typically lack one or more essential amino acids. However, combining different types of nuts or pairing them with other plant-based protein sources can help you achieve a complete protein profile.

Is rice a complete protein?

Rice is not a complete protein on its own, as it lacks some essential amino acids. Nonetheless, you can combine rice with other plant-based options like beans, lentils, or chickpeas to create a complete protein meal.

Is tofu a complete protein?

Tofu is a complete protein, as it contains all essential amino acids. Derived from soy, it’s an excellent plant-based protein choice for vegetarians and vegans.

Are beans a complete protein?

Beans are not complete proteins on their own, as they lack certain essential amino acids. Nevertheless, you can pair beans with grains, like rice or quinoa, to create a complete protein meal.

Are peas a complete protein?

Peas are not perfect complete proteins; however, they are very close. They contain most essential amino acids, and when combined with other protein sources, like grains or nuts, they can become a complete protein in your diet.

Is peanut butter a complete protein?

Peanut butter is not a complete protein, as it lacks some essential amino acids. To create a complete protein meal, pair peanut butter with whole grain bread or another complementary protein source.

Are lentils a compete protein?

Lentils are not complete proteins on their own. They lack certain essential amino acids, but combining them with a complementary protein source, like grains or rice, will provide all the required amino acids for a complete protein meal.

Complete and Incomplete Protein Food List

Here are a few more foods that will round out your list of complete and incomplete proteins. Remember that incomplete proteins aren’t bad, they just are missing one or more of the essential amino acids, therefore should be paired with other proteins for a complete essential amino acid profile.

Complete Protein Foods

These foods provide all of the essential amino acids:

  • Animal-based sources: These typically offer complete proteins, including meat, poultry, fish, dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese), and eggs.
  • Quinoa: A versatile and gluten-free grain that is high in protein and contains all nine essential amino acids.
  • Buckwheat: A gluten-free seed that is a complete protein source, often used as a flour substitute.
  • Hemp and chia seeds: Both of these seeds are complete protein sources and can be easily added to your meals.
  • Soybeans: A legume with a high protein content, available in various forms: tofu, tempeh, edamame, or soy milk.
  • Spirulina: A type of blue-green algae that is considered a superfood due to its high nutritional content and potential health benefits.

Recipes and Cooking with Complete Proteins

Almonds and Walnuts in Recipes

Incorporating almonds and walnuts into your diet is an excellent way to ensure you’re getting complete proteins. These nuts contain all nine essential amino acids, which are crucial for muscle growth and maintenance.

You can add almonds and walnuts to a variety of dishes to enhance both their flavor and nutritional value. For example, sprinkle chopped nuts on your morning yogurt or oatmeal, or add them to a spinach salad for extra crunch. To create a protein-packed snack, make a trail mix with almonds, walnuts, and your favorite dried fruit.

Almond and Walnut Trail Mix


  • 1 cup almonds
  • 1 cup walnuts
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/4 cup dark chocolate chips


  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  2. Spread the almonds and walnuts on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 8-10 minutes, until fragrant and lightly browned.
  3. Let the nuts cool, then mix them with the raisins, dried cranberries, and dark chocolate chips.
  4. Store the trail mix in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

Additional Information: This trail mix is a great snack to take on-the-go or enjoy as a midday pick-me-up. Almonds and walnuts are both complete proteins, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids that the body needs. They are also rich in healthy fats, fiber, and other important nutrients.

Cooking with Hempseed

Hempseed is another plant-based source of complete protein that can be easily integrated into your recipes. With a neutral taste and smooth texture, hempseed can be added to smoothies, baked goods, or even used as a topping for salads or yogurt.

Its versatility makes it an ideal ingredient for improving the protein content of your meals. You can start by incorporating a couple of tablespoons of hempseed into your daily diet, adjusting the amount according to your preferences and protein needs.

Hempseed Pesto


  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup hemp seeds
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (optional)


  1. In a food processor or blender, combine the basil, hemp seeds, olive oil, garlic, salt, and black pepper.
  2. Pulse until the ingredients are well combined and the mixture has a smooth consistency.
  3. If using, add the Parmesan cheese and pulse again until well combined.
  4. Serve the pesto immediately or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Additional Information: This hempseed pesto is a delicious and healthy alternative to traditional pesto. Hemp seeds are a complete protein, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids that the body needs. They are also a good source of healthy fats, fiber, and other important nutrients. This pesto can be used as a sauce for pasta, a spread for sandwiches, or a dip for vegetables.

Quinoa and Rice in Diverse Recipes

Quinoa and rice dishes offer a fantastic way to include complete proteins in your meal plan. Quinoa, in particular, is a protein powerhouse, containing all essential amino acids and serving as an excellent substitute for traditional grains like rice or pasta. Creative recipes that combine quinoa or rice with other protein-rich ingredients can help you maintain your muscle mass and promote overall health.

Some ideas for diverse quinoa or rice recipes include:

  • Quinoa stuffed squash: Replace regular rice with cooked quinoa and combine it with your choice of sautéed vegetables, squash, and black beans.
  • Southwest quinoa salad: Toss cooked quinoa, black beans, corn, peppers, onion, avocado, cilantro and lime together for a delicious southwest salad.
  • Moroccan Couscous: Prepare couscous, chickpeas and chard for added nutrients and complete protein.

By incorporating these complete protein sources into your cooking and recipes, you will provide your body with the essential nutrients it needs to build and maintain muscle mass, all while enjoying delicious meals.

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