9 Complete Proteins That Aren’t Meat
If you've cut back on eating meat or cut it out of your diet entirely, these non-meat sources of complete protein will cover your nutrient needs.
What’s a complete protein?
Everyone knows that protein is essential to good health—we need it to feel full, have energy, build and repair muscle, process nutrients, and boost immunity, among other vital roles. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein, which is the minimum amount you need to be healthy, is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (0.36 grams per pound) of body weight per day—which is roughly 46 grams for an average woman. But not all protein sources are equal. Only some are “complete proteins,” which means they contain all the essential amino acids—those building blocks of proteins that we must get from food—in the perfect proportion for our dietary needs. Animal products like chicken and steak provide the right amino acids to build proteins in the right combinations. Plants provide all the elements, too, just not in the optimal amounts. If you’re cutting back on meat or going full-on vegetarian or vegan, it’s important to find sources of complete protein for your body. Here’s how to get more protein in your diet.
Complete protein: Pasture-raised eggs
Eggs may seem like the obvious first choice, but according to Rachel Meyer, certified personal trainer and holistic nutrition coach, the type of eggs you’re eating is a detail you can’t miss. “Pasture-raised eggs contain 6 grams of protein per egg,” she says. “They also have two times more omega-3 fatty acids and a 25 percent less saturated fat than eggs from confined chickens.” Tired of eating the same fried or scrambled eggs each day? Here are egg recipes that aren’t for breakfast.
Complete protein: Greek yogurt
This yummy complete protein is perfect for healthy eaters who’ve grown tired of eating eggs for breakfast each morning. Typically, 8 ounces of Greek yogurt contains about 18 grams of protein. But don’t assume all Greek yogurt is a healthy choice, as flavored brands can be loaded with sugar. Stick with plain and sweeten it yourself with a touch of honey or fresh fruit. If you’re looking to add this healthy dairy to other meals, check out these inspired Greek yogurt recipes.
Complete protein: Pumpkin seeds
Pumpkin seeds are delicious when toasted and tossed on a salad, and they are an easy snack to eat on the go. They’re also a complete protein, containing all nine of the essential amino acids your body needs. Pumpkin seeds contain 21 grams or more of protein per cup and eating 1/4 cup will provide you with half of the magnesium you need for the day. “Magnesium can reduce frequency of migraines and lessen the effects of depression,” explains Meyer. “Pumpkin seeds are also high in tryptophan, an amino acid your body uses to promote better sleep.” Poor sleep is just one of the signs you could be deficient in magnesium.
Complete proteins: Barley and lentils
These plant-based proteins aren’t complete proteins when eaten alone, but eaten together, they’re called complementary proteins because each contains the essential amino acid the other is lacking. So together, they make a complete protein. One cup of cooked barley has 3.5 grams of protein and is beneficial for controlling blood sugars. In addition to being high in protein, lentils are also high in fiber and folate, according to a study in the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science. Other complementary proteins are legumes paired with grains, nuts, seeds, or dairy; grains with dairy; dairy with nuts; dairy with seeds and legumes. Keep in mind, however, that you don’t always have to get complete proteins at every meal, as long a you get enough over the course of a day.
Complete proteins: Rice and beans
Another stellar set of complementary proteins. Beans contain the amino acid lysine, one of the essential nine proteins that happens to be lacking in rice. Other meal combinations that provide complementary proteins: a peanut butter sandwich; macaroni and cheese; tofu with rice (or any grain); hummus with pita bread; a grilled cheese sandwich; a noodle stir-fry with peanut or sesame seed sauce; whole grain cereal with milk; cheese pizza; or tacos filled with beans or lentils.
Complete protein: Quinoa
There’s a reason this plant-based protein has recently become so popular among healthy. Many people think it’s a grain, but quinoa is actually a seed. Naturally gluten free, quinoa packed with vitamin B, magnesium, calcium, and other nutrients. A single serving of quinoa is 1/4 cup and contains 6 grams of protein. Check out these creative recipes for versatile quinoa.
Complete protein: Buckwheat
With 6 grams of protein in a cooked cup, buckwheat is a whole grain you can’t afford to leave out of your diet. Buckwheat flour can be used for baking, or to make pancakes, crepes, or muffins. You might not realize that soba noodles contain buckwheat flour.
Complete protein: Soybeans
Soybeans are an excellent protein alternative to meat. Just one cup of cooked soybeans, more popularly known as edamame, supplies 22 grams of complete protein. Tofu, which is made from soybean curds, is not quite as high quality a protein, but it still delivers 20 grams of protein per cup, with the firm kind packing in slightly more protein than the softer varieties.
Complete protein: Chia seeds
Chia is an edible seed dating back to ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures. Though a tablespoon of chia contains only 3 grams of protein, it’s a complete protein, and the tiny black and white seeds are chock full of other healthy nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, carbohydrates, protein, fiber, antioxidants, and calcium. Read more about the impressive health benefits of chia seeds.
- American Heart Association. “Pumpkin Seeds Pack a Healthy Punch.”
- Current Developments in Nutrition: “Quinoa Seed Lowers Serum Triglycerides in Overweight and Obese Subjects: A Dose-Response Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial.”
- Food and Drug Administration: "Protein."
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Protein."
- International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science:“A Review of the Impact of Preparation and Cooking on the Nutritional Quality of Vegetables and Legumes.”
- The National Academies of Sciences Engineering Medicine: "Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids."