The Complete Protein: Getting Enough Protein While Eating Plant-Based

Since having gone vegan, the first question everyone asks (every time we see them…) is where Dave and I get our protein. While we eat a wide variety of different foods and try out tons of cool recipes, people are immediately concerned for our well-being and convinced that we’re going to die without eating animals. When was the last time you asked someone who ate McDonald’s a couple times a week if they were getting enough nutrients? Nothing about McDonald’s is healthy, but people assume it’s better than eating tons of vegetables and plant proteins– it’s crazy! And really, when was the last time you heard someone die of a protein deficiency while eating a balanced diet? Unless you live in a developing country, it’s pretty much never– a quick Google search gave me zero statistics on its existence within the US. Even more though, it’s so uncommon that I bet you couldn’t even name what a protein deficiency is called– kwashiorkor! That name alone tells you how common it is.


In 1971, Frances Moore Lappe, a sociologist, published the cookbook, Diet for a Small Planet. The idea behind the book was that becoming vegetarian would reduce the environmental impact of animal agriculture and feed the planet more effectively. Her goal was to reduce world hunger, but unfortunately, the primary impact of the book on society was the concept of the complete protein. In her book, she explained that she felt the only way to get enough protein was to mimic the amino acid structure of animal proteins with plant foods in each meal. This theory has been disproven time and time again, but society holds onto it, because that’s what we’ve always been told; it’s even still in some science textbooks! Ultimately, protein is composed of amino acids. We don’t need to get them all in every meal, just in a day, from a multitude of sources and from eating a healthy diet. The nine essential amino acids are:

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


It comes down to the fact that different foods have different amino acids. For example, if I were to eat quinoa, quinoa has all nine essential amino acids, so if that’s all I eat all day for protein, that’s okay (as long as it’s enough!). However, rice and beans, separate from one another, do not, so people have been told that they need to be eaten together to be a complete protein. (Check out this list of 10 complete proteins for those on a plant-based diet by Greatist!) But here’s the thing: you don’t have to eat them at the same time. If you don’t get enough amino acids in one meal, more than likely, you’ll get plenty in your next. Check out my brief post on protein here for a variety of different foods you can eat to count toward your protein total for the day, but remember: there’s even protein in bananas, apples, and other fruit or vegetables, so it’s important to eat a variety of foods each day.

Questions for you:

What are some plant foods that you didn’t know had protein but eat every day?

What’s your favorite plant-based protein on the linked list from Greatist (above)?

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