Complementary Protein Combinations: A Recipe For Building a Stronger Diet

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Protein is an important part of any diet, but you’re probably tired of being asked how you get enough protein as a vegan.

Truth is, it’s pretty easy to get enough protein as a vegan. But are you getting all of the right kind of protein every day to maintain lean muscle mass and fuel your health, longevity, and fitness goals?

The complementary protein combinations in this article will make sure you are…easily! So you can continue to enjoy delicious vegan meals without worry!

This is not just for vegans by the way – complementary proteins are great for anyone who wants more protein in their diet.

Table of Contents

What is Protein?

Protein is made up of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids in total; 9 essential amino acids (EAA) and 11 nonessential amino acids.

Nonessential means that our bodies make them on our own, so we don’t have to provide them in our diet.

Essential means that we can’t make them on our own so we have to eat them.

These 20 amino acids are used to make all of the structures in our bodies. In fact, every cell in your body contains protein! It’s that important.

What Are Complementary Proteins?

Not all plants have all 9 essential amino acids in adequate amounts. Any amino acids that a food is low in are called limiting amino acids. The limiting amino acids are lysine, threonine, methionine, and tryptophan.

If we have a food that is low in one amino acid (AA), we pair it with a food that has that limiting amino acid in adequate amounts. In this way, the two foods complement each other, creating a “complete protein.”

This is incredibly easy to do! It’s almost as if nature created foods that are delicious together and complement each other.

We’ll talk more about that in a bit.

Is It Important to Make Complementary Proteins in One Sitting?

Nope.

That was the traditional thought, but it’s outdated.

The traditional view was that plants were. source of “incomplete protein.” To make them complete you had to eat complementary plants at the same time. I’m not sure how vegetarians survived with this view.

Animal protein, on the other hand, was considered to be superior because it contains all of the amino acids in abundance.

Recent evidence shows that this is not true and it does not really matter when complementary proteins are consumed as long as they do work as complementary proteins and are eaten within a day or two of each other.

Creating Complementary Proteins

There are two major groupings that easily create complete proteins:

grains + legumes

Nuts and seeds + legumes

Or use this chart!

This chart lists some common foods, their limiting amino acid/s, and what foods to pair them with to create complete proteins.

Plant FoodLimited Amino Acid/sComplementary Protein
BeansMethionineGrains, nuts, seeds
GrainsLysine, threonineLegumes
Nuts & seedsLysineLegumes
VegetablesMethionineGrains, nuts, seeds
CornTryptophan, lysineLegumes

Before we dive into putting these together, let’s define what legumes, grains, and nuts and seeds are.

What Are Legumes?

Legumes include beans, lentils, peas, peanuts, and soybeans.

Adding legumes to your diet has been shown time after time over recent years to offer many health benefits, including improved heart function and reduced risk for type 2 diabetes.

Legumes are typically low in methionine, but high in lysine and tryptophan.

What Are Grains?

Grains are staple crops used for food around the world. The three major cereal grains are wheat, corn, and rice.

But there are so many more that you may or may not have heard of. Quinoa, millet, sorghum, buckwheat, amaranth, and oats are all grains!

Grains are typically low in lysine, threonine, and cysteine (which is not an essential amino acid), but are high in methionine.

What Are Nuts And Seeds?

Nuts and seeds represent a diverse group of plants that contain small seed-like kernels inside a shell, with the exception of peanuts which grow underground like beans and are actually a legume.

Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, pistachios, and chia seeds are just a few of the varieties you can incorporate into your diet.

Nuts and seeds are typically low in lysine, but are high in methionine.

Nuts and seeds are also packed with protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. If you’re looking to eat healthier, look no further! If you’re not counting calories, add these to every meal or as a major part of your daily snacks.

Why Are Grains With legumes Such a Powerful Pair?

As we’ve discussed, there are nine essential amino acids, meaning we have to give them to our bodies through our diet. Your body needs enough of each of the 20 amino acids to create structures throughout your body.

Plants actually have all of the essential amino acids (EAA), but most have one or two that are short supply.

Grains and beans are perfect here! For example, grains are low in lysine but high in methionine, while legumes have the opposite profile of being high in lysine and lower in methionine.

By eating beans and grains together, the strengths of one makes up for the deficiencies of the other, making a complete protein.

Remember that these do not have to be eaten at the same time! You could have oatmeal for breakfast and beans with dinner. Still counts!

But legumes and wholegrains go so well together, that we might as well look at some delicious recipes.

Amazing Grains and Legumes Combinations and Recipes:

Click on the pictures to be taken to any of these delicious recipes!

Bean soup and crackers

30-Minute Black Beans and Rice

30-Minute Black Beans and Rice

Pasta and Peas

Pasta and Peas

Whole Wheat Bread and Peanut Butter – PB&J!

Bean Burritos

Bean and Rice Burritos

Chili Over Rice

Hearty Vegan Chili

Hummus and Pita – this makes a great snack!

Hummus and Pita

Hummus On Toast

Veggie Patties (Made With Lentils) On a Roll or Bread

Lentil Burger

Tofu With Rice, Quinoa, Barley, or Buckwheat

Tofu Power Bowl

Noodle Stir Fry With a Peanut or Sesame Seed Sauce

Stir Fry With Peanut Sauce

Lentils, Legumes, or Beans Served With Pasta

Pasta and Beans

Lentils Served With Bread

Beans With Tortillas, Rice, or Tacos

7-Layer Bean Dip With Chips (okay, not super healthy, but incredible if you’re throwing a party!)

7 Layer Bean Dip

Nuts and Seeds With Legumes:

Nuts or seeds paired with legumes also make complementary proteins.

I find these combinations to be less natural, on their own, than pairing legumes and grains. Not many think to have a meal of beans and walnuts. Really, outside of mixed nuts (assuming they have peanuts as part of the mix), it can be difficult to think of tasty options.

But over the years I’ve gotten creative and come up with some amazing pairings in my never-ending quest for fitness.

Or you can just toss some nuts or seeds in with your grains, smoothies, or salads and call it good.

Amazing Nuts & Seeds With LegumesCombinations and Recipes:

Almonds With Green Beans or Peas

Almonds and Green Beans

Pistachios Mixed Into Curried Lentil Soup (use vegan sour cream with this recipe)

Lentil Pistachio Curry

Walnuts On Top of Black Bean Salad (use vegan mozzarella with this recipe)

Walnut Black Bean Salad

Sesame Seeds Sprinkled Over Sauteed Green Beans

Sesame Seed Green Beans

Sunflower Seeds Mixed Into Your Favorite Bean Salad Recipe

Bean Salad With Sunflower Seeds

Roasted Nuts, Seeds, and Peanuts

Roasted Chickpeas

Lentils and Almonds

Almond Curry Lentils

Pumpkin Seeds Added To Any Smoothie

Look, if you’re having some nuts as a snack or adding seeds to smoothies or salads throughout the day, you’re covered.

Plants That Are Complete Proteins By Themselves

Not all plant proteins are lacking in amino acids. Some are complete all by themselves!

Soy, amaranth, quinoa, hemp hearts, and chia seeds all have plentiful amounts of each of the nine essential amino acids.

Soy is my vegan plant protein power food! It contains all the essential amino acids and is also a good source of healthy fats and phytochemicals (plant chemicals that may be good for you).

You may find it in processed, vegan foods, but It’s usually served as tempeh or tofu. Soy milk is a popular replacement for milk.

Edamame is another easy source of soy protein.

Amaranth, quinoa, hemp hearts, and chia seeds are also complete proteins.

Plant Protein Pairings Conclusion

Plant-based complementary proteins are the perfect answer to overcoming deficiencies in amino acids. There are plenty of amazing, complementary, high-protein recipes out there to keep you healthy and chasing your fitness goals. Don’t worry about having to eat plain old beans and rice over and over again!

Got any amazing combinations that I missed? Add them to the comments and help our community!

Need help with your own diet or goals? Send me an email.

Until next time, stay fit!

Matt
Plant-Based, Plant Built

*Author's Note: The content on this website is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The content of our articles is not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It's always best to speak with your doctor or a certified medical professional before making any changes to your lifestyle, diet, or exercise routine, or trying a new supplement.

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AUTHOR
Matt Walter, CHN, M.A.T
I studied Food Science and Human Nutrition at Washington State University and interned as a Strength and Conditioning Coach for the WSU football team. I am a Certified Holistic Nutritionist and former personal trainer and competitive CrossFit athlete. My mission is to make embracing and adopting a healthy vegan lifestyle simple and fun!

2 thoughts on “Complementary Protein Combinations: A Recipe For Building a Stronger Diet”

  1. Interesting presentation.

    Booked marked for future use.

    I have stage 3b CKD. Was on home dialysis from July 1024 (GFR=9) to the spring of 2021 (GFR=32). In 2018 I made diet changes. Now my goal is >70% plant protein and limit saturated fats to 10g or less daily. Next step ids to improve protein quality.

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