What are complementary proteins?

There has been an increasing push for Americans to consume less meat and get more fruits and vegetables in their diet. This has been a difficult concept for many people to grasp because the plates our culture have always been set up like this:

Meat has been the centerpiece complemented by a side of starch and maybe some fruit and vegetables. If you take away the meat, many will argue that it’s not a complete meal. So how do “meatless Mondays” work without the meat? Does it mean we’ll be missing out on protein and end up eating more carbs?

Contrary to popular belief, you can get protein from food sources other than meat. Did you know that vegetables contain protein? Even if you omit meat from your meal, it’s not that hard to consume all of your protein needs in one day. Typically the average person needs about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. If you weigh 160 pounds, you need about 58 grams of protein to meet your needs. Check out the protein content in the foods listed below and how quickly the grams add up (56 grams total).

  • 1 cup of milk: 8 grams of protein
  • 3-ounce piece of meat: 21 grams of protein
  • 1 cup of beans: 16 grams of protein
  • 8-ounces of yogurt: 11 grams of protein

Complete proteins
An easy way to get protein in the diet is by consuming complete proteins. Complete proteins contain all of the essential amino acids the body cannot make on its own. They do not need to be consumed with anything else but themselves to provide a sufficient source of protein. They come from foods such as eggs, milk, cheese, and animal meat like fish, poultry, pork, beef, lamb… if you decide to skip those items, you can combine complimentary proteins to meet your needs. What are complementary proteins, you ask?

Incomplete protein + Incomplete protein = Complementary protein
Another way to meet your protein needs without consuming meat is by making dishes with complementary proteins. Complementary proteins come from foods that, when consumed together, make a complete protein that provides all of the essential amino acids our body needs. Studies have shown that complementary proteins don’t even need to be eaten at the same meal, so if you eat beans for lunch and rice with dinner, you’ve got yourself a complete protein. Now you can save some cash from the ever-increasing prices on meat and still be able to get adequate protein in your diet! You might not realize this, but we often eat incomplete proteins paired up in every day dishes.

Examples of complementary proteins
Beans and tortillas or rice
Peanut butter sandwich
Macaroni and cheese
Tofu with rice
Hummus with pita bread
Chickpeas and rice

What dishes do you make that use complementary proteins?

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Author: budgetforhealth

Jessica is a Registered Dietitian and shares practical, useful tips on food, fitness and finance. Be sure to subscribe to her blog, Budget for Health!

7 thoughts on “What are complementary proteins?”

  1. Hey Jessica, I have often heard that for people who are working out, the daily protein requirement is between 1 and 1 1/2 grams per pound. If I use the lower number, that means that I need around 240g of protein per day! So about 60% of my diet will be protein using that as a guide.

    What do you think of those guidelines?


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