Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Understanding Vegan "Complete" Proteins

We didn't go all the way to vegan. Yet. It is something we ideally wanted to do. Trying to go from one extreme to another really intimidated me, however, and felt overwhelming. Vegetarian seemed a very comfortable place to settle for now.

In making this huge change I needed to make sure we were all still getting enough protein. In order to do this, I had to really understand what a protein is, what makes up a protein and which sources would be best for us.

Proteins are basically essential for the repair and growth of tissue in our bodies. Proteins are made up of things called amino acids. Now, I don't want to get too technical, because to be honest I'm not an expert at all. I can get the basics though. There are 20 amino acids, many of which we make in our bodies. The remaining are referred to as 'essential amino acids' because well, that's what they are to us. We can't make them ourselves but they are essential for that tissue growth and repair.

In all the sources of proteins we can get in our diets, there are two types, complete and incomplete. If they contain all the essential amino acids (I think there are 8 or 9), they are called complete proteins. If they don't, they are called incomplete proteins.

So many things can be sources of protein, but in eliminating meat, poultry and fish (all complete proteins) I needed to research some others. We do still include dairy and eggs though, which are also complete proteins. We cannot live on omelets alone however, and so I would like to cut back on how much we rely on them for protein.

Plant-based proteins are how vegans include all the proteins they need for their diets. If you combine your proteins in specific combinations they will make a complete protein. For example, combining lentils and brown rice. Or black beans and peanuts. However, there are a few complete plant-based proteins and I plan to include them in our diets regularly. I'm going to introduce you to three I've been researching here, with the exception of soy. Soy is sort of the lead player in the vegetarian diet, but I'm avoiding it because I have thyroid disease.

Quinoa (keen-wah)- Quinoa is one of my favorites and we have actually been eating this for some time now. Quinoa is actually not a grain at all and believe it or not, it's closely related to spinach and beets! If you find an official gluten free variety (which means that it's not grown near wheat, which apparently can cause cross-contamination) then it's a great option for those who are gluten-free. You can use quinoa for many things. Quinoa can be ground into flour and used for pastas, in bread recipes, and I even have a hot cereal similar to oatmeal. It has sort of a nutty flavor, and from it's original form it cooks up like rice. There are a couple varieties to look for as well.

Amaranth: This grain has been harvested for going on 8000 years and it was a staple grain for the Aztecs! Very cool. It's another gluten free option for my GF friends and it puffs up a bit when cooked, like rice. It can also be popped like popcorn! I plan to try this soon!

Buckwheat: This is another GF one I've been the most excited about trying. I mean, who hasn't seen 'Buckwheat Pancakes' on a brunch menu from time to time? Finding a complete protein I can make pancakes out of? Score! By the way, if you've eaten soba noodles then you've enjoyed buckwheat. Soba is the Japanese name for buckwheat. Buckwheat is much healthier when eaten in it's whole form rather than flour but either way has many uses. We just had buckwheat waffles for dinner. So you can cook buckwheat like rice. What's cool about it though is you can just eat it right out of the bag! To me it tastes a little like Grape Nuts. It's kind of crunchy and nutty. It can be eaten on salads, yogurts, smoothies, tossed in and baked with granolas. Plus, it's got a ton of health benefits.

So in case you can't tell I'm really excited about including more of these 'non grains' in our daily diets.

So honorable mention goes to two more that I haven't had the chance to really check into yet, but am actually already including. Hemp (um, yes, it's the fiber of the cannabis plant) and Spirulina. Spirulina is actually a blue-green algae and has a fairly strong flavor so I'm still working on ways to include it, but I do take a supplement. Here are some links if you'd like to learn more about spirulina and hemp.

I'll make sure to share any fun recipes I find, and I hope if you try them you'll do the same!

***I'm not a doctor or even a registered dietician (yet!), so if you come across any incorrect information, please feel free to comment below!! I'm always up to learning something new!


  1. I thought they were called "essential" proteins because your body can't synthesize them, requiring you to get them from your diet, is that wrong?

    1. You're right. I thought I had put that, but I didn't get that in there.

  2. I find eating the occasional burger, steak or chicken is easier... ;)