Complete Protein vs. Incomplete Protein: A Guide

It is safe to say that protein is one of the best known nutrients in food for active individuals.

There are two types of protein containing foods that I want to touch on in this article: foods with complete proteins, or those containing all 9 essential amino acids; and foods with incomplete proteins, or those missing a proportionate amino acid profile. By the end you should know the difference between complete and incomplete proteins.

The benefits of protein are nearly endless, especially for those involved in rigorous training! Many cells, tissues, blood, and antibodies can be rebuilt using protein, which makes it a vital component of our recovery. I mean, think about it – You ARE protein for the most part. Most of your tissues, hormones, and enzymes are made up of some sort of protein. But really, this is a controversial topic, especially when it comes to what foods you should consume to get enough proteins in.

What are Essential Amino Acids?

Let’s touch on essential amino acids just briefly to build context. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and there are 20 of them in total that the human genetic code directly codes for. However, our bodies can actually produce the other 11 so we don’t need to worry about them. The nine that are left over can only come from eating food or supplementing our diets.

If you are looking to supplement amino acids in your diet these ones are great!

The Nine Essential Amino Acids

The nine essential amino acids are:

  1. Histidine
  2. Isoleucine
  3. Leucine
  4. Lysine
  5. Methionine
  6. Phenylalanine
  7. Threonine
  8. Tryptophan
  9. Valine

They are important for various functions in the body, including protein synthesis, cell repair and growth, hormone and enzyme production, and immune function.

What are Complete Proteins?

complete protein examples

So, what’s a complete protein? Complete proteins (or whole proteins) by definition come from a source of food that contains an adequate proportion of each of the nine essential amino acids necessary in the human diet. Essentially, complete proteins have everything you need in order to carry on with all of the essential functions of your body. This includes recovery from day to day activity up to the building of new muscle.

This is the one that matters the most if you are trying to build muscle, and this is a lifting site after all. It isn’t just the quantity that matters, its also very important that you are getting in the right quality protein.

What are complete protein sources? Just about any protein that comes from animal based foods!

What are Incomplete Proteins?

Now that complete proteins have been explained this one should already be pretty clear, but just in case- incomplete proteins are any protein that does not contain an adequate proportion of the nine essential amino acids.

These are going to be most of your plant-based protein sources. This is why it can be difficult for those following a vegan diet or a vegetarian diet to get the correct proportions of their essential amino acids.

incomplete protein examples

Now, even though animal products are by far the easiest and most efficient way to get your full amino acid profile, you can do the same with just plants. The simplest and best way to do so is to combine different sources of plant proteins (i.e beans and rice). This will allow each food to compensate for the lack of certain amino acids, in the food it is combined with.

Vegetarian and vegan nutrition is based on this main principle of combining complementary proteins to meet daily protein needs and get all essential amino acids.

If you are struggling to get as much protein as you need with a vegetarian diet- this is the top rated vegetarian protein on amazon.

Why Should I Care About Complete Protein?

Your body needs the essential amino acids in complete protein to build muscle, transport nutrients, and build and repair tissue. If you are trying to grow, this is the protein that you should care about. Complete proteins also tend to be leaner and you don’t need to eat the same quantity of food to reach your protein goals. Protein is also the second most abundant nutrient in the body, coming only after water, so getting enough of it is crucial to good health, recovery, and growth.

Animal proteins or those coming from animal products (think cheeses) seem to produce better recovery and results as well. Fish contains Omega 3s that help with joint health, beef contains creatine, and there are many other benefits that you just really can’t easily get from incomplete proteins.

Curious about what foods are complete proteins? Keep reading!

Complete Protein Sources Include (grams of protein per 100 grams)

What are some complete protein foods?

  • Poultry– (chicken breast- 31 grams)
  • Fish– (salmon- 22 grams)
  • Eggs– (whole- 13 grams)
  • Beef– (85% lean ground beef- 26 grams)
  • Pork– (loin- 27 grams)
  • Dairy– (cheddar cheese- 24 grams)
  • Soybean products– 12.35 grams
  • Quinoa– 4.4 grams
  • Hemp seeds– 30 grams
  • Supplemental powders and products– typically between 20-30 grams

Protein powders are not considered a whole food source of protein as they don’t include a broad spectrum of the nutrients needed in a healthy diet. However, they are a great way to meet your specific protein needs before the end of the day.

The Best Incomplete Protein Sources

Below is a list of incomplete protein food examples, but typically nuts, peas, beans, soy products, and grain plants are some of the best incomplete protein sources. Different proteins are found in these various sources, each with its own set of amino acids.

All of these products are at the top of the list of plant protein sources! Nevertheless, there are MANY other plant products that you can use to meet your needs.

Need an example of incomplete protein? Here is a list of the most common plant-based sources and how many grams of protein they contain (per 100g).

  • Almonds- 21
  • Beans- 21 to 25 depending on the type of beans
  • Short grain white rice- 6.5
  • Long grain white rice- 7.13
  • Medium grain white rice- 6.5
  • Green peas- 5.42
  • Long grain brown rice- 7.94
  • Medium grain brown rice- 7.5
  • Cashew- 18
  • Wheat germs- 7.49
  • Hazelnuts- 15
  • Lentils- 26
  • Pasta- 10.8
  • Oats- 16.89
  • Walnuts- 15
  • Millet- 11.02
  • Rye- 10
  • Soy- 36.9
  • Sesame- 18
  • Nuts- 26
  • Peanut butter- 25
  • Bread- 7.1
  • Corn- 9.42

What Complete and Incomplete Proteins are Best for Building Muscle?

This is going to sound like a cop-out, but… all of them. The best thing you can do for health and progress is practice healthy eating and include a wide variety of complete and incomplete protein rich foods in your diet. Each source will have different micronutrients and slightly different essential amino acid profiles that will help keep your body healthy and produce better results.

How Much Complete Protein Should be Consumed?

This depends on your daily activity, lifestyle, metabolism, and more. For the sake of this article I am going to assume you are active and trying to gain muscle or lose weight. In this case I would recommend consuming roughly 1 gram of protein per pound of lean bodyweight.

I am sure this could be argued and discussed at length, but this is a good general recommendation. I personally consume about 1.2 grams of complete and incomplete proteins per pound as I get the best recovery using that metric.

How Complete And Incomplete Proteins Affect You

Even though complete protein is superior to incomplete proteins, there really is no reason why someone wouldn’t be able to meet their essential amino acids needs by eating just plants alone. Now, doing this is generally harder, but as long as you combine different sources of incomplete proteins (i.e legumes, grains and beans), you will be good to go!

Ultimately, your best bet would be to consume up to 1g per lb. of bodyweight every day, derived from a variety of sources. Whether you are meeting your needs or not, can be judged on how you perform, recover, and feel.

If you are struggling to get in enough proteins try these!

Not sure how many calories you should be consuming? Check out this Calorie Calculator!

Have additional questions? Leave a comment below!

You might also like this calories infographic!

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