What is a Complete Protein?

Complete protein peanut butter bread stawberries

One major topic you’ll hear a lot about in the dieting world is eating “complete proteins”. So, what exactly is a complete protein? And what foods do you need to eat to get it?

Amino Acids

Protein is made up of compounds called Amino Acids. There are 20 different amino acids that make up a complete protein. They are split into 2 groups: Essential and non-essential.

Essential Amino Acids

Essential Amino Acids are not produced in sufficient amounts by your body, so you need to get these through your diet (see note below). Here is a list of them:

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

Non-Essential Amino Acids

Non-Essential Amino Acids are compound that your body creates. Because of this, you do not need to worry about getting these through your diet (see note below).

  • Alanine
  • Aspartate
  • Cysteine
  • Glutamate
  • Glutamine
  • Glycine
  • Proline
  • Serine
  • Tyrosine
  • Asparagine

***Amino Acids are also commonly separated into 3 Amino Acid Groups, defined as Essential, Conditionally Essential, and Dispensable.***

What Foods Provide Complete Proteins?

You don’t need to follow a specific diet to make sure you are getting enough protein. It doesn’t matter if you are a meat-eater, a vegetarian, or follow a different type of food regimen. Nature provides many options to make sure you are eating complete proteins.

Animal-Based Protein

animal-based complete protein grilled meat

By far the easiest way to eat a complete protein is by consuming meat. Aside from the protein itself, meat contains other nutrients that provide value to your diet. However, other animal products also contain all of the essential amino acids, including:

  • Dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Gelatin and gelatin powders

Plant-Based Protein

plant-based complete protein wooden spoons

Plant-based protein options are great for a number of reasons. Many cultures eat minimal amounts of meat or follow vegetarian diets. In addition, there is a lot of information about how meat production is bad for the environment. And finally, meat is expensive. For a budget-conscious person, it is well worth it to explore cheaper alternatives, even if it just for a few meals per week.

Combining Your Plants

combine plant based proteins complete protein nuts and rice

The key to getting a complete protein from plant sources is to correctly combine different plants. This ensures you are getting all of the essential amino acids. Some common food combinations are:

Legumes and Grains

Legumes and grains both offer different combinations of essential amino acids. So, when you combine the two, you get a complete protein! You’ll notice that you’ve probably heard of the most common legume-grain combos. For example: Peanut butter and bread, beans and rice, or hummus and crackers.


Soy is one rare plant that offers all essential amino acids. It is commonly eaten as tempeh, soymilk, tofu, or eaten whole as edamame.

Other sources

Both chia seeds and quinoa are also complete proteins.

It’s nice to know that there are so many sources of complete protein for every type of diet. Do you know of some complete protein sources not mentioned in this post? Comment below and help us out!


If you found this post interesting, stay tuned for our upcoming post featuring meat-free recipes that contain a ton of protein.

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