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Really, it’s 2015 and we’re STILL talking about protein-combining for plant-based diet?

close up of dried legumes and cereals
close up of dried legumes and cereals

This article came my way from Sam yesterday: “The Best Protein You Can Eat.” Before I read it, I prepared myself to be irked. I was, but not for the reasons I expected. I anticipated an article that focused only on protein from animal sources. That’s not quite what it says, but it does say this:

Animal-based sources (meat, eggs, dairy) pack them all in one amount or another, but most plant-based sources only contain a fraction of the nine essential amino acids, meaning that if you get all your plant-based protein from peas, you could end up not getting enough of certain amino acids, explains study co-author Rajavel Elango, a nutrition and metabolism researcher with the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health. When getting protein from plant-based sources, it’s important to munch on various protein-rich plants at every meal to help guarantee you get all of the amino acids you need by day’s end.

Back in the day, and by “the day” I mean the seventies, Diet for a Small Planet perpetuated the idea that you had to combine protein at every single meal in order to get “complete protein.” So if you were going to eat beans, you also had to eat rice. If you were going to eat lentils, you had to add some grains.

But the idea that plant proteins are incomplete and not likely to deliver all of the essential amino acids has not just been contested over the years, it’s been debunked.

The website One Green Planet says:

The idea that all essential amino acids must be eaten together at each meal isn’t true like we used to think. One can eat a variety of foods that are rich in essential and non-essential amino acids, and completely get their fill of protein. Many plant-based foods are filled with all essential amino acids (hemp, chia, sprouted brown rice, and spirulina, just to name a handful).

And Forks over Knives also talks about the myth of complementary protein. The author outlines the history of the myth and its correction:

The “incomplete protein” myth was inadvertently promoted and popularized in the 1971 book, Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé. In it, the author stated that plant foods are deficient in some of the essential amino acids, so in order to be a healthy vegetarian, you needed to eat a combination of certain plant foods at the same time in order to get all of the essential amino acids in the right amounts. It was called the theory of “protein complementing.”

Lappé certainly meant no harm, and her mistake was somewhat understandable. She was not a nutritionist, physiologist, or medical doctor; she was a sociologist trying to end world hunger. She realized that converting vegetable protein into animal protein involved a lot of waste, and she calculated that if people ate just the plant protein, many more could be fed. In the tenth anniversary edition of her book (1981), she retracted her statement and basically said that in trying to end one myth—the inevitability of world hunger—she had created a second one, the myth of the need for “protein complementing.”

In this and later editions, she corrects her earlier mistake and clearly states that all plant foods typically consumed as sources of protein contain all the essential amino acids, and that humans are virtually certain of getting enough protein from plant sources if they consume sufficient calories.

It’s really hard to fall short of essential amino acids on a well-rounded plant-based diet even if working with the concept of recommended requirements:

Where did the concept of essential amino acids come from and how was the minimum requirement for essential amino acids derived? In 1952, William Rose and his colleagues completed research to determine the human requirements for each of the eight essential amino acids. They set the minimum amino acid requirement equal to the greatest amount required by any single person in their study. Then to arrive at the recommended amino acid requirement, they simply doubled the minimum requirements. This recommended amount was considered a definite safe intake.

Today, if you calculate the amount of each essential amino acid provided by unprocessed plant foods and compare these values with those determined by Rose, you will find that any single whole natural plant food, or any combination of them, if eaten as one’s sole source of calories for a day, would provide all of the essential amino acids and not just the minimum requirements but far more than the recommended requirements.

Modern researchers know that it is virtually impossible to design a calorie-sufficient diet based on unprocessed whole natural plant foods that is deficient in any of the amino acids. (The only possible exception could be a diet based solely on fruit).

But back to the “best protein sources.” The article I talked about at the beginning recommends the following:

  • eggs
  • cottage cheese
  • chicken
  • whole grains
  • fish
  • legumes
  • greek yogurt
  • nuts
  • leafy greens

What I love about this list is that 4/9 of the best sources are totally vegan. And, whereas the first thing that comes to most people minds when they talk about protein is steak or burgers, these are nowhere to be found on this list. So that’s progress.

While it’s true that many plants contain some protein, it’s also true that the amount varies. Here’s a good list of plant-sources and how much protein you can expect to get from them (from “Busted! The Myth about ‘Incomplete’ Plant-Based Protein”):

  • Broccoli: 5 grams per cup
  • Spinach: 5 grams per cup
  • Rye Grains: 5 grams per 1/2 cup cooked
  • Rolled Oats: 7 grams per 1/2 cup cooked
  • Millet: 5 grams per 1/2 cup cooked
  • Amaranth: 6 grams per 1/2 cup cooked
  • Freekah: 5 grams per 1/2 cup cooked
  • Teff: 7 grams per 1/2 cup cooked
  • Buckwheat: 7 grams per 1/2 cup cooked
  • Almond Butter: 7 Grams per 2 tablespoons
  • Spirulina: 4 grams per teaspoon (!!)
  • Chlorella: 2 grams per teaspoon
  • Chia seeds: 10 grams per 2 tablespoons
  • Flax Seeds: 5 grams per 2 tablespoons
  • Cacao Powder: 5 grams per 2 tablespoons
  • Maca: 3 grams per tablespoon
  • Acai: 5 grams per 3 ounce frozen puree
  • Kale: 5 grams per cup
  • Lentils- 18 grams per cup
  • Black Beans- 13 grams per cup
  • Chickpeas- 13 grams per cup
  • Tofu: 10 grams per 3 ounces
  • Tempeh: 10 grams per 2 ounces
  • Endamame (Soybeans) – 16 grams per cup
  • Romaine Lettuce: 3 grams per cup
  • Sunflower Seeds: 10 grams per 1/4 cup
  • Almonds: 7 grams per 1/4 cup
  • Pumpkin Seeds: 10 grams per 1/4 cup
  • Coconut Flour: 3.5 grams per 2 tablespoons
  • Quinoa: 7 grams per 1/2 cup cooked
  • Plant-Based Protein Powders (hemp, pea, brown rice, cranberry bean, soy, etc.) : 17-25 grams per scoop (depending on the brand)
  • Green Peas: 8 grams per cup

And here’s what they say about how much you need:

If you’re still a little antsy and unsure about getting enough protein on a plant-based diet, just figure up how much you need. Multiply your body weight times .40 and that’s the recommended amount of protein you need for everyday functions. If you’re athletic, eat a little more and divide it up evenly between meals – simple as that.

I’ve heard people say that if you’re an athlete you should be thinking about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight every day. I find that impossible. And that would mean a heck of a lot of green peas, for sure. But no one is going to eat only green peas.

Like I said, 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight is way too much for me. Here’s where I like what the No Meat Athlete has to say in his vegetarian protein primer:

Sure, athletes need more protein than non-athletes.  But we also need more carbohydrates and fat—our overall caloric needs are much higher since we burn so much energy in our training.

So because we’re eating more calories, we’re automatically consuming more protein if we stay at 10-15 percent of the total.

For example: I’m about 80 kilograms and I need 2500 calories most days. If I want ten percent of those calories to be from protein, then I need about 63 grams of protein.

When I’m Ironman training or have an otherwise heavy load, my caloric needs double. Therefore, so does my protein, to 126 grams.

I tell the vegan athletes I consult to shoot for 1.0 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram body weight.  You can see from my numbers above that even when protein is only ten percent of calories, I’m getting 1.5 grams per kilogram body weight.

Contrary to what most people believe, more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to protein.  The body can only process so much per day, and any additional protein is inefficiently converted to energy or even stored as body fat.

– See more at:

His formula is a lot less than the gram per pound formula. A kilogram is 2.2 pounds. So if you need 1 gram per kilogram, then that’s starting to sound more reasonable.

So here’s the thing: you can be on a vegan diet and get enough protein without having to torture yourself over food-combining at every meal. Just eat a variety of foods and — presto — it will all work out in the end.

And just a quick reminder. I know most of the people who read this blog regularly aren’t big dieters who are bent on losing weight, but it bears repeating that vegan is not a weight loss diet.  It’s a great way to eat, but it’s not a ticket to weight loss.

12 thoughts on “Really, it’s 2015 and we’re STILL talking about protein-combining for plant-based diet?

  1. I’m not a vegan, mostly because I don’t eat sprouts, beans, legumes and such. But I do find it interesting that no one even cares about how or what you eat until you tell them you are a vegan.Then all of a sudden its this long discussion on the many ways to get protein.
    Great post!

  2. “I’ve heard people say that if you’re an athlete you should be thinking about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight every day.”

    This developed as info shared by (male) bodybuilders among themselves. So: conceived as a rule of thumb for people looking to pack on lean mass and who are genetically set up to build more bulk in the first place.

    It’s true, though, that at least for lifters, it’s often treated like a universal. One of the most frustrating things I see is women who are learning about lifting and fretting that they are screwing up and holding themselves back because they can’t eat that much protein. (It sounds gross and impossible to me, too, fwiw.) Reasonably derived estimates of what people can actually use hover in range of 0.6 to 0.8 g per kg bodyweight. (Some people may choose to get more calories from protein, as a logistical decision, because protein’s higher satiety factor [than carb] makes it easier to stick with a calorie-reduction plan.)

    “I do find it interesting that no one even cares about how or what you eat until you tell them you are a vegan.”

    Alas, not true. People are willing to lecture, taunt, and criticize anyone with a food pattern they find unfamiliar. Ask me (a non-vegan) how I know. 🙁

    1. Oops, per 0.6-0.8 per lb! (Other optimizing approaches go by per-weight-of-lean-body-mass, but few of us will routinely be able to get that number accurately.)

  3. Thanks for sharing! I’ve been trying to eat more vegan meals. Luckily, I had never even heard of this protein combining silliness, but if it ever comes up, I’ll know what to say. 👍

  4. Super-informative post! And it’s nice to get the reminder that variation in a plant-based diet will give us what we need, without having to focus on documenting, weighing and measuring (which is mostly untenable).

  5. I get asked all the time where I get my protein. When you think of it, apes and other primates are animals that are most similar to humans. What do they eat? Plants. They are also known to be the most powerful mammals. It just makes sense plants would give us enough protein. Also, plants are living organisms meaning they need protein to survive. So again, obviously they have protein. But there are plants that have complete proteins too like quinoa, chia seeds and nutritional yeast, right?

  6. I love this post! I’m mostly vegan and yeah, that 1g protein per pound of bodyweight would never happen for me unless my hunger doubled. I think I do usually eat beans with rice or another grain, but that’s just because that’s how I like them. The kind of squishy texture of beans needs something to balance with.

  7. YES! This makes so much sense. In my college text book about nutrition, it still teaches about complimentary proteins and I just thought to myself, “If you just ate real food, wouldn’t it all work out in the end?” Thank you for this post. How do I save it so I can refer back to it? 🙂

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