Protein is an essential macronutrient that your body needs to function properly. Your body uses it for growth and repair, hormones and enzyme production, and to maintain a healthy immune system.
However, not all types of protein are created equal. Some sources of protein are more nutritious than others.
What makes protein nutritious?
A protein is "nutritious" if it contains all the essential amino acids in adequate quantities to support your body.
Of the 21 different amino acids that your body needs to grow and function properly, 9 are essential that can only be obtained through your diet. Sources of protein that contain all 9 essential amino acids are considered more nutritious and are known as complete proteins.
Animal-based proteins like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy are considered complete proteins because they contain all 9 essential amino acids in sufficient quantities to support bodily functions.
They are generally more easily digestible because they are similar to human proteins, which your body can break down more easily.
They are also a great source of other micronutrients like iron, zinc, and vitamin B12, which can be more challenging to obtain from plant-based proteins. However, some meats, like beef, also contain a substantial amount of saturated fat and cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease.
Plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, nuts, and grains are commonly incomplete proteins. They do not contain all the essential amino acids in sufficient quantities. Notice I used the word "commonly", there are some plant-based sources that are considered complete proteins.
Plant-based proteins can offer more health benefits overall as they generally contain good amounts of polyunsaturated fats, a different mix of essential minerals and vitamins, and many other compounds that are beneficial for your health.
Plant-based proteins are also generally higher in fibre than animal-based proteins, which is great if your diet lacks fibre, but it does make it harder for your body to break down the proteins (it's only 10–20% slower than animal-based proteins though).
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
It's clear that not all proteins are created equal, but I recommend that you don't solely focus on which proteins you consume are complete or incomplete.
Yes, animal-based proteins are generally considered more nutritious than plant-based proteins, however, plant-based proteins offer more health benefits overall. The key is consuming a good variety of foods, correctly combining them, and ensuring you consume an adequate amount of protein each day.
In addition, I want to make clear that just because plant-based proteins are commonly incomplete proteins, it doesn't mean that you cannot create and get sufficient quantities of complete proteins from plant-based sources of protein.
Plant-based protein combinations
By combining different plant-based proteins, you can ensure that you get all the essential amino acids your body needs. Here are just 4 examples of complete proteins, however, a simple search on Google will yield many recipes you can try yourself (this isn't a food blog):
Beans and rice: Combine beans (black beans or kidney beans) with rice. It's an easy and affordable way to create a complete protein.
Hummus and pita bread: Hummus (chickpeas) alone lacks some essential amino acids when, but pita bread (wheat) compensates for that to create a complete protein.
Peanut butter and whole grain bread: Peanut butter is a great source of protein and the benefits compound when paired with whole grain bread.
Lentils and quinoa: Individually, both lentils and quinoa are good sources of protein, however, they must be combined to create a complete protein.
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