What's a complete protein?iStock/alexpro9500
Everyone knows that protein is essential to good health—we need it to feel full, have energy, build and repair muscle, process nutrients, and boost immunity, among other vital roles. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), which is the minimum amount you need to be healthy, is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (0.36 grams per pound) of body weight per day—which is roughly 46 grams for an average woman. But not all protein sources are equal. Only some are "complete proteins," which means they contain all the essential amino acids—those building blocks of proteins that we must get from food—in the perfect proportion for our dietary needs. Christopher Gardner, PhD, professor of medicine and director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, suggests thinking of protein as a Scrabble game. "Some amino acids you need over and over again, like the letter E, and some you don't need as many of, like Z," Dr. Gardner told Health magazine. Animal products like chicken and steak provide the right letters to spell words (build proteins) in the right combinations. Plants provide all the letters, too, just not in the optimal amounts. If you're cutting back on meat or going full-on vegetarian or vegan, it's important to find sources of complete protein for your body.
Complete protein: Pasture-raised eggsiStock/funkybg
Eggs may seem like the obvious first choice, but according to Rachel Meyer, certified personal trainer and holistic nutrition coach, the type of eggs you're eating is a detail you can't miss. "Pasture-raised eggs contain 6 grams of protein per egg," she says. "They also have two times more omega-3 fatty acids and a 25 percent less saturated fat than eggs from confined chickens." Tired of eating the same fried or scrambled eggs each day? Here are recipes that use eggs that aren't breakfast.
Complete protein: Greek yogurtiStock/arinahabich
This yummy complete protein is perfect for healthy eaters who've grown tired of eating eggs for breakfast each morning. Typically, 8 ounces of Greek yogurt contains about 18 grams of protein. But don't assume all Greek yogurt is a healthy choice, as flavored brands can be loaded with sugar. Stick with plain and sweeten it yourself with a touch of honey or fresh fruit. If you're looking to add this healthy dairy to other meals, check out these inspired greek yogurt recipes.
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Complete protein: Pumpkin seedsiStock/bmcent
Pumpkin seeds are delicious when toasted and tossed on a salad, and they are an easy snack to eat on the go. They're also a complete protein, containing all nine of the essential amino acids your body needs. Pumpkin seeds contain 12 grams of protein per cup, according to Meyer, and eating 1/4 cup will provide you with half of the magnesium you need for the day. "Magnesium can reduce frequency of migraines and lessen the effects of depression," explains Meyer. "Pumpkin seeds are also high in tryptophan, a amino acid your body uses to promote better sleep." These are signs you could be deficient in magnesium.
Complete proteins: Barley and lentilsiStock/svariophoto
These plant-based proteins aren't complete proteins when eaten alone, but eaten together, they're called complementary proteins because each contains the essential amino acid the other is lacking. So together, they make a complete protein. Barley has 23 grams of protein per cup and is beneficial for controlling blood sugars, according to Meyer. In addition to being high in protein, lentils are also high in fiber and folate, according to medicalnewstoday.com. Other complementary proteins are legumes with grains, nuts, seeds, or dairy; grains with dairy; dairy with nuts; dairy with seeds and legumes. Keep in mind, however, that you don't always have to get complete proteins at every meal as long a you get enough over the course of a day. "For example, if you eat beans—an incomplete protein—at one meal and a tortilla—also incomplete, but complementary to beans—at the next, your body will be able to get the essential amino acids from both that it needs," David L. Katz, MD, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, told Oprah.
Complete proteins: Rice and beansiStock/juanmonino
Another stellar set of complementary proteins. Beans contain the amino acid lysine, one of the essential nine proteins that happens to be lacking in rice, according to Today's Dietitian. Other meal combinations that provide complementary proteins: a peanut butter sandwich; macaroni and cheese; tofu with rice (or any grain); hummus with pita bread; a grilled cheese sandwich; a noodle stir-fry with peanut or sesame seed sauce; whole grain cereal with milk; cheese pizza; or tacos filled with beans or lentils.
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Complete protein: QuinoaiStock/4kodiak
There's a reason this plant-based protein has recently become so popular among healthy. Many people think it's a grain, but quinoa is actually a seed. Naturally gluten free, quinoa packed with vitamin B, magnesium, calcium, and other nutrients. A single serving of quinoa is 1/4 cup and contains 6 grams of protein. Check out these creative recipes for versatile quinoa.
Complete protein: BuckwheatiStock/savany
With 23 grams of protein, buckwheat is a whole grain you can't afford to leave out of your diet. Buckwheat flour can be used for baking, or to make pancakes, crepes, or muffins. You might not realize that soba noodles contain buckwheat flour.
Complete protein: SoybeansiStock/thavornc
Soybeans are an excellent protein alternative to meat. Just one cup of cooked soybeans, more popularly known as edamame, supplies 29 grams of complete protein. Tofu, which is made from soybean curds, is not quite as high quality a protein, but it still delivers 20 grams of protein, with the firm kind packing in slightly more protein than the softer varieties. "Using soy products as a source of protein lets you reduce your intake of meat, which may well confer a net health benefit—especially if the meat being replaced is high in saturated fat," Dr. Katz told Oprah.
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Complete protein: Chia seedsiStock/fcafotodigital
Chia is an edible seed dating back to ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures. Though a tablespoon of chia contains only 3 grams of protein, it's a complete protein, and the tiny black and white seeds are chock full of other healthy nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, carbohydrates, protein, fiber, antioxidants, and calcium. Read more about the impressive health benefits of chia seeds.