When I decided to go vegan I didn’t know the difference between plant and animal proteins yet alone what an amino acid was.
The bottom line is that although it’s drilled into us since birth that protein-rich meat is the main course and anything resembling a plant is simply a side dish, you can absolutely have a well-rounded plant-based diet that provides you with all the protein you need.
You just have to know what you’re doing and, to do that, you have to know what's behind the whole protein story: amino acids.
There are 9 amino acids our bodies cannot make ourselves but need to ingest to create protein --- we can get all of them from plants.
Once you understand how these work, it gives you a real edge when people wheel out the whole ‘vegan lack of protein’ argument, because you get to take it back to basics.
So consider this your guide for all you will need to know about amino acids and complete proteins so you can be better prepared than I was when embarking on a plant-based diet.
What are Amino Acids and Why are they such a Big Deal?
First, let’s start with the clever science-y thing your body does with amino acids. It’s pretty amazing.
Amino acids are the building blocks of a well-balanced diet—literally, as they are the building blocks of protein that support the body’s overall functions.
Amino acids were once believed to be exclusively found in animal products (meat, dairy, etc.), but we now know that the building blocks of protein are abundant in plants.
Our bodies produce most of the 20 essential amino acids we need naturally but, amazing as the human body is, we can’t do everything on our own.
There are 9 essential amino acids we still need to receive through our diet to add to the existing amino acids in our body which then – ta-da! – create a complete protein.
It's basically a case of "You Complete Me".
To get at the protein within food, the body needs to break it down along with the amino acids to form the protein.
Animal proteins are very similar to the protein found in the human body and contain all essential amino acids. Though more compatible with humans, animal proteins are usually high in sodium and saturated fat and so carry health risks over time.
Vegetable or plant proteins on the other hand are low in calories and fats and pack a punch when it comes to vitamins and minerals, but they are lower in essential amino acids.
However, you don't need to get all those 9 essential amino acids in a single meal or even single day for them to create complete protein during digestion. They can hang around in your body up to three days until they get introduced to other essential aminos, have a party, and make complete protein.
Let’s go through some introductions as to who these amino acids are, what they actually do and what foods you can find them in.
Vegan Sources of Essential Amino Acids
Methionine is a sulfur-containing amino acid that helps in the production of bone cartilage.
However, sulfur can’t be taken as a supplement, so methionine found in vegan complete proteins is a great way to boost the body’s sulfur production for anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving, and cartilage-forming properties.
Helps You To: keep those hormones in balance and maintain a strong immune system.
Food sources: Walnuts, seaweed, onions, sunflower seeds, Brazil nuts (these nuts have the highest concentration of Methionine around, more than any meat or dairy)
Phenylalanine is an interesting amino acid because it turns into another amino acid called tyrosine once ingested in the body.
This amino acid is important in the functioning of the central nervous system—you know, the part that enables your brain to survey your surroundings and control your body. Somewhat important.
Helps: Keep your nervous system firing and your mind sharp.
Food sources: Quinoa, figs, leafy greens, seeds
The immune system, hormonal balance, and muscle structure of your body all depend on isoleucine for proper functioning. This building block is a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA), which means it helps prevent muscle loss.
BCAAs like isoleucine are popular for good reason within the personal fitness community as they expedite muscle recovery post-workout.
To prepare your body pre-workout, isoleucine boosts your energy and endurance levels to get the most results and minimal recovery time from strenuous exercise.
Helps You To: Recover quickly from a cold or a work out.
Food source: Cranberries, apples, kiwis, cabbage, spinach, almonds, cereals
Threonine is important in heart and liver health as it promotes elasticity and strength in tissues and muscles surrounding these organs.
For healthy skin, hair, and nails, threonine boosts the body’s collagen production. You can also attribute your great smile to threonine, which helps build strong teeth and enamel.
The amount of threonine in spirulina and watercress—top-notch sources of vegan amino acids—exceeds that found in meat (nutritiondata.self.com)!
Helps You To: Keep those pearly-whites shining and skin glowing.
Food source: Leafy greens, mushrooms, avocados, pumpkins. white beans
Tryptophan is a fun amino acid (yes, amino acids can be fun) because it has a relaxing and often sleepy effect on the body since it converts to serotonin in the brain (medlineplus.gov).
This neurotransmitter is linked to lower levels of stress and depression and an overall boost in mood and a healthy nervous system.
For a happy mind and body, incorporate tryptophan into your diet for increased levels of serotonin, the crowd’s favorite neurotransmitter.
Helps You To: Stay positive, happy and motivated.
Food sources: legumes, asparagus, sweet potatoes, oranges, celery, carrots
Known as one of the best essential amino acids for promoting muscle strength and growth, Leucine also helps with burning fat, along with regulating blood sugar, moderating insulin, and preventing depression.
Leucine is the most effect branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) because it is quickly broken down by the body and converted to glucose for a spike in energy and muscle growth (jn.nutrition.org).
This powerhouse amino acid is often recommended for patients recovering from surgery because of its healing properties.
Helps you To: Build muscle, maintain energy and heal quickly.
Food sources: Seaweed, kidney beans, olives, raisins, pumpkin, peas
Say hello to the building block that is causing quite a stir in the conversation about essential amino acids: histidine.
Histidine plays an important role in a number of chemical reactions in the body, most importantly in the reaction creating haemoglobin and so helping oxygen flow around the body.
The reason why it is causing a stir at the moment is due to research into the role it plays in creating sheaths around nerve connections in the body. This protects them from damage and is being studied for its uses in guarding against degenerative diseases like Parkinsons and Alzheimers.
Helps You To: Keep your mind sharp and your blood flowing.
Food sources: Leafy greens, mushrooms, avocados, cauliflower, corn, cantaloupe
Our third and final branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) within the essential amino acids family is valine, which is necessary for muscle growth and repair.
Valine also boosts energy and endurance levels for daily activities and physical exercise.
Natural plant sources of valine include mushrooms, soy, and peanuts. You can also get this vegan amino acid from seeds (sesame, hemp, and chia) as well as fruits like apples, cranberries, oranges, and apricots.
Helps You To: Keep running longer. And longer. And longer.
Food sources: Mushrooms, oranges, apples, cranberries and apricots
Lysine, known as ‘the limiting amino acid,’ is the single most important of all amino acids for vegans and those on a plant-based diet.
It occurs in small quantities in plants and is important for your body above and beyond forming complete proteins. It even has a higher RDA than protein!
Lysine helps in immune health for containing antiviral properties and developing antibodies. But it is also crucial for the production of a nutrient called carnitine, which helps convert fatty acids into energy and thereby lowers cholesterol.
A six-month trial indicated that lysine is an effective agent for assisting healing and reducing the occurrence of herpes virus, (hence it’s application for cold sores that are a result of the herpes simplex virus).
Helps You To: Develop kick-ass antibodies for keeping you healthy and banishing cold sores.
Food source: Beans, lentils, quinoa, watercress, parsley, beans, avocado, seeds (especially pumpkin seeds)
What are the vegan sources of complete proteins?
So vegans can get their protein from plants by consuming various sources of essential amino acids that then combine in the body to create complete proteins. However, there are also plant-based sources of complete proteins, no mixing necessary.
The fact is you’re probably getting plenty of those complete proteins directly from the plant foods you love without even realizing it.
There are many wonderful plant foods that just miss out, such as avocados, as they contain 8 of the 9 essential amino acids. As part of your varied diet they would result in complete proteins, no doubt. But this list is for those plant foods who are the complete package.
Iconic for its pronunciation [keen-wah], quinoa is a plant protein superstar.
Oh, and just so we are clear… That’s ‘keen-wah’, not ‘wah-keen’…
OK, glad we cleared that up.
This grain has been devoured by civilizations for thousands of years. Ancient Incans believed quinoa to be a sacred food, proclaiming it the “mother of all grains.”
With 9 grams of complete protein—that’s right, all 9 essential acids in one delicious serving—quinoa is a staple in many vegan kitchens for its versatility, affordability, and nutrition.
Mix quinoa into your oatmeal for a protein-packed breakfast or serve it with beans and salsa for a satiating and nutrient-dense burrito bowl.
An under-appreciated alternative to rice or oats, buckwheat deserves a place on your vegan complete protein plate.
With 6 grams of protein containing all the essential amino acids, there’s good reason why buckwheat is a prominent food in Asian cuisines.
The Japanese use buckwheat in many noodle dishes, and many Asian and European countries use buckwheat in porridge, pancakes, and other fun protein-packed delicacies.
Consuming 1 cup of buckwheat throughout the day yields 23 grams of vegan complete protein!
You say “garbanzo beans,” I say “chickpeas.”
However you refer to this popular legume, be sure to incorporate chickpeas into your diet! All you need to know: 39 grams of protein per cup. Let that sink in.
Chickpeas are one of my all-time favorite vegan complete proteins not only because of its nutrition but also because of its versatility.
You can use chickpeas as a base in soups, salads, or sandwiches, or get creative with chickpea cookie dough.
When listing each of the essential amino acids above, you may have noticed a frequent protein hero: soy!
For thousands of years, soybeans have been a crucial crop in many Asian civilizations and is still a staple food today.
In fact, soybean meal is the largest source of protein feed in the world (WWF.org).
Soy-based proteins like tempeh and tofu provide alternatives to meat, while soy milk can be used in place of dairy products.
Soybean in its whole food form packs a whopping 29g of protein and delivers all your essential amino acids in each and every pod.
Nearly every “What I Eat in a Day as a Vegan” video on YouTube features this vegan complete protein.
Sprinkled on toast, soaked for its egg-like properties, and stirred into oats, pudding, and smoothies, the uses and benefits of chia seeds are endless.
For strong bones, heart health, muscle growth, and improved energy, sneak 1 tablespoon of chia seeds into your daily diet for nearly 5 grams of protein.
Making a comeback after the ch-ch-ch-chia days, chia seeds are sure to stick around for their nutritional benefits.
I could eat hemp seeds by the spoonful because they are sooooo delicious and nutty.
For a quick 5 grams of protein, grab a spoon and reap all the vegan amino acid benefits from hemp seeds, a small but mighty source of protein.
Hemp has many non-dietary uses (rope, canvas, recyclable material, etc.), but be sure to get this protein powerhouse into your system some way or another.
You can enjoy hemp seeds like I do—straight up—or incorporate them into hummus, granola bars, seed butter (like peanut butter), or pesto.
In an era of pumpkin spice everything, there are a lot of leftover pumpkin seeds—and we’re willing to take them.
An October favorite to roast, pumpkin seeds offer 3 grams of complete protein per tablespoon, but it’s impossible to have just one spoonful of these delicious, nutrient-dense seeds.
You can snack on pumpkin seeds throughout the day to build up your intake of vegan amino acids.
You might be thinking, “what in the world is nutritional yeast?”
You’re about to be introduced to a whole new world of vegan condiments containing these cheesy, nutty flakes, which are called “nooch” for short among vegan veterans.
Don't let the off-putting name deter you because this deactivated yeast is a vegan complete protein with many nutritional benefits (the clue is in the name).
In addition to delivering all nine essential amino acids, nutritional yeast is full of fiber, B vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients.
These cheeky flakes add a savory flavor on top of chili, popcorn, salad, and burrito bowls. Sure, cheese is cheese, but you’ll be pretty surprised at the kind of cheesy loveliness you can mix up with the “nooch”.
Spirulina (a.k.a. magic green powder) is a vegan super food complete with super proteins.
You should definitely be consuming these natural algae for its health promoting properties and essential amino acids.
With 4 grams of vegan complete protein per tablespoon and high amounts of calcium and iron, spirulina is a game changer for anyone looking to introduce some nutrient-dense foods into their diet via smoothies, power bites, or even desserts.
Move over spinach, there’s a new green machine on our plate!
Do Vegans Need Amino Acid or Protein Supplements?
It is possible that vegans can get all the nutrition they need from plants. So no, you don’t need supplements.
But as you can see from reading above, complete proteins don’t come as readily when on a plant-based diet (and that’s before we even get into B12 and other vitamins).
Supplements can be a convenient and effective option while transitioning to a vegan diet or even as part of a daily routine as a replacement for essential amino acids.
If you are vegan, you already have to make mind-bending calculations how to make vegan main meals out of side courses in restaurants and decipher food labels for hidden animal products, so this is one less thing to think about!
Amino acid supplements, specifically carnitine, are used for losing weight, while protein powders for vegetarians and vegans looking to build muscle are very popular.
Instead of whey, these are made with hemp, pea and/or brown rice powders, all with their different benefits.
Oh, and if you think by build muscle I mean build enough muscle to just stop wasting away, you would be surprised at what can be achieved by the right training and protein intake on a plant-based diet:
Yep. Vegan and vegetarian bodybuilding is a thing.
For those of us just looking for convenience, however, the beauty of protein powders is that they carry all the complete proteins you need in an easy serving for your smoothie or blended oats.
Simple Vegan Recipes for Complete Protein
While all this new information may seem like a lot to take in, getting complete proteins doesn’t have to be intimidating or complicated on a plant-based diet.
There’s an abundance of protein-rich recipes featuring vegan amino acids. Before going into my favorite recipes, what I find really, really useful is to remember a simple equation:
Legume + Grain = Complete Protein
This is part of what's called 'protein combining'. This was a dietary theory in the late 1960's which claimed that essential amino acids were available on a plant diet by only combining certain foods. It has now been discredited from every scientific corner.
I think it is, however, still a great way to think about different foods when starting out as a vegan.
So any lentil, peanut or beans combined with grains like wheat or rice can produce complete protein. That means peanut butter on whole wheat bread or black beans with rice or Indian rice and dahl, will all produce your complete protein. Keep this equation in the back of your mind.
The following recipes are easy to make, pack all your complete proteins, and can be changed in a number of different ways to give variety and flavor.
(OK, so that makes 4, but I love that chickpea curry!)
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is you do not need to eat meat to obtain essential amino acids and so complete protein as a vegan or vegetarian.
Complete proteins just require a little extra effort to incorporate in your diet if you are on a plant-based diet, especially if you’re not used to cooking with buckwheat or you’ve never heard of nutritional yeast.
But after a while, it becomes second nature, and there are always supplements to fill the gaps if you need to.
If you are just beginning to transition to a vegan lifestyle or plant-based diet, the key is to keep it simple.
First, maintain a well-stocked pantry.
Second, master some simple, tasty recipes that pull all the right ingredients from the list above.
Third – and just as important – is to enjoy the positive effects this life change will make to your health, the environment and the world.
Now that you’re on the path to becoming a vegan amino acid ninja, let us know in the comments if you enjoyed this article.