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Complete Proteins for Vegetarians

Eating a more plant-based diet is showing signs in favor of cancer prevention and other life-threatening diseases [i].  But many people worry they won’t get enough protein if they don’t eat meat, poultry or fish. This goes back to an old myth claiming that all non-meat and plant-based proteins are incomplete, or don’t provide enough essential protein to sustain us.

To set the record straight, complete proteins provide 9 essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are proteins the body cannot make but needs to obtain from food so it can maintain our organs, muscles, skin, hair, nails, etc. Meat, poultry and fish are complete proteins but there are complete plant-based proteins and other non-meat proteins such as eggs and dairy products that provide all the essential amino acids [ii].

So even if you’re a vegetarian or looking to eat less meat, you don’t need to worry. You can still get all the protein you need by eating less meat. Adding a few new dishes to your repertoire using the following complete protein foods will be satisfying and healthy [iii].



Quinoa is a gluten-free grain, a complete protein, an excellent source of magnesium and zinc and a good source of iron and folate. It is cooked the same way as rice but should be rinsed before cooking due to the saponins quinoa contains. Saponins are soap-like and may cause a bitter taste or some GI discomfort. Quinoa can be used the same way as rice or couscous. It’s great mixed with some fresh or cooked vegetables. You can try these quinoa breakfast bowls, quinoa Greek salad, or orange pistachio quinoa bowl.



Soy is a plant-based, complete protein from the soy bean. Containing B vitamins, calcium and fiber. Tofu is the most popular soy product and serves as a main protein staple in many vegetarian and vegan meals. Edamame, traditionally served as a snack or appetizer is also a complete protein snack. Tempeh and soy sprouts are also soy foods. Any of these items can be mixed into a salad. Tofu can be cooked in place of meat, poultry or fish. Or cook it up as a tofu scramble, as shown above.



If you haven’t cut out all animal products from your diet, eggs are a great source of complete protein as well as choline and one of the few foods that naturally contain vitamin D. Eggs took on a bad rap because of the cholesterol content but recent studies have shown that dietary cholesterol, or the cholesterol we eat, is not as harmful as originally thought. Eggs can be eaten on their own or added to any meal, breakfast, lunch or dinner.



Hummus, made from mashed chickpeas, lemon juice, garlic and tahini (a roasted sesame seed paste) provides plant-based protein as well as iron, folate, fiber and other nutrients. Hummus can be eaten as a snack or with a meal. Its traditional snack as a dip is hummus with whole wheat pita chips or with fresh cut vegetables. But it’s also great spread on a sandwich or mixed into a salad.


Low-fat milk

If you’re not a strict vegetarian, drinking milk is a great way to get protein in your diet as well as calcium and vitamin D. Add some low-fat milk to your tea, coffee, cereal or have an 8 oz glass with lunch or dinner.  


[i] Tantamango-Bartley, Y; Jaceldo-Seigl, K; Fan, J; Fraser, G. 2013. Vegetarian diets and the incidence of cancer in a low-risk population. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. 
[ii] Protein in diet. MedlinePlus. Accessed from: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002467.htm
[iii] Woolf, P.J; Fu, L.L; Basu, A. 2011. vProtein: identifying optimal amino acid complements from plant-based foods. PLOSOne. 6(4)
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