Proteins are often considered the building blocks of the human body. They’re made up of any number of 20 different amino acids, which are responsible for promoting cell growth and repair. Proteins for vegans and vegetarians are important to incorporate into the diet. Of these 20, there are nine the body can’t produce on its own, meaning we need to eat them in order to reap their benefits. When a food source contains all nine of these essential acids in roughly equal amounts, it’s known as a complete protein.
While meat, eggs, and dairy are all complete proteins, some or all of these are off-limits for vegans and vegetarians. Thankfully, there are plenty of amazing ways to get complete proteins without sacrificing your diet. And as meat-based meals are typically more expensive and higher in calories — not to mention being potentially harmful to the environment — carnivores are also encouraged to swap in some these other options when they can.
Here are three of the healthiest complete proteins for vegans and vegetarians (or anyone else observing Meatless Monday).
There’s a reason quinoa has become so popular over the last several years. It boasts eight grams of protein per one-cup serving and has high levels of iron, magnesium, and manganese. It’s the perfect substitute for rice or couscous, and its flour can be used to make muffins, cookies, and cakes. “Because of its high protein values and unique amino acid composition,” NASA even wants to grow quinoa in space. Recipe we love: Quinoa and red lentil burgers
For those steering clear of gluten, fear not: Buckwheat isn’t actually wheat at all, but a grain-like seed that’s related to rhubarb and sorrel. It packs six grams of protein into a single serving, and is terrific base for making pancakes and noodles. Like quinoa, it’s high inmagnesium, manganese, and fiber. Studies have shown it can even help control blood sugar levels, which may be especially useful for those with diabetes. Recipe we love: Gluten-free buckwheat pancakes
Mycoprotein was originally developed in the 1960s as a way to combat food shortages. The meat-substitute is essentially fungus that’s been fermented in tanks. While it might not sound too appealing, mycoprotein is low in calories, high in calcium, and has 13 grams of protein in just half a cup. Today, it’s the key ingredient in the product range Quorn, which sells everything from meat-free chicken to burgers to bacon. Recipe we love: Stuffed peppers parmigiana
Other ways to get complete proteins are through proper food combinations. Consider hummus and pita bread, red beans and rice, and lentil barley soup.