What Are Complete and Incomplete Proteins?

Protein is responsible for the growth and repair of every cell in the human body. Amino acids are protein building blocks. Essential amino acids are amino acids the body can’t manufacture.

A complete protein supplies all the essential amino acids in all the right ratios. The body breaks down the protein you eat to build its own set of proteins. Not giving your body all the amino acids it needs is like asking your body to put together LEGO kits that are missing pieces. Animal or fish-based foods are complete proteins and provide full sets of amino acids. An egg is a complete protein. A glass of milk supplies all the essential amino acids, too.


NASM CPT Study Question: How many different amino acids does the body use to construct protein? What is the muscle protein called? How many amino acids are essential? Can you name them all? Review amino acids.

WHAT IS AN INCOMPLETE PROTEINmac and chees for protein
Incomplete proteins lack one or more of the essential amino acids. Sources of incomplete protein are generally from plants, including grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and other vegetables. The following is a list of the most common incomplete proteins:

  • GRAINS: barley, cornmeal, oat, buckwheat, pasta, rye, wheat
  • LEGUMES: beans, lentils, dried peas, chickpeas, soy products
  • NUTS: peanuts, walnuts, cashews
  • SEEDS: sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds

Vegans and vegetarians have no fear! Incomplete proteins can be combined to make available all essential amino acids. You can get the right mix of amino acids without eating animal products.  Pairing grains and legumes will do the trick.

  • dried beans and corn
  • tofu with brown rice
  • peanut butter with bread

The measure of protein quality has to do with how well the protein is able to satisfy the body’s essential amino acid needs. Protein quality improves when a small amount of complete protein (like a dairy food) is combined with a plant-based food and when incomplete proteins from plant-based foods (such as rice and beans) are mixed together.

Check Kickstand Kate’s List of Complete Proteins for a list of snacks and meals that provide high-quality proteins – great suggestions for post-workout munchies!

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