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What Does Getting "Complete Proteins" Mean for Vegetarians?

I recently became a vegetarian. I read somewhere that vegetarians need to combine certain foods during their meals to make sure they get "complete proteins." What should I do to get the right kind of protein?
- Casey*

There are two kinds of proteins: complete proteins and incomplete proteins.

  1. Complete proteins include animal-based protein like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, and cheese. They're "complete" because they have all the essential amino acids our bodies need.
  2. Incomplete proteins are plant-based sources of protein, like beans or nuts. A plant-based protein doesn't include all the essential amino acids.

Nutrition experts used to think vegetarians had to eat special combinations of foods in the same meal in order to get the right amount of amino acids and protein. We now know that's not needed. As long as you eat from a variety of food groups during the day, your body will get all the essential amino acids and nutrition it needs.

Food groups include grains (like brown rice or whole-grain bread), protein (like nuts or beans), fruits and vegetables (like blueberries or broccoli), and — if you're not vegan — dairy (like milk or cheese).

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: October 2013

*Names have been changed to protect user privacy.