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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 have all the essential amino acids our bodies need. Animal-based protein like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, and cheese are considered complete proteins. Quinoa and soy are plant-based complete proteins.
  2. Incomplete proteins don't include all the essential amino acids. Most plant-based sources of protein are considered to be incomplete because they are low in one or more 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.