Protein complementation

Protein is one of those things that a lot of people tend to worry about. Honestly, I think it’s a slightly misguided worry – most of us tend to do fine in terms of protein as long as we eat a balanced diet (unless you have extraordinarily high needs, like my baseball friend). However, it is important to make sure the protein we get is of adequate quality.

Many sources of protein are unexpected. Yes, there is protein in meat and other animal products but there are also many plant-based products that have protein, such as grains, legumes, vegetables, nuts and seeds.

Full disclosure: I am a vegetarian. This is not me trying to push everyone else to be vegetarians too. I don’t think it’s my place to tell other people how they should eat, unless they’ve specifically asked for my opinion, and I have no interest in forcing vegetarianism upon anybody.

However, I do think it is important to point out that plant-based foods can be a cheap, delicious option for protein. As college students, good quality meat can be hard to afford and vegetarian meals can be a great alternative.

One problem with plant proteins is that they are often low in certain amino acids (amino acids are the building blocks of proteins) that your body needs. The best way to combat this is to mix and match them so you get a complete protein.

From Dr. Bruce German, UC Davis, FST 100B, "Nutrient Improvement and Labeling" March 10, 2014
Slide from Dr. Bruce German, UC Davis, FST 100B, “Nutrient Improvement and Labeling”, March 10, 2014

The classic example of this is the college staple of rice and beans. If you check out the handy chart above, you can see that grains like rice are naturally low in the amino acid lysine and high in the S-amino acids cystine and methionine. But wait! Beans are high in lysine and low in the S-amino acids, meaning that you get a complete source of protein when you combine the two into one cheap, nutritious, and tasty meal.

Of course, you don’t want to carry a chart of amino acids with you when you go out to eat. You want to make sure you’re getting all your essential amino acids but it’s also fine if not every single meal you eat is completely balanced as long as they generally even out. Eating a diverse array of whole foods and combining different sources of plant protein is a great way to ensure your body is getting all the high-quality protein it needs.


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