Complete Protein Myth

by Dr Marc on October 16, 2007

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I’m sure you’ve heard it before, animal protein is “complete” and plant protein is “incomplete.” Protein is made up of amino acids and 9 amino acids are considered “essential” because they cannot be synthesized by your body and must be derived from the food you eat. Animal protein has been referred to as “complete” because it contains all 9 essential amio acids. Because it is widely believed that plant protein is deficient in some essential amino acids, it has been referred to as “incomplete.”

This “incomplete protein” myth was popularized by Francis Lappe’s book, Diet for a Small Planet, in which she advocated the practice of “food combining” for vegetarians, such as eating rice with beans, so that the essential amino acids from different foods would combine to form a complete protein. She later retracted her belief in “food combining” stating in subsequent editions of the book,

“In 1971 I stressed protein complementarity because I assumed that the only way to get enough protein … was to create a protein as usable by the body as animal protein. In combating the myth that meat is the only way to get high-quality protein, I reinforced another myth. I gave the impression that in order to get enough protein without meat, considerable care was needed in choosing foods. Actually, it is much easier than I thought.
With three important exceptions, there is little danger of protein deficiency in a plant food diet. The exceptions are diets very heavily dependent on fruit or on some tubers, such as sweet potatoes or cassava, or on junk food (refined flours, sugars, and fat). Fortunately, relatively few people in the world try to survive on diets in which these foods are virtually the sole source of calories. In all other diets, if people are getting enough calories, they are virtually certain of getting enough protein.”

Here’s where it gets interesting. The idea that plant based foods were deficient in certain amino acids was based on studies of the growth of young rats done in the early 1900′s. A subsequent study done in 1952, looked at human requirements for essential amino acids and found them to be very different from rats. Additionally it showed that the requirements for all the essential amino acids in humans could be met by many unprocessed plant foods, without combining, in excess of the recommended levels. The bottom line is that plant protein is “complete.” Vegetables and grains contain all essential amino acids and non-essential amino acids in varying proportions, and will supply in excess of what is necessary for your daily needs.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

L October 17, 2007 at 2:14 am

thanks so much! i've recently found this blog and i'm hooked. i've always hoped the incomplete protein 'fact' would be untrue.

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Israel October 18, 2007 at 7:01 pm

i didnt know the difference until now. thx doc.

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Veganlicious August 25, 2008 at 2:42 pm

Thanks for busting this ridiculous myth!

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L. Mitchell October 18, 2008 at 2:14 pm

As a woman who is fond of research and also has a bodybuilding background, I was familiar with many complete vegan sources of protein and the concept of combining a grain and legume to create a complete protein out of incomplete plant proteins. This blog was sent to me after I made this comment, and I was very interested in what it had to say. So all plant life contains our essential aminos?

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