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Incomplete Proteins: Sources, Misconceptions & How To Use Them

Melissa Boufounos, CHN
Author: Expert reviewer:
Updated on May 23, 2023
Melissa Boufounos, CHN
Certified holistic nutritionist
By Melissa Boufounos, CHN
Certified holistic nutritionist
Melissa Boufounos is a certified holistic nutritionist, nutrition writer, and lifelong athlete in the greater Ottawa, Ontario, Canada area. She specializes in sports nutrition and works with teen hockey players and competitive obstacle course race athletes in her virtual private practice MB Performance Nutrition.
Lauren Torrisi-Gorra, M.S., RD
Expert review by
Lauren Torrisi-Gorra, M.S., RD
Registered Dietitian
Lauren Torrisi-Gorra, MS, RD is a registered dietitian, chef, and writer with a love of science and passion for helping people create life-long healthy habits. She has a bachelor’s degree in Communication and Media Studies from Fordham University, a Grand Diplôme in Culinary Arts from the French Culinary Institute, and master's degree in Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics from New York University.
Plant Based Meal with Sweet Potatoes, Avocados, Quinoa, and Black Beans
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Last updated on May 23, 2023
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There's a prevailing belief in the health and fitness world that plant-based protein sources are inferior to animal-based proteins because they are "incomplete." But it turns out that incomplete proteins should still be a part of a balanced diet because of the important nutrients they bring to the table.

In this article, we'll shed light on plant-based proteins and put a few misconceptions about incomplete proteins to rest. 

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What are incomplete proteins?

Proteins are made up of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids your body needs to function properly. Eleven are naturally produced by your body and are considered nonessential amino acids. The remaining nine cannot be made by the body and must be obtained through food. These are essential amino acids

The term "incomplete protein" refers to foods that don't contain adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids to meet the minimal human requirements. Contrary to popular belief, plant-based proteins aren't missing any essential amino acids1 but are usually low in one or two of them. These are called limiting amino acids.  

Stephan van Vliet, a scientist in the Center for Human Nutrition Studies at Utah State University, previously told mindbodygreen, "All proteins, including plant proteins, contain all nine essential amino acids. They are typically just lower in certain amino acids like lysine, methionine, and/or leucine, but it is a misconception that they are missing essential amino acids." 

When you eat protein-rich foods, whether complete or incomplete, your body breaks the proteins down into individual amino acids, which are stored in the amino acid pool2. The body can use these amino acids as needed for important metabolic functions.

Amino acid requirements:

According to the National Academy of Medicine, each gram of protein an adult eats should ideally provide:

  • 17 milligrams of histidine
  • 23 milligrams of isoleucine
  • 52 milligrams of leucine
  • 47 milligrams of lysine
  • 23 milligrams of methionine and cysteine
  • 41 milligrams of phenylalanine and tyrosine
  • 24 milligrams of threonine
  • 6 milligrams of tryptophan
  • 29 milligrams of valine
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So, how do plants live up to this threshold? Let's look at rice protein isolate3, for example: It surpasses all these targets except lysine. For each gram of protein, rice protein isolate provides 31 milligrams of lysine. In this case, lysine is the limiting amino acid keeping rice protein isolate from being considered a complete protein. 

Another way to consider how incomplete protein sources stack up to complete protein sources is to look at amino acid percentages.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) sets guidelines for each essential amino acid requirement as a percent for various protein sources.

"Many of us are familiar with leucine (the muscle-building amino acid), where the current requirement within a given protein source is set at 5.9%. Some plant-based proteins like hemp (5.1% leucine) and lupin (5.2%) fall short, while others like oat (5.9%) and wheat (6.1%) protein provide close to the recommended leucine content," says Nanci Guest, Ph.D., R.D., CSCS, a plant-based dietitian and nutrition researcher. 

Leading amino acid researcher Don Layman, Ph.D. suggests consuming around 2 to 3 grams of leucine per meal in order to support muscle growth and repair. Since most plants contain lower levels of leucine4 than animal proteins, plant-based eaters will need to eat more total protein in order to account for the difference. While one serving of chicken breast contains 2.3 grams5 of leucine per serving (100 grams), an 100-gram serving of chickpeas only gets you to 1.5 grams6, for example. Learn more about how plant proteins stack up to animal proteins in terms of leucine content here.

Common misconceptions:

The popularization of the term "incomplete protein" dates back to a 1971 book by Frances Moore Lappé in which she recommended combining complementing plant-based proteins to meet protein requirements. She retracted her position years later, but the damage was done. Many people continue to believe that they either need to eat animal proteins or strategically combine plant foods at every meal to get complete proteins. 

"While protein quality may be a consideration in the case of low intakes, when intakes are sufficiently high, all proteins provide the essential amino acids in sufficient quantities," explains van Vliet. "Outside of a research setting, it is also rare that someone consumes single protein sources in a meal or during the day, especially in the context of developed nations where protein powder use is common."

At the end of the day, as long as you're eating a variety of foods, you can meet your protein requirements using incomplete proteins.

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Incomplete protein sources include: 


Plant proteins contain all nine essential amino acids, with one or two in limited amounts. A common misconception is that people need to eat complete animal proteins, or combine different incomplete proteins at one meal, to get adequate protein. In reality, you can meet your protein requirements by eating a variety of incomplete proteins.
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What are complete proteins?

Complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids in the right amounts to help us build muscle, repair tissue, recover from exercise, etc. While complete proteins mainly come from animal sources, there are a few plant-based sources

Sources of complete protein include: 

  • Chicken and other poultry
  • Beef
  • Pork
  • Fish
  • Dairy products like milk and cheese
  • Soy products like tofu, edamame, tempeh, and miso 
  • Pseudocereals like quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat 
  • Spirulina 
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Are incomplete proteins less healthy than complete proteins?

Incomplete proteins are not less healthy than complete proteins. In fact, the opposite might be true.

Incomplete proteins come from plant-based foods, which are some of the most nutritious foods on the planet. "When looking at protein, it's important to look at the entire protein package. Unless you are consuming amino acids supplements, like branched-chain amino acids, you are getting much more than just protein in a food," says Nichole Dandrea-Russert, M.S., RDN, a dietitian nutritionist and the author of The Fiber Effect. 

"As long as these are whole plant foods (with no or limited processing), we can feel confident that these foods are high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber with no saturated fats," says Guest.

Dandrea-Russert explains that plant-based proteins come with fiber and phytochemicals, both of which have been shown to support health, from brain to gut and heart health. "Both fiber and certain phytochemicals have been shown to reduce inflammation, whereas compounds in meat, such as antibiotics, dioxins stored in animal fat, and heterocyclic amines (carcinogenic compounds formed when meat is cooked) promote inflammation7." 

"By focusing on a variety of plant proteins, you're also going to be helping your gut microbiome8," adds Amanda Sauceda, M.S., R.D. The American Gut Society found that people who regularly eat more than 30 different plant foods per week have a more diverse microbiome than those eating 10 or fewer8

However, Guest notes, complete proteins may offer the advantage of having higher mineral bioavailability. You absorb minerals like iron and zinc when you eat meat than when you eat plant foods.

At the end of the day, amino acids are amino acids. If you're entirely plant-based, you may just have to eat larger portions in order to reach your protein needs, Layman notes. "It's perfectly fine [to be vegan or vegetarian], but you will always need more total protein, and that means more total calories to be equal," he previously explained on the mindbodygreen podcast.

By including plenty of plant-based proteins in your diet, you can hit your protein targets and improve your overall health and longevity9


Incomplete proteins from plants are just as healthy as complete proteins from animals and there are pros and cons to both. Plant-based proteins offer added fiber and phytochemicals, while there is higher bioavailability in (meat-based) complete proteins.

How to eat enough protein daily

While the recommended daily allowance for protein is 0.8 gram per kilogram of body weight, many experts and recent studies highlight the importance of eating much more than that for optimal health or to support athletic performance. 

Most active people should aim to eat at least 100 grams of protein per day, but keep in mind that your protein needs will change depending on your age, body composition, activity level, and health goals. For example, women might need to consume more protein during pregnancy and lactation to keep up with their body's needs. Older adults10 can also benefit from more protein. 

The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends active people looking to build or maintain muscle should eat 1.4 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight11

Meat eaters can easily eat 100 grams of protein per day by including lean protein and plant-based proteins with each meal, choosing high-protein snacks, and using protein powder to help fill protein gaps in their diet. Variety is key, so we don't think people should pass up on plant proteins and eat strictly animal proteins just because they've been deemed "complete." 

For example, swapping traditional pasta for a bean- or lentil-based alternative such as chickpea pasta will give you an extra boost of protein and fiber, even if you're using a meat-based sauce. Adding hemp seeds or chia seeds to oatmeal or yogurt can provide an additional 10 grams of protein per 3 tablespoons. 


Most people should aim to consume 100 grams of protein daily, with increased needs for factors such as age or activity level. If you're looking to add more plant protein to your diet, plant-based protein sources like seeds and legumes can help.

If you're vegan

Vegetarians and vegans who eat a wide variety of protein-rich plant-based foods don't have to worry about protein deficiency unless they're eating too few calories overall. Vegans may want to consider increasing their protein intake, though. 

"While getting enough essential amino acids won't be a concern if you're consuming a wide variety of plant-based foods like beans, peas, lentils, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and vegetables, some experts suggest that plant-based eaters may need about 10% more total protein than folks who get all of their protein from meat," says Dandrea-Russert. "This is because while fiber is important for overall health, it may decrease the availability of protein in plants12 by about 10%."

Protein combining

Protein combining or pairing in the same meal13 is another thing vegans no longer have to worry about.

"There was an old theory that you have to 'complement' certain foods to make a 'complete' protein like eating rice (low in lysine, but adequate in methionine) and black beans (low in methionine but adequate in lysine) together in the same meal," explains Dandrea-Russert. "That theory has gone out the window as it's known that our bodies have an amino acid pool14 that maintains all of the amino acids from the foods we eat as well as the amino acids our bodies make." 

So while vegans don't need to eat complete proteins at every meal to get all of their essential amino acids, they should aim to get a balance of those amino acids throughout the day.

For example, breakfast could include a tofu scramble and a slice of whole-grain bread topped with nut butter. Lunch could consist of a burrito made with brown rice and refried beans. Dinner could include legume-based pasta that is higher in protein than wheat-based pasta. Nuts and seeds or pita and hummus make great protein-rich vegan snacks.  


What are the characteristics of incomplete proteins?

Incomplete proteins come from plant-based sources and are low in one or two essential amino acids, called limiting amino acids. Contrary to popular belief, incomplete proteins are not missing any essential amino acids. 

Are incomplete proteins good or bad?

Since incomplete proteins come from plant-based foods, they are some of the most nutritious foods you can eat. You can hit your protein targets with plant-based foods while enjoying the many health benefits plant foods have to offer. 

What happens to incomplete proteins that are not immediately needed by the body?

Whether you eat complete or incomplete proteins, the proteins are broken down into individual amino acids and are stored in the body in the amino acid pool. 

The takeaway

Plant proteins are still misunderstood and often passed up by meat-eaters, athletes, and fitness enthusiasts because they are deemed incomplete. In reality, your body treats the amino acids from incomplete proteins the same as those from complete proteins.

While you may need to eat slightly more protein overall if you follow a strictly plant-based diet, you can hit your protein targets by eating a wide variety of plant-based foods. As a bonus, you'll also reap the health benefits of including more plants in your diet.