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UPDATE: This story was originally published on August 28, 2014, and has been republished in honor of the Great American Meatout.
There are plenty of reasons to eat more meat-free meals: They’re nearly always cheaper, lower in calories, and better for the environment. It’s easy to get enough protein without eating animals, but the doubters often have another concern: Are these meat-free protein sources complete?
The term "complete protein" refers to amino acids, the building blocks of protein. There are 20 different amino acids that can form a protein, and nine that the body can’t produce on its own. These are called essential amino acids — we need to eat them because we can’t make them ourselves. In order to be considered “complete,” a protein must contain all nine of these essential amino acids in roughly equal amounts.
Yes, meat and eggs are complete proteins, and beans and nuts aren’t. But, humans don’t need every essential amino acid in every bite of food in every meal they eat; we only need a sufficient amount of each amino acid every day. Most dieticians believe that plant-based diets contain such a wide variety of amino acid profiles that vegans are virtually guaranteed to get all of their amino acids with very little effort.
Still, some people want complete proteins in all of their meals. No problem — meat’s not the only contender. Eggs and dairy also fit the bill, which is an easy get for the vegetarians, but there are plenty of other ways to get complete proteins on your next meatless Monday. Here are some of the easiest!