29 June 2020

Do vegetarians need to combine proteins?

Do you get enough? Do you get the right sort? These are the 2 basic questions for any food group, and for many vegetarians and vegans it is one of real concern when it comes to protein.

How many of us have been told “the only way to get enough protein is to eat meat’, or “vegetables and grains do not have the right proteins; only meat does”.

So this week, what are the facts? What to do? Also, did you know You Can Conquer Cancer is available as an audio book? But first

  Thought for the week
    Addiction is any behaviour or substance 
    That a person uses to relieve pain in the short term, 
    But which leads to negative consequences in the long term. 

   Without addressing the root cause of the pain, 
   A person may try to stop 
   But will ultimately crave further relief 
   And be prone to relapse. 
                           Dr Gabor Mate

Actually, the protein issue is incredibly easy
Bottom line, the research is clear. It is almost impossible for a reasonably healthy vegetarian or vegan in a Western country who is eating enough calories to get a protein deficiency. It is that simple.

But maybe you need more detail; a little convincing…

A brief context – what protein does
Protein is a nutrient your body needs to grow and repair cells and for it to work properly.

How much is enough?
How much protein you need varies depending on your weight, gender, age and health. The average sedentary woman needs around 46 gms of protein daily; the average sedentary man needs 55gms.

There is no need to labour this; all the authorities agree, this is in easy target to reach. The fact is a plant‑based diet commonly delivers close to twice the average daily protein requirement.

But do we get the right type of protein?
The issue here is protein is made up of 20 different amino acids. Humans can make 11 of these within their bodies and so these ones are called non-essential amino acids

There are nine amino acids your body cannot make, and so these ones are known as essential amino acids.

Foods that contain all 20 amino acids are called complete proteins.

Meat, fish and dairy are complete proteins with high levels of all amino acids.

But here is the news - vegetables and grains also are complete proteins, it is just most have low levels of some amino acids and could be said to be “less complete” than meat, fish and dairy.

However, to call them “incomplete proteins” is factually incorrect.

Certain lobbies and old school nutritionists spread the myth that vegetarians are at risk of protein deficiency because they are eating incomplete proteins. The implication is they need meat.

Also, older thinking used to emphasise the need of vegetarians to combine different vegetables and particularly grains to ensure a balanced intake of amino acids.

There was a good deal of talk about “complementary proteins” – particularly in reference to grains that combined to produce a high level of all the amino acids.

The implication here was vegetarians needed to eat 2 of the correct complementary protein sources at any given meal to achieve a complete protein intake.

So here is the latest good news.

Do not worry.

All the best recent research says as long as you are eating a variety of foods, there is no need to combine particular protein sources at a given meal.

Complementary proteins are a non-issue.

Given what you are eating has enough calories for your needs, is very difficult, almost impossible, to get this wrong and create a protein deficiency for yourself.

All of this is both incredibly complex in its detail, and incredibly simple in its conclusions...

Our bodies are incredibly smart, so here are a couple of mechanisms it uses to ensure the right amino acid balance.

1. Storage
Yes, the body simply stores a range of amino acids to use when intake on any given day is low.

2. Recycling
Each day, around 90 grams of protein is recycled through the digestive tract. The proteins are broken down, reassembled, reabsorbed to ensure we have what we need, when we need it.

Clever right?

So relax.

If you must worry about something to do with what you are eating, protein is not one of them!

Want even more detail?

Read You Can Conquer Cancer or listen to the audio book - LINK - where there is more information on protein and all food groups.

Go to the Victorian Government Health website that has lots of facts and numbers :)


  1. When I was young and silly,I spent a good deal of time making sure that my vegetarian curries contained all the ingredients needed for protein complementarity of each meal. Even bread came under scrutiny. I failed my employee health assessment because I did not drink a glass of orange juice with my breakfast! I'm so glad that all that navel-gazing has been given the heave-ho!

  2. Love this topic! So helpful thanks Ian :)

  3. Good to read. I was only thinking about this today and feeling like I was not getting enough protien because I have been a bit slack on combining legumes etc so this was very apt. Thanks Ian.