Essential Amino Acids & Protein – What You Need to Know

Following a plant-based diet? Then it’s essential to replace animal proteins with complete plant-based proteins for maximum health benefits. Proteins are found almost everywhere in our bodies. They are continually repairing and building tissues. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Think of them like individual bricks. One brick alone does not make anything. But multiple bricks together, can create a wall or a building. When it comes to protein, there are 21 total amino acids.

Nine amino acids are essential.  Meaning, we need to obtain them from food. This is because our bodies cannot make them on our own. Our body creates nonessential amino acids from the essential amino acids in our food. The normal breakdown of body proteins also creates nonessential amino acids. Essentially, essential amino acids must come from food. And our bodies can create nonessential amino acids. 

Protein in our food contains either complete or incomplete proteins. In order to be a complete protein,  all nine essential amino acids must be present. 

While all animal proteins are complete proteins, you can also get complete proteins from foods made from soy such as:

  • Tofu
  • Soymilk
  • Soy nuts
  • Tempeh
  • Edamame
  • Soy-based meat alternatives

Incomplete proteins are found in vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Even though they do not contain all the essential amino acids, you can easily make a complete protein by combining incomplete proteins together.

How can you easily create a complete protein from multiple protein sources?

By combining incomplete protein foods together.  Examples include:

  • Combine legumes (peas, chickpeas, lentils, black beans, kidney beans, and lima beans) with a grain (100% whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, barley, bulgar, and breads and pastas). Or with nuts and seeds or corn

  • Couple vegetables with 100% whole grains or nuts and seeds

  • Pair grains with legumes

This chart contains other great examples of combination foods.

Finally, the pairing of these food combinations doesn’t have to be in one sitting. For instance, eat a combination of complementary proteins throughout the day. This way, you ensure you get all nine essential amino acids.  

illustration on how amino acids are the building blocks of proteins