Plant-Based Diets: Why Complete Proteins Matter

A plant-based diet requires more total protein intake because the body can’t use vegetable-derived protein sources as efficiently as animal protein. If you follow a plant-based diet, knowing the difference between a 'complete protein' and an 'incomplete protein' is important.

A plant-based diet requires more total protein intake because the body can’t use vegetable-derived protein sources as efficiently as animal protein. Why? Because very few vegetable-derived proteins have the right amino acid mixture to form a complete protein.

This means that if you follow a plant-based diet, knowing the difference between a ‘complete protein’ and an ‘incomplete protein’ is important. 

Complete proteins

A complete protein is a source of protein that contains an adequate proportion of all nine of the essential amino acids necessary for the dietary needs of humans. A complete protein is necessary to rebuild and repair muscle tissue following your workouts. 

Incomplete proteins

Plant foods are incomplete proteins because they are low or lacking in one or more of the amino acids we need to build cells. You can mix incomplete proteins found in plant foods to make a complete protein. 

Protein Type Vs. Total Protein

It’s easy to fixate on the total amount of protein in a meal, and not even consider the type of protein in the food you’re eating. Let’s take kale as an example. The nutrition facts tell us that kale contains a solid amount of protein. The problem is that plant foods are incomplete proteins, so they (by themselves) lack the proper amino acids to help you repair damaged muscle tissue following your workouts. 

This means that a vegan needs to find a high-quality BCAA supplement with a high-ratio of leucine to assist them during the day and in particular before an after their workouts. Here is a list of supplements to consider if you are a vegan who exercises regularly:

BCAA’s and Leucine

Sufficient dietary protein is necessary for repairing damaged muscle tissue. Leucine appears to be the most powerful stimulator of protein synthesis, which is why it’s better to take leucine-enhanced BCAAs. It’s best to load with extra BCAAs after your workouts to further reduce soreness and inflammation. 

Where to get BCAA’s and Leucine:  You can find BCAA’s with a high leucine ratio (4:1) online and choose from vegan-specific BCAA supplements. 

Taurine

Taurine is an amino acid found only in animal foods. It plays a key role in your stress response and helps regulate cortisol and blood glucose levels. Some studies have shown that taurine can speed up the post-workout recovery process by reducing Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). 

Where to get taurine: Lacto-Ovo vegetarians can find taurine in eggs and milk; vegetarian taurine supplements are available online and at local nutrition stores.

Glutamine

Glutamine is an amino acid that enhances muscle growth, workout recovery, decreases inflammation, and boosts the immune system.

Where to get glutamine: Most BCAA supplements contain glutamine, but be sure and check!

Carnosine 

Carnosine is found strictly in animal foods, making supplementation important for a plant-based diet. Those who exercise can benefit from carnosine or beta-alanine supplementation as it prolongs high-intensity performance. 

Where to get carnosine: online or at a local nutrition store. I recommend between 2 and 6 grams a day.

Iron

Iron is necessary for the body to transport oxygen and plays an important metabolic role. Heme iron is better absorbed by the body than non-heme iron. Heme-iron is found in meat, and non-heme iron is found in vegetables, beans, and other vegetarian foods. Women who lose iron every month during their cycle, are at risk of iron deficiency and should consider supplementing iron.

Where to get iron: online or at a local nutrition store.

Creatine

Creatine is the most researched performance enhancement aid available. Studies show that creatine supplementation improves brain function, boosts strength development, enhances sprint and power performance, and aids fat loss. 

Where to get creatine: Online or at your local nutrition store. I recommend taking 0.15 grams of creatine per pound of body weight. 

Carnitine

Carnitine is a compound that plays a critical role in energy production by transporting fatty acids into cells to be burned for energy. The body can synthesize carnitine from amino acids, but production may not keep up with energy needs if you exercise and follow a vegan diet. Supplementing carnitine may improve fat burning, metabolic function, and insulin sensitivity. 

Where to get carnitine: Vegan sources of carnitine are available in supplement form from Now foods. I recommend trying 2 to 4 grams a day.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency rates are high in everyone, not just vegetarians. Vitamin D deficiency increases your risk of osteoporosis, cancer, heart disease, and muscle weakness. Your body makes vitamin D in response to sun exposure, but synthesis is reduced if you wear sunscreen or if you’re not outside daily for at least an hour in the sun. Vitamin D can also be found in animal products like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy.

Where to get vitamin D3: I recommend supplementing vitamin D3, which is the most absorbable source; you can find vitamin D3 online or at most nutrition stores.

EPA and DHA

EPA and DHA are omega-3 fatty acids that are best known for being available in fish. EPA and DHA are essential for brain function and play a protective role in stabilizing mood. Vegetarians get virtually zero EPA and DHA directly from the diet. 

Where to get EPA and DHA: Look for supplements with a vegetarian source of EPA and DHA that is derived from micro-algae.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient found only in animal products such as meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. It’s necessary for optimal brain and nerve function and is involved in the development process of red blood cells. 

Where to get B12: Nori seaweed contains B12 or you can buy a B12 supplement online or at a local nutrition store.

Zinc

Zinc assists your immunity, protein synthesis, and hormone production—all factors that make a deficiency harmful for those who exercise. Although many vegetarian foods contain zinc, the bioavailability is poor, making supplementation essential.

Where to get zinc: Online or at a local nutrition store.