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What is a “Complete” protein?
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May 19, 2011

What is a “Complete” protein?

Ever hear people talk about complete and incomplete proteins? What does it all mean – isn’t a protein a protein?

If you know a little about science you’d know that there are all types of proteins because proteins are made up of different combinations of amino acids (the building blocks of protein).

What fitness and nutrition people call “complete” proteins are the ones made up of the nine essential amino acids in sufficient proportions. These are deemed essential because these are the ones needed for you to function properly as a human being! If you care, they are:

  • Phenylalanine
  • Valine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Isoleucine
  • Methionine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Histadine

So now you know enough to say that an incomplete protein is simply one that lacks one of more of those nine essential amino acids listed above!

So where can you get your complete proteins? Meat eaters in general do not have to worry about this because common animal-based foods are considered the primary sources of complete protein. Most plant-based foods are usually incomplete, but below I have compiled a list of complete protein examples for meat eaters and vegetarians.

Examples of Complete Proteins for Meat Eaters:


  • Fish
  • Seafood/Shellfish
  • Poultry
  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Cheese
  • Meat
  • Whey protein powder

Examples of Complete Proteins for Vegetarians and Vegans:


  • Quinoa
  • Buckwheat
  • Hempseed
  • Soybeans (so yes edamame and tofu counts!)
  • Soy protein powder

When you eat any of the foods listed above, you get all nine essential amino acids in a single food source. There’s no need to take extra amino acid supplements! For the average person who eats a variety of meat and veggies, you’re probably already getting your complete protein and do not need to worry about consumption of complete proteins.

How much protein do I need?

According to the Harvard School of Public Health,

“There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question, and research on the topic is still emerging. The Institute of Medicine recommends that adults get a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight per day—that’s about 64 grams for a 160 pound adult. In the U.S., adults get an average of 15 percent of their calories from protein; for a person who requires a 2,000-calorie-per-day-diet, that’s about 75 grams of protein. In healthy people, increasing protein intake to 20 to 25 percent of calories can reduce the risk of heart disease, if the extra protein replaces refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, white rice, or sugary drinks. Higher protein diets can also be beneficial for weight loss, in conjunction with a reduced calorie diet, although long-term evidence of their effectiveness is wanting.”

Your protein needs depend on our age, size, and activity level.

For the average person…

The standard method used by nutritionists to estimate our minimum daily protein requirement is to multiply the body weight in kilograms by .8, or weight in pounds by .37. This is the number of grams of protein that should be the daily MINIMUM.

For the exerciser or people looking to lose weight…

There is evidence that people engaging in endurance exercise (such as long distance running) or heavy resistive exercise (such as body building) can benefit from additional protein in their diets. 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight per day for endurance exercisers and 1.7 to 1.8 grams per kg per day for heavy strength training.

Just remember if you’re looking to lose weight, don’t just add protein, REPLACE refined carb calories with protein calories! It will help you stay full longer and build lean muscle mass. Find out how many calories you need to consume to lose of maintain a healthy weight in my older post here.

Example calculations:

1kg = 2.2 lbs

My body weight in kg: 118lbs/2.2 = 53.6kg

My minimum protein intake: 53.6kg*0.8 or 118lbs*0.37 = 44g

My protein intake as a runner: 53.6kg*1.4g = 75g

My protein intake as a weight lifter: 53.6kg*1.8g = 96.4g

If you don’t want to whip out your calculator, and you want to build muscle and stay slim, I would just recommend eating 1g of protein for every pound of DESIRED body weight. That’s what I do. That’s it!

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