17

I've heard claims that in order to be healthy on a vegan diet, one must go out of their way to combine proteins from different food sources in order to get an adequate amount of each necessary amino acid.

Is this really necessary, or is an "average" vegan diet going to provide enough of each amino acid?

  • Are you asking about protein consumption or amino acids? – Riker Jan 31 '17 at 20:34
  • @EasterlyIrk Protein is made of amino acids – C_Z_ Jan 31 '17 at 20:35
  • Yes, but are you asking about getting enough protein in general or enough of specific acids? – Riker Jan 31 '17 at 20:35
  • @EasterlyIrk Specific amino acids – C_Z_ Jan 31 '17 at 20:37
  • 1
    A helpful search term here might be "complete protein", and it's certainly required that one gets enough of each necessary amino acid to form enough complete protein. It's al easily possible to have a diet that avoids other forms of complete protein besides meat, and you would then require eating multiple kinds of protein. – Matthew Read Jan 31 '17 at 21:12
4

Most vegan diets are adequate for health (provide all essential amino acids) without any particular focus on protein combining. A poorly planned vegan diet may be deficient in lysine, but this can be compensated by eating foods rich in lysine such as soybean products and other legumes.

Some people with specific dietary goals like increasing muscle mass or losing fat may benefit by combining foods to optimize intake of amino acids.

The protein combining myth

The concept that combining proteins within a single meal is essential was first popularized in 1954 by American nutritionist Adelle Davis in her book Let's Eat Right to Keep Fit. These are her words:

If two or more incomplete proteins are eaten at the same meal, one may supply the amino acids lacking in another, and together they may make a valuable contribution to health. ... Dr. Cannon² has shown, however, that if half the essential amino acids are eaten at a certain time and the other half taken only one hour later, the body does not build protein with them. (p.29)

Davis is referencing a 1950 study by Paul R. Cannon titled Recent Advances In Nutrition. Cannon originated the idea that all amino acids must be eaten together in the same meal, but there are some concerns with the study. The rats were fed two alternating rations in which five essential amino acids had been totally removed, but this does not reflect any real food consumed by humans. A later publication by Waterlow et al. in 1978 showed that free phenylalanine in the human body corresponds to only about 1.5 hours worth of protein synthesis, so the poor growth of rat subjects is explained by phenylalanine deficiency when partial rations were separated by 2 hours or more. All plant proteins provide phenylalanine in abundance, so Cannon's study cannot be considered reflective of humans eating a realistic diet.

But if protein combining within meals isn't necessary, how much leeway do we have? Because some plant foods provide less lysine, free storage of lysine is an important consideration. It turns out that the body stores about 20 times more lysine than phenylalanine (based on protein free ratio) so we have a window of roughly one day (24 hours) in which to meet our lysine requirement.

The "incomplete" protein

It's worth considering what protein "completeness" really means, because the notion of protein combining only makes sense if some proteins are indeed inadequate.

All essential amino acids are available in plant proteins, although the levels vary between foods. Classifying some proteins as incomplete gives the false impression that certain amino acids are absent, when in fact they are still present in similar quantities. Incomplete proteins are commonly said to "lack" a specific amino acid, which is often incorrectly interpreted as meaning the amino acid is missing. The degree to which we have internalized this misconception is shown in Tom Kelly's answer to this question where he incorrectly writes:

Incomplete protein sources aren't a bad thing. You just can't live entirely on only one.

The falsity of that statement can be shown with a counterexample. Consider lentils, for example. Even though lentils are labelled as "incomplete" it is still quite possible to meet requirements for all essential amino acids by eating only lentils, with plenty of space left in the diet to add other foods.

The point is that protein completeness exists on a spectrum, and our intuitive understanding would be improved if we instead used the words "complete" and "mostly complete".

Increasing muscle or losing fat

People who are trying to lean out their body composition, either by increasing muscle or losing fat, may benefit by consuming a more optimal balance of amino acids.

When aiming for weight loss the goal is to restrict energy intake (eat fewer calories) but still maintain intake of protein sufficient for normal body processes. Because most vegan sources of protein (especially whole food sources) come with additional energy in the form of carbohydrates, an imbalance of amino acids is associated with extra energy intake. This presents an opportunity to reduce energy intake by optimizing amino acid balance -- in other words, protein combining. The goal is to minimize calories while maximizing limiting amino acids. This particular minimax scenario was the subject of a 2011 study by Peter J. Woolf et al. in which they developed a web-based optimizion tool called vProtein and discovered several unconventional protein pairings.

Overall, the most efficient pairings include sweet corn/tomatoes, apple/coconut, and sweet corn/cherry. The top pairings also highlight the utility of less common protein sources such as the seaweeds laver and spirulina, pumpkin leaves, and lambsquarters.

Similarly, people aiming to build muscle (bodybuilders especially) will want to maximize the availability of all amino acids consumed. Because some very muscular people may be limited by the amount of food they can eat, optimizing amino acid balance allows for maximum myogenesis, or "big gains".

Highly processed diets and the role of protein foods

A diet that is full of refined carbohydrates and oils is going to be correspondingly lower in protein. This is what gives rise to the importance of "protein foods". Proponents of a whole food plant based diet correctly point out that protein is abundant in vegetables, and a whole food diet draws on many sources of amino acids. However a junk food vegan will be eating fewer whole foods and have fewer sources of protein, necessitating inclusion of more meat substitutes like tofu, protein powder, seitain, etc.

Practical advice for vegetarians and vegans

Because our bodies have a limited short-term reserve of certain amino acids (up to a day's worth) and because all essential amino acids are included in all plant proteins, it's actually quite simple to meet protein and amino acid requirements on a vegan diet. As mentioned earlier, lysine is most likely to be deficient on a vegan diet, so ensuring sufficient intake of lysine during the day pretty much covers all the bases.

We can see the result of this in Canada's Food Guide which recommends 3 servings of meat alternatives (legumes and soy products) per day. The very popular Dr. Greger provides the same advice in his Daily Dozen Checklist where he recommends 3 servings of beans per day.

enter image description here

And the same message is repeated by American Dietetic Assocation in their position statement on vegetarian diets.

Dietary adjustments such as the use of more beans and soy products in place of other protein sources that are lower in lysine or an increase in dietary protein from all sources can ensure an adequate intake of lysine.

  • This is an old question but I like this answer so much I think I'll mark it as accepted. I like how you point out that we should really call them "mostly complete" rather than "incomplete" because they have the same amino acids, just in lower quantities – C_Z_ May 10 '18 at 22:26
  • +1 for Dr Greger reference! Also, he has specifically discussed protein combining in his video nutritionfacts.org/video/the-protein-combining-myth (no point me writing an answer just for that when yours is so detailed) – David S Dec 17 '18 at 13:35
8

Incomplete protein sources aren't a bad thing. You just can't live entirely on only one. Most vegetables are only deficient in 1 or 2 amino acids (the components of proteins). However other vegetables contain these and even the "incomplete" ones often contain those missing in each other.

Beans, legumes, and nuts are good protein sources if it concerns you but it shouldn't be necessary to see "complete" protein on a balanced diet.

Unless you are eating almost entirely one staple food, such as corn (low in lysine and tryptophan), then the other foods you're eating will compensate for those not found in corn. Amino acid deficiency is very uncommon in developed countries (where most people can afford imported foods) and mostly occurs in developing economies where such staple diets are still practiced.

  • 1
    And it should be emphasize that you absolutely do not have to combine these foods in one meal. For example if you eat potatoes at breakfast, rice at lunch and beans at dinner, you certainly got all your essential amino acids. – WetlabStudent Mar 9 '17 at 2:34
  • @MHH Sure, in theory you'll be fine if you regularly consume foods with a full complement of amino acids, even if not in the same meal. However, I don't think this needs to be emphasised. I'd recommend healthy balanced meals throughout the day, rather than leaving out some nutrients since you plan to eat well later. – Tom Kelly Mar 9 '17 at 5:02
  • 1
    Having potatoes with kale and fruit for breakfast, a salad with with beans for lunch, a snack of nuts and a dinner of brown rice with roasted vegetables would be an example of what I would think is a reasonably well balanced day of food, yet none of those meals necessarily have a "complete protein". The point is, just eat a variety of whole plant based foods, and you don't need to worry about protein. The only reason why making sure everything in one meal should be specifically demphasized, is do to the highly popularized myth about making meals have a complete protein. – WetlabStudent Mar 9 '17 at 9:01
  • @MHH I wonder if there is any research on how soon they need to be combined - not everyone follows a three-meals-of-average-complexity a day cycle.... – rackandboneman Mar 27 '17 at 10:33
  • Why can't you live on a incomplete protein source? The limiting amino acids aren't missing entirely, just present in smaller quantity. Even so-called "incomplete" proteins can meet all amino acid requirements just by consuming excess protein to make up the difference. – Nic Apr 12 '18 at 1:20
7

This article suggests that there are vegan "complete protein" sources: Forks Over Knives

In practice, you probably will get protein from a variety of food sources; but I don't know that you will have to go out of your way. Omnivores most likely get protein from multiple sources as well.

As an active vegetarian, I'v never worried about protein intake. It seems to take care of itself.

  • Note in stackexchange you should summarize the link, not just link to a site with the answer. This is especially true if the link is a video. – WetlabStudent Feb 1 '17 at 3:07
  • The foods that are vegetarian but not vegan are of course excellent sources of protein. – djechlin Mar 24 '17 at 22:41
5

My understanding (if I'm allowed to answer here without providing references) is that "protein combining" used to be a talked-about topic.

It's less talked-about now because now it's assumed that, while combining is necessary (what you might call balanced diet), it isn't necessary to combine them precisely at every meal: it's sufficient to have one at one meal, another at a next.

For protein I think you combine legumes and grains (because each has some essential amino acids which the other lacks): so for example beans and rice, or peanut butter and bread, or lentils and couscous, etc.

  • "Talked about" among whom? How many meals can I go without combining protein? How imbalanced can you get? – djechlin Mar 24 '17 at 22:42
  • Theoretically you can get very imbalanced, but I don't think that's good for you! I think I read you should have a balanced diet, but that it only needs to be balanced e.g. every day rather every meal. – ChrisW Mar 24 '17 at 22:55
  • 1
    Citations really would help as would quantifications (how imbalanced is "very", etc.) – djechlin Mar 25 '17 at 0:42
  • @djechlin I think what Chris is referring to is that this issue was controversial in the field (I believe around the 70s). Generally, it's pretty hard to mess up amino acid intake (and become deficient) if you can afford to eat more than subsistence diet on a staple crop. The field of nutrition has moved on (with most modern research focusing on obesity or micronutrients) and dietary recommendations for protein have been stable for decades. – Tom Kelly Mar 25 '17 at 2:20
  • I wasn't sure whether to say 1960s, '70s, or '80s, but yes: that's how I remember it. And given that my information is so old, I doubt I'm more able than you are to find a modern citation if one is required. – ChrisW Mar 25 '17 at 2:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.