All runners need protein in their diet. After all, this key macronutrient is responsible for helping your body build and repair muscle, increase strength, and improve performance. But for runners following a vegan or vegetarian diet, it can get a bit tricker to meet protein needs.
That’s particularly true if you’re aiming to get more complete proteins into your meals, meaning all the essential amino acids on one plate. So to make that task a little easier—and help you understand the difference between incomplete versus complete proteins, the importance of amino acids in general, and some complete protein examples—we speak with two registered dietitians. Let their advice help you perform and recover like a champ.
What is the difference between incomplete vs complete proteins?
It all comes down to amino acids—the building blocks of protein. “Your body can make [non-essential amino acids]. But the essential amino acids we have to get from food—there’s no way that our body can make them,” Su-Nui Escobar, RDN, doctor in clinical nutrition, and nutrition professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida tells Runner’s World.
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There are 20 amino acids, 11 of which your body can produce naturally, while the other nine—including phenylalanine, valine, tryptophan, threonine, isoleucine, methionine, histidine, leucine, and lysine—you need to acquire through your diet. Typically, animal foods like poultry, beef, and dairy products, are highlighted as complete proteins. But there are some plant-based foods on that list as well. This includes quinoa, buckwheat, and soy.
On the other hand, incomplete proteins only contain some essential amino acids. But you can combine a few plant-based foods with various amino acids to make complete proteins. Here’s why that’s important.
What are the benefits of essential amino acids and complete proteins?
Chances are, whether you eat meat or not, you’re going to have both complete and incomplete proteins in your diet. And that’s a good thing, because you don’t necessarily need complete proteins all day every day, or even at every meal.
The main goal is to focus on eating a combination of foods that contain all the amino acids your body needs throughout the day (rather than in a single meal), says Kayla Slater, RDN, certified personal trainer and run coach based in Ithaca, New York. Focusing on a daily diet, and getting those complete protein combinations throughout the day, better prepares your body to recover after exercise.
Every time you go for a run, you break down muscle. So, it’s especially important for vegans and vegetarians to replenish and repair that damaged muscle with complete proteins, says Escobar.
Complete Protein Examples
To help you not only get all the essential amino acids, but also a mix of foods in your diet, Escobar and Slaters suggest these complete protein foods, made from a combination of amino acids from other incomplete proteins, for all runners who follow a plant -based diet. Enjoy these at any time of day.
1. Lentil Soup with Rice
If you’re going to have lentil soup for lunch, then consider having a side of rice for a well-rounded meal packed with the essential amino acids—leucine, lysine, threonine, and phenylalanine come from lentils, while rice packs all of them except lysine—your body needs, Escobar says.
2. Bean Taco With Corn Tortilla
Escobar says beans are a great source of amino acids which makes this meal ideal for a vegan or vegetarian. To add more nutrition, add a tomato-based salsa for a source of vitamin C, which helps your body absorb the iron form the beans, she says.
3. Quinoa Salad
Quinoa is a complete protein on its own, but you can increase your protein intake and make a more well-rounded meal by adding almonds to it and topping it off with cranberries or another dried or fresh fruit. This makes a salad packed with all macronutrients, including carbs, protein, and fat, says Escobar.
4. Pasta and Peas
This combination of a legume and grain is perfect for runners because it contains lots of carbohydrates (in addition to that complete protein), which runners also need to help recover and replace glycogen stores after a run, says Slater.
5. Hummus With Pita Bread
Not only is this combination good for you because it’s filled with protein from the chickpeas in hummus, but it also contains healthy fats, thanks to the Tahini included in the hummus, says Slater. This is an easy snack to munch on postrun, offering up that complete protein food.
The Bottom Line on Complete Protein Examples
A good rule of thumb when it comes to eating complete protein foods is to grab both a legume and a grain, says Escobar, like beans and rice. But don’t forget to mix things up by choosing different types of legumes and different varieties of grains.
Also, keep in mind that you don’t have to eat these combinations in the same sitting if you don’t want to, Slater says. If you’re eating the foods on this list at some point throughout the day, your body will take care of the rest.
The last piece of advice on getting in complete protein foods: Know the best way to ensure you eat a healthy diet that meets all your nutritional needs is to plan out your meals, says Slater. While you don’t have to get super specific on recipes or serving sizes, it’s good to have a general idea of what foods you’ll eat in a day to help you meet your protein needs ahead of time. You can then fill in gaps where you see them. You can also consider teaming up with a registered dietitian to double check your nutrition plan or use a nutrition tracker to see the big picture on your diet—just make it one you enjoy.
Monique LeBrun joined the editorial staff in October 2021 as the associate health and fitness editor. She has a master’s degree in journalism and has previously worked for ABC news and Scholastic. She is an avid runner who loves spending time outside.
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