Basics of Protein Meal Combinations

In order to produce muscle, your body needs NINE essential amino acids:

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

These amino acids CANNOT be produced by your body, so it’s vital that they come from food sources.

There are a lot of food sources that contain all nine amino acids–basically, any type of animal protein! You can get all the essential amino acids from beef, pork, chicken, turkey, eggs, fish, and dairy products.

However, vegetarians and vegans have it a bit harder. They do not eat animal products, so they can’t get all the essential amino acids from just the ONE food. Instead, they have to combine different protein sources to ensure that they get all the essential amino acids required to produce muscle. Plant sources of protein, such as legumes, nuts, seeds, and vegetables tend to be low in one or two essential amino acids.  For this reason they are called incomplete sources of protein.

Note: If you only get SOME of the amino acids, your body will only retain them for a couple of hours. If you don’t get the other missing amino acids, it will eliminate them. You have to get all nine amino acids within a short period of time if you want to build muscle.

The beauty is that there are A LOT of foods you can eat to get the essential amino acids. You’ll have to combine two or more of them, but it’s not as hard as you might think.

For example, a meal of brown rice and beans is a complete one. Between the rice and the beans, you get all the essential amino acids required for muscle-building.

Legumes are one of your best plant-based sources of protein. However, legumes do not contain all nine essential amino acids. Thankfully, the amino acids in grains (like brown rice, barley, millet, etc.) will usually balance out the legume amino acids and provide the rest of the essential amino acids needed to produce protein. By pairing grains and legumes, you can get complete proteins and thereby produce muscle.

There are a few exceptions to this rule. For example, quinoa is one of the only non-animal foods that contains all the essential amino acids. Chia seeds are another complete protein, as are a few other seeds and even a few nuts.

However, for the most part, your best option will be to mix multiple sources of protein in each meal to ensure you are getting all the amino acids your body needs to produce muscle. For example:

  • Vegetarian chili combines black beans with rice.
  • Four bean quinoa salad mixes multiple types of beans with quinoa.
  • Chia almond milk shake combines the protein of almond milk with chia seeds.

There are so many food pairings and combinations that will deliver the full range of amino acids, and you’ll find it’s fairly easy to get enough of the essential amino acids needed to produce muscle. Just remember that you have to eat two or more plant-based protein sources in order to get all nine amino acids.

Or, you can try to add more animal products to your diet. Even if you can’t bring yourself to consume red meat, poultry, or other animal flesh, animal products like milk and eggs may be worth adding to your diet. They will deliver a lot more of the amino acids needed to produce muscle, and they will round out the protein in your diet. Add them into a diet heavy with grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts, and you should have no problem building muscle even on a vegetarian diet.


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