We could wax poetically about the importance of protein, but we won’t. Only because we’ve done that before. And by now, you’re a pro on all things pro. We will, however, weigh in with a little protein PSA: while you’re consciously chowing down on the health world’s favorite macronutrient, make sure to vary your protein sources.
Each protein source is super unique (just like you). Because protein comprises up to 20 different amino acids, each source contains a different amino acid profile (which either has some or all of those aminos in different proportions). These amino acids are kind of clutch and definitely the protein MVPs: when we digest protein, our body absorbs the amino acids and uses them to build and repair tissue, influence immunity and metabolism and regulate gene expression. Moral of the story: we need ‘em to thrive (and also to live, NBD).
Complete vs. Incomplete Proteins
Protein sources are either categorized as “complete” or “incomplete.” Complete protein sources contain all nine essential amino acids; these amino acids are considered essential because our bodies need them to function optimally and cannot produce them on their own. Complete proteins are most often found in animal-based foods (meats and dairy), as well as in some plant-based sources like quinoa and soy.
Incomplete protein sources, as their name might suggest, don't contain all nine of the essential amino acids. If you eat a primarily plant-based diet (get it, champ!), you’ll want to take care to eat protein sources with amino acid profiles that complement each other and make up the nine essential amino acids. Rice and beans are a popular incomplete-turned-complete protein combination. Eaten separately, both the beans and rice are incomplete sources; eaten together, they round out the full essential amino acid profile. Hashtag teamwork!
That Ever-Elusive Thing Called Balance
Before you go on all rice-and-beans diet, you should know that your body has a way of balancing itself out if you eat a variety of protein sources. Our bodies pool nutrients throughout the day, so getting all nine essential amino acids at each meal is not necessary. If you eat an incomplete protein that’s low in one essential amino acid, chances are high that another source will make up for it so long as you’re an equal opportunity protein consumer (i.e. you’re not sticking to one or two protein sources).
If ever you needed impetus to eat (literally) all of the (protein-rich) things, there you have it.