Complete and incomplete protein foods

Written by jeannie knudson
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Complete and incomplete protein foods
Proteins contain amino acids, the "building blocks" of life. (egg image by Dariusz Urbanczyk from

The human body requires 20 amino acids to build muscles, cells and tissues. While your body creates nonessential amino acids, essential amino acids must come from another source. Your diet delivers these in the form of complete or incomplete proteins. Complete protein foods contain all essential amino acids. Incomplete protein foods lack one or more essential amino acids or contain an insufficient amount. Unlike carbohydrates, which your body can store and use for energy later, dietary protein is required each day to maintain health.

Complete proteins

Most complete proteins come from animal sources such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy. Soy is the only common plant source containing complete proteins. While animal sources offer the advantage of complete proteins, it is important to consider the fat content these foods contain. Lean meat, fish, poultry and low-fat dairy products offer the benefits of complete protein while reducing saturated fat intake.

Incomplete proteins

Incomplete proteins are found in grains, nuts, pulses, fruit and vegetables. Vegetarians can meet daily protein needs by combining incomplete proteins from various plant sources, or in the case of lacto-vegetarians by combining plant foods with dairy products. Incomplete protein combinations need not be eaten at the same time. You can eat incomplete proteins throughout the day and still acquire your daily recommended intake.

Recommended intake

Recommended daily protein intakes depend on your body weight, activity level and any special health concerns. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the average person should consume .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight or about .36 grams per pound. Iowa State University Sports Nutrition Extension suggests strength training and endurance athletes need .5 to .8 grams of protein per .4 kilograms (1 pound) of body weight daily.


A 2007 report by Jay R. Hoffman at the College of New Jersey suggests whole protein supplements can enhance muscle protein synthesis and muscle gain in athletes if they are taken within an hour of weight training. Alternatively, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contend protein supplements are generally unnecessary and most healthy individuals get sufficient daily protein from foods.


While long-term risks associated with high-protein diets in healthy individuals are uncertain, consumption of saturated fats associated with high amounts of protein contribute to weight gain and cardiovascular problems. Additionally, pre-existing kidney diseases can be worsened by excessive protein. Alternatively, side effects attributed to protein deficiencies include hair and muscle loss, slow growth rates and heart or respiratory problems.

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