Complementary Proteins 101

By Erika Guzman a Recent ASU Nutrition Student

Have you ever wondered if you’ve had enough protein after working out, or have you ever watched your siblings or children and wondered if they are reaching the daily protein intake, especially with the foods they eat? Even in college dorms where money is tight and you’re unsure if it’s slightly healthy? Cereal with milk for breakfast, a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, and for dinner, macaroni and cheese, but you see no meat? It’s okay! Even though protein through meats are tasty and recommended, people, can still get protein in their diets through food pairing to make a complete protein.

Meats and a few other foods, like quinoa, have all 9 essential amino acids that allow it to be called a complete protein. There are about 20 amino acids, but the reason why 9 are essential is because our bodies cannot produce them on its own. Many foods alone, such as milk, cheese, grains, vegetables, and nuts are incomplete proteins or proteins that do not have all 9 essential amino acids. However, with combining foods, it can help make a meal contain enough to make a whole protein, hence complementary proteins. Protein is vital in a daily diet. According to the FDA, not only does protein help build your body’s muscles, but it also repairs cells and body tissue and is very important for body processes, such as immune response, vision, hormone production, and blood clotting. It also helps your hair, skin, nails, and bones!

So how much protein is recommended? According to the National Institute of Health, it depends on your overall daily caloric needs, between 10% to 35% for an adult. For example, a person with a 2,000 calorie diet would consume 100 grams of protein, or 20%, for his or her daily diet. As for children, it depends on their age and stage of life, so they may need more or less in order to accommodate for healthy development. Thanks to NIH and its chart, an ounce of protein-rich foods contains 7 grams of protein which is equivalent to:

  • 1 ounce of meat, fish, or poultry
  • ¼ cup of tofu
  • 1 tablespoon of peanut (or nut) butter
  • 1 large egg
  • ½ cup of cooked lentils or beans


Notice how not everything is meat, but rather a variety of foods that count as protein! However, not everyone eats these types of foods, or they get it elsewhere. Some very common complementary protein dishes are:

  • Rice and beans
  • Macaroni and cheese
  • Hummus with pita bread
  • Yogurt with nuts
  • Grilled cheese
  • Pizza
  • Whole grain cereal and milk
  • Lasagna
  • Noodles with peanut or sesame seed sauce (usually seen with stir-fry)


If you ever want to check how much protein in certain foods, the USDA has a nutrient list page that allows you to compare and see how much protein is in some common foods.

In short, variety is key and it’s quite simple to get protein in your diet, regardless of which diet or lifestyle you follow. As long as it’s tasty and wholesome, it’s another small step in a healthy lifestyle.


Looking for more articles like this? Check out our Fill Your Plate Blog.  Check out the Find a Farmers Market tab to find a farmers market near you.



Choose My Plate. (2017). All about the proteins food group. United States Department of

Agriculture. Retrieved at

Food and Drug Administration. (n.d.). Nutrition Facts Label: Protein. FDA. Retrieved at

Guzman, S. and Boutin, D. A. ,MS, RD. (2017). What are complementary proteins, and how do

we get them? Bastyr University. Retrieved at

Reeds, P. J., and Garlick, P. J. (2003). Protein and amino acid requirements and the composition of

complementary foods. The Journal of Nutrition. 133(9):2953s-2961s. Retrieved at

Wax, E., RD, Zieve, D., MD, MHA, & Conaway, B. (2017). Protein in Diet. MedlinePlus:

National Institute of Health. Retrieved at

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