When it comes to protein, things can be quite complicated. In fact, there are up to 50,000 different proteins in the human body. They’re made from sequences of what are called “amino acids,” so let’s take a look at what an amino acid is and then explore the differences in types of protein.

What is an Amino Acid?

An amino acid is a single molecule. The molecules are programmed by your DNA. For example, if you call one amino acid A, one B, one C and so on then your DNA can organize them in a number of combinations. Each combination is a different type of protein. That’s why there are so many different proteins.

understanding protein

There are 21 amino acids:

  • Histidine    
  • Alanine
  • Isoleucine  
  • Arginine
  • Leucine      
  • Asparagine
  • Lysine        
  • Aspartic acid
  • Methionine 
  • Cysteine
  • ·Phenylalanine     
  • Glutamic acid
  • ·Threonine  
  • Glutamine
  • Tryptophan
  • Glycine
  • Valine
  • Proline
  • Selenocysteine
  • Serine
  • Tyrosine

Now among those amino acids there is a categorization of amino acids that are called “essential amino acids.” Essential amino acids are those that your body cannot synthesize or make on their own. They HAVE to be consumed by the food that you eat. There are nine of those essential amino acids. They are:

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

Not to complicate things even further, but within those nine essential amino acids there are further classifications. And this is important. You know that essential amino acids come from food. The next order of amino acids tells you what type of food the acids come from, so let’s go there next. Once you have all of this information, you can then balance and plan your diet accordingly.

Understanding Complete and Incomplete Proteins

You now know that your body creates proteins based on your DNA and that there are up to 50,000 different types of protein and combinations possible. You know that protein is essential for every process in your body – from your immune system to your reproductive system and everything in between, including your metabolism and ability to burn fat and build muscle.

You also know that there are 21 amino acids, the building blocks of protein, and that nine of them are derived from the food that you eat. There are also what are called complete and incomplete proteins.

Complete Protein

“A complete protein (or whole protein) is a source of protein that contains an adequate proportion of all nine of the essential amino acids necessary for the dietary needs of humans or other animals.” (Source: National Library of Medicine)

Complete proteins generally come from animal products. You can get complete proteins from meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. Quinoa, spirulina, hemp, buckwheat, and chia seeds are plants that do provide a complete protein.

complete protein

Incomplete Protein

An incomplete protein then, as you might have guessed, is a protein that does not have all of the nine essential amino acids. These come from plant based sources. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find a food source that doesn’t have some protein in it. Carrots have a bit of protein as do grapes, apples, spinach and so on. Plants are living things and they need protein to survive. So you do get protein from plants, you just don’t get a complete protein.

incomplete protein

You can, however, combine certain plants to get a complete protein. For example, beans and rice provide a complete protein. Nuts, seeds, and beans are a few plants that are high in protein. Other plant-based protein combinations that can provide a complete protein include spinach and almonds, hummus and whole grain crackers or bread. These combinations are important for vegetarians and vegans. Your body not only needs a good deal of protein; it needs complete protein.

So now you know that animal products are a great source of complete proteins and that plants can provide incomplete proteins and some combinations of plants can work together to provide a complete protein. The next question is, “How much protein do you need?” We’ll address that in an upcoming post – so stay tuned.