Luz Mejia

Food, Protein, and Complementarity

By Luz Mejia

Last week, I provided the benefits of protein intake for our overall health. This week, I am sharing the importance of balancing the diet so as to get sufficient levels of all the essential amino acids which are essential to our health. This is why a diet containing a variety of wholesome foods is important.

Certain foods have one or two amino acids that are in lower proportions than the others, and if one of these foods, such as rice or corn, is a predominant part of the diet, it can mean that protein production and the significant functions that protein performs can be deficient. Each food has a different mix of amino acids.

Therefore, it is important to have an understanding of protein composition and to apply it to our diet. The meat foods (including fish and poultry), dairy foods, and eggs almost all have sufficient quantities of amino acids to sustain life; that is, they are complete proteins.

When we eat these foods daily, we do not really need to worry about amino acid complementarity. In fact, there are concerns that over consumption of protein foods (particularly meat and milk) in many societies contributes to some major illnesses, so we may not wish to consume these foods daily, or at all.

Vegetarians or other people on diets that limit certain foods may need to be more knowledgeable about combining food. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians, who eat eggs and dairy foods—both complete proteins—need to have less concern than the pure vegetarians, or vegans (who do not eat dairy foods).

Of the essential amino acids, we have seen that lysine, methionine, and tryptophan are the deficient ones. They are present in all vegetable proteins, but at lower levels than other amino acids. Since they are not all low in the same foods, it is not as difficult, as many think, to obtain a good protein balance from vegetables, grains, nuts, and legumes.

The simplest idea is to eat grains with some beans or seeds. For example, millet and aduki beans or brown rice and sunflower  seeds. Other complete-protein combinations of vegetable sources include soybeans and rice or soybeans with sesame, corn, wheat, or rye; peanuts with grain or coconut; grain with legumes or leafy greens; beans and corn or rice (South American diet); and peas and wheat.

The body will make protein only as long as it has sufficient levels of all necessary amino acids in the cellular “storage” pool. When one amino acid is deficient, we will not be able to produce most proteins, and then either muscle protein will be catabolized to obtain adequate amounts of the needed amino acid(s) or the metabolism will use protein for energy.

The body breaks down an average of about 300 milligrams (maybe much more under many stressful conditions) of protein per day, which it replaces if there are sufficient nutrients. If there are not, however, we experience net protein loss; thus the importance of consuming all the amino acids through a daily intake of 50 to 60 grams of “balanced” protein in forms that are easily digested and assimilated.  Protein foods have been classified according to their ability to be digested and used by the body; that is, their biological availability, or values.

The measurement of this ability is termed net protein utilization (NPU); it is also called biological value (BV).  Chicken eggs are considered to have the protein ovalbumin of highest known NPU.  Following eggs, in descending order, are fish, cow’s milk and cheese, brown rice, red meat, and poultry.

Another reference protein for determining the biological value of foods is that of eggs (ovalbumin), the food with the highest BV at 94% (although mother’s milk is valued at 100 percent. Next are fish at 75—90%, rice at 86%, legumes at 70—80%, and meats and poultry at 75—85%. Corn, an incomplete protein, has approximately 40% biological value.

Again, this is not based on protein content but on biological value, how efficiently the body utilizes the protein in the food.  Clearly, the amino acids in brown rice do not make a complete protein but it is readily usable.  Here is where the vegetarian complementing with legumes may help as long as digestion and assimilation are functioning properly.

Food Complementarity

Complete Proteins Incomplete Proteins Food Choices: Veg Diet. For complete proteins, combine:
Milk Grains (low in lysine, isoleucine) Grains + Legumes (main combo) e.g. rice+ lentils, wheat and peas, bean burritos
Eggs Legumes (low in tryptophan, methionine) Seeds or nuts + legumes e.g. garbanzo and sesame (hummus), tofu and sesame
Fish Seeds and nuts (low in lysine, isoleucine) Grains – milk or eggs, e.g. quiche, rice and eggs, French toast, lasagna
Poultry Veggies (vary – most low in methionine, isoleucine Vegetables + milk or eggs, e.g. cream soups, vegetables with eggs or cheese sauce
Red Meats    


Next week, I will share easy food combinations for vegetarians and vegans.

For all readers of Biz India Online News: I provide complimentary nutritional counseling to the first 20 callers.  My specialty  in Nutrition is: metabolic syndrome (resistance to insulin) and/or Diabetes type 2. I am looking forward to enhance your health.