Eating less meat may be better for health.
For years, dietitians and doctors have been telling Americans that using meat sparingly is best and focusing on plant-based foods can offer a range of health benefits. But getting enough protein while being on a plant-based diet is also a worry for some. So how do you balance those concerns? Enter plant-based proteins.
Plants, despite what you may have heard, contain some protein, and some types of plants and plant products are actually excellent sources of this important macronutrient that builds muscles, helps carry oxygen to cells and supports metabolic health.
Plant-based proteins can cover all your protein needs.
Though animal products such as red meat, poultry, fish and eggs are excellent sources of protein, it’s entirely possible to meet all your protein needs without ever ingesting an animal product. And that may offer health benefits, as many Americans consume too many animal products.
Plant-based proteins may help you avoid certain diseases.
Dena Champion, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, says that “people who eat mostly plant proteins may be at lower risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, cancer and other chronic diseases.”
On the other hand, eating “high amounts of red meat and processed meats is linked to increased rates of cancer,” she says.
Plant-based proteins contain other healthy components.
It’s not just the protein in these foods that makes them such a smart choice, says Reema Kanda, a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, California. “What makes plant-based proteins so healthy is they contain a whole lot of other nutrients that can provide added benefits to your overall health.”
These other nutrients include:
— Antioxidants. These compounds found in plant foods inhibit oxidation, a chemical reaction that can damage cells. Antioxidants help keep a healthy balance with free radicals, other compounds that the body is constantly making.
— Fiber. “Animal protein is generally void of fiber and may contain unhealthy saturated fat, which can lead to heart disease,” Champion says. But plant-based fibers are chock full of heart- and gut-healthy fiber. “Plant based proteins contain fiber, which can be really satiating. Most Americans don’t get nearly enough fiber.”
— Phytochemicals. Phyto means plant in Greek, so phytochemicals are chemicals produced by plants that are thought to support human health. It’s also believed that consuming foods rich in phytochemicals can help prevent diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, dementia and diabetes.
— Vitamins and minerals. Vitamins and minerals, also called micronutrients, are essential to human health and keeping the body going. You need a constant influx of a wide range of vitamins and minerals every day to keep the body running optimally. Plants supply nearly all the vitamins and nutrients your body needs each day.
The following slides offer up the eight best plant-based proteins you can eat.
Though quinoa is typically treated as a grain, it’s actually a seed. “Quinoa is a unique ancient grain that has a high protein content and has all the essential nine amino acids,” Kanda says. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and when you have all nine at once, “that means it’s equivalent to eating animal protein.”
In addition to this pseudo-grains protein content, it also contains fiber. A “one-cup serving can provide approximately 20% of your daily iron needs. The bonus is it cooks quickly and is easy to find at supermarkets.”
“Nuts not only contain protein and heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, but also contain antioxidants,” Kanda says.
“Plant-based proteins like almonds contain compounds that protect the body from oxidative stress, which can lead to aging, heart disease and some cancers,” Kanda says, adding that “a wealth of observational studies and clinical trials support the benefits of consuming nuts and seeds.”
Nuts are also a good source of healthy fats, which may benefit heart and metabolic health.
Lentils are part of the legume family, which also contains beans, peas and peanuts. These plants contain a lot of antioxidants. Kanda notes that a half-cup of lentils is “very versatile because lentils contain seven times less fat compared to pork, double the protein of quinoa and four times the fiber compared to brown rice.”
Regular consumption of lentils has been linked with reduced levels of:
— Blood cholesterol.
— Body weight.
— Some types of cancer.
Champion says that tofu is one of her favorite plant-based proteins “because it takes on the flavor of whatever you’re cooking, which makes it very versatile. It’s also a complete protein, so it contains all nine essential amino acids.”
In addition, for folks who are avoiding animal products, sometimes they don’t take in enough calcium. But tofu can help with that. “Most tofu is a wonderful source of calcium as it’s typically made with calcium. This is really important for people who consume little or no dairy.”
Chickpeas go by many names, including garbanzo beans, Egyptian pea and Bengal gram. They’re very high in protein and are an easy add to pasta dishes, mashed into hummus and as a thickener in soups and sauces. Champion says she loves them, as they’re versatile and packed with nutrients.
6. Black beans
Black beans are another staple food item that’s a go-to in many culinary traditions for good reason — they’re very high in fiber, protein, complex carbohydrates, antioxidants and a range of other nutrients that contribute to good overall health.
Beans are also rich sources of folate, which is essential to the production of red blood cells and is important in fetal development. Studies have shown that eating a diet rich in legumes like black beans has been associated with lower risk of heart attack, lower cholesterol levels and reduced risk of diabetes.
Edamame are whole, immature soybeans popular in East Asian cuisine. The pods are boiled and steamed and often served with salt or other condiments as an appetizer in American restaurants. Where typical soybeans are light brown or tan in color, edamame are a vibrant green. You don’t eat the fuzzy pods, but rather push the tender bean out.
Soy and soy products have sometimes gotten a bad rap from some folks over fears that it could mimic estrogen and potentially elevate risk for breast cancer. However, Kailey Proctor, a board-certified oncology dietitian at Leonard Cancer Institute at Providence Mission Hospital in Orange County, California, says the fiber content in edamame and other legumes is beneficial for those who have breast cancer or are at risk of developing it.
“Fiber binds with estrogen in the digestive tract to remove excess estrogen in the body. Estrogen is a hormone that helps with breast cell growth and research shows that prolonged exposure to high levels of estrogen may increase the risk of breast cancer in women.”
In addition, a high fiber diet may help you avoid various types of cancer, as well as lower your cholesterol. “Fiber also helps women maintain a healthy body weight. Fiber acts like a balloon in the stomach to keep you fuller longer between meals so you are less likely to snack on high calorie foods that may lead to weight gain,” explains Proctor. “Being overweight or obese has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer as well as 12 other cancers.”
8. Hemp hearts
Hemp hearts are the edible interior of hemp seeds. These high protein seeds are sometimes used to make vegan versions of milk, cheese or protein powder. They can be eaten raw or may be roasted or cooked.
Though they come from the same plant that marijuana or cannabis does, there’s virtually no high-inducing THC in them. You’re not going to fail a drug test or become intoxicated if you eat a lot of hemp hearts.
Their nutty, versatile flavor makes them a great addition to salads and stews, but they can also be used to thicken soups and sauces. As with other nuts and seeds, hemp hearts are high in fiber and are a good source of calcium and iron.
“Hemp hearts are another example of a complete plant protein,” Champion says. This means they contain all nine essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein.
Good for any type of diet
Even if you’re not following a vegan or vegetarian diet, it still pays dividends to include plant-based proteins into your diet, Champion says. “Many people will tell me they don’t want to be vegetarian, so they don’t bother with incorporating plant-based proteins into their diet. Instead of that all or nothing thinking, consider trying a few meals or even one meal a week that uses plant protein instead of animal.”
And it doesn’t have to be a big production, either, she adds. Easy ideas include:
— Swapping black beans for meat in tacos.
— Sprinkling hemp hearts on avocado toast or in cereal.
— Adding tofu instead of meat in a stir fry.
— Thawing frozen and shelled edamame and tossing in a salad.
— Keeping canned or frozen beans on hand for an easy and inexpensive plant protein option.
Champion adds that “vegetables and whole grains also contain protein,” so you may be eating more protein than you realize when you make a veggie tofu stir-fry served over brown rice, for example.
And Proctor notes that when building a diet for health and wellness, flexibility is key. “It’s really important to look at the overall diet quality, long term, instead of one specific meal. Focus on mostly plants with lean protein, but don’t be afraid to splurge for a special occasion as food has more meaning than just the food composition.”
The 8 best plant-based proteins you can eat:
— Black beans.
— Hemp hearts.
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Update 05/31/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.