Do you have a goal of eating more plants? You’re not alone! Plant-based diets are rapidly gaining in popularity. Eating less meat offers benefits not just for the planet, but also for human health. Many of us know this, and are ready to dive in. Despite best intentions, however, it can be tricky to execute meals that are plant-based, contain adequate protein, are minimally processed AND satisfy healthy appetites! I wanted to share my favorite plant-based proteins along with my preferred methods of preparation. These foods are simple and delicious ways to incorporate more plant-based meals into your rotations. I have also chosen foods that provide the most well-rounded nutrition and can compete with traditional center-of-the plate proteins.
Tofu might seem like an uninspired choice since it is one of the most well-known plant-based proteins. But, hear me out. There is good reason that tofu is so popular. It provides the most concentrated and highest quality protein in the plant world. Out of the 20 amino acids that exist, humans require nine in our diets, these are called essential amino acids. The rest we can produce on our own. Soybeans contain all of the essential amino acids. Of course, it’s possible to eat just soybeans. However, tofu is a much more versatile, not to mention nutritious way to consume soybean. Whole soybeans contain high levels of fiber, which can be useful in terms of prebiotics and addressing certain gastrointestinal issues. However, dietary fiber can also interfere with the absorption of certain nutrients, especially calcium and iron. As tofu is rich in both of these minerals, and vegetarians often fall short of daily iron recommendations in particular, lowering fiber will maximize absorption of these important nutrients. Lower fiber also means concentrating the protein, meaning that diners can get more protein per gram of tofu eaten that they would get from soybeans.
Significant controversy surrounds the consumption of soy-based foods. In the 90’s to early 2000’s, alarms were raised in the media regarding the relationship between soy and estrogen, and potential adverse effects that accompanied high levels of soy in the diet. Despite more recent evidence demonstrating the falsehood of such claims, many consumers are still uneasy about including tofu in their diets. Most commonly, men are concerned about effects of soy on their reproductive hormones, specifically that soy consumption will raise estrogen levels and lower testosterone levels. Fortunately, recent and expanded meta-analyses of this hypothesis has indicated that soy consumption does not affect reproductive hormone levels in men (1). Women, on the other hand, are generally concerned that soy consumption will contribute to their risk for breast cancer. Fortunately, again, this meta-analysis indicates that soy intake is actually protective against breast cancer (2). Furthermore, soy intake has been shown to be protective of cardiovascular health.
Preparation: Here is my basic recipe for crispy tofu that can be added to any stir-fry, taco, rice dish, etc.
1 package extra firm tofu
3 Tbsp cornstarch
½ tsp salt
1 Tbsp olive oil
1. Squeeze excess water from tofu, by pressing between 2 plates. Pat dry. Cut tofu into bite-sized triangles. Transfer to medium bowl.
2. Sprinkle salt over tofu. Add cornstarch to bowl and mix to coat.
3. Heat olive oil in pan over medium high heat. Add tofu to pan in one layer. Cook on one side until browned, about 5 minutes. Turn pieces and cook on the opposite side. When tofu reaches desired brownness, remove from pan and serve hot.
After soybeans, legumes are my next go-to for plant proteins. One of my favorite legumes is chickpeas because they are so versatile. To be honest, another reason that I like cooking with them it that they quite substantial and appealing on the plate, or bowl, as the case may be. A persistent issue when creating plant-based meals is achieving something that looks like more than a side dish. Chickpeas swell up when you cook them, and can really give dishes dimension and depth that can be lacking with plant-based cooking. In addition, chickpeas in moderation are compatible with a low FODMAP diet. Most individuals with IBS can consume ¼ cup per meal without symptoms. Many can tolerate higher amounts, it just depends on sensitivity.
In terms of nutrition, chickpeas offer a range of benefits. From a 1-cup serving, you’ll get about 15 g of protein, and all nine essential amino acids. Chickpeas are low in two of these, methionine and cysteine. However, pairing chickpeas with a nut or seed, such as almonds or sesame seeds will compensate for this.
Preparation: Beyond nutrition and flavor, I love chickpeas because they are so global. You can find dishes from India, Turkey, Italy and beyond that feature this tasty legume. My absolute favorite, and most popular, way to prepare chickpeas is the Indian dish khatte chole (sour chickpeas) from “Indian Home Cooking” by Suvir Saran and Stephanie Lyness.
Quinoa + Nuts
Quinoa is technically a seed, which explains why its protein and mineral content is higher than grains, such as rice and wheat. It also explains why it can be a tougher sell to diners who are used to the softer textures and milder flavors of grains. This is why I tend to pair it with something like a winter squash, which will tone down the overall texture and add some sweetness.
Quinoa is a great start to building a plant-based entrée. However, the concentration of protein is not high enough for it to the ONLY protein source at the meal. Nuts are an ideal match for quinoa. By adding pistachios or walnuts, you can get adequate protein, while complimenting the nuttiness and subtle crunch of quinoa.
Preparation: Martha Stewart really nailed it with this visually appealing and satisfying dish that brings together quinoa, pistachios, and acorn squash. And it’s a crowd-pleaser any time of the year!
Lentils are quite similar nutritionally to chickpeas, as they are in the same family of legumes. These little pulses have a broad appeal in terms of taste and are quick to prepare, with a cooking time of ~20 minutes from dry to ready-to-eat. In addition, there are so many varieties to choose from that it’s hard to get bored. French lentils hold their shape after cooking, making them look neat and tidy in finished dishes. Red and brown lentils fall apart more, making them ideal for soups and curries, as they can add depth to creamy textures.
Preparation: Lentils are classic. So, I like to stick to classic preparations such as a lentil soup or simple lentil salad.
1. Katharine E. Reed, Juliana Camargo, Jill Hamilton-Reeves, Mindy Kurzer, Mark Messina, Neither soy nor isoflavone intake affects male reproductive hormones: An expanded and updated meta-analysis of clinical studies, Reproductive Toxicology, 2020