Plant-based proteins may boost wellness, according to recent research. “Many studies speak to their health benefits, which include reducing the risks of heart disease and cancer, improving blood sugar control and gut health, and aiding weight loss,” says Beth Bluestone, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic. These conclusions are not surprising, given that plant-based proteins are typically lower in fat and higher in fiber compared to animal proteins, and they tend to include vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, she adds.
The only downside? They lack vitamin B12, so anyone on a strict vegan diet should supplement with this nutrient, she suggests. Also, some of the processed plant-based proteins tend to be high in sodium and sometimes carbohydrates. That’s why it’s worth focusing on protein-packed plant-based whole foods, including tofu, tempeh, seitan and beans.
Eager to add these protein sources to your diet but afraid they’ll taste like cardboard? Read on to learn how to work with the nutrition all-stars.
Tofu, made from soybeans, is a good source of protein, calcium, magnesium and phytonutrients, Bluestone says. However, if you’re allergic to soy, you should avoid all products made with it, including tofu, tempeh, edamame and soy milk. When in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, choose between the many consistencies of tofu, from extra-firm (which holds its shape and is best for grilling and sauteing) to silken (ideal for smoothies and puddings). Since tofu has a neutral taste and takes on flavors well, try marinating it before grilling, roasting, baking or sauteing. Also, consider slicing and pressing to remove much of its water content to yield a firmer, crispier result. To do this, line a flat surface with a clean kitchen towel. Place the tofu slices on it, then cover with another clean towel and a heavy pan. Let sit for about 20 minutes. Then proceed with your recipe.
Made from fermented soy, tempeh has more protein per serving than other soy products. Look for it near the tofu in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. As with tofu, the neutral-tasting ingredient is tastiest when marinated before cooking. Firm and chewy, it can be grilled, sauteed, baked or roasted. For instance, consider breaking it up and sauteing for a meaty taco filling or grilling and placing atop a salad.
Created from wheat gluten, seitan is a no-go for anyone with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity or a wheat allergy. The neutral-flavored ingredient comes ground, in slices or strips, and sometimes in broth (which you can feel free to discard). Find it in the refrigerated section, next to the tofu and tempeh. If you can get past seitan’s less-than-appetizing appearance, cut it up and saute over medium heat for a few minutes. (Unlike tofu, you don’t need to press it first.)
Beans are a rich source of folate, copper, iron, magnesium, potassium and zinc, Bluestone says. They’re also filling, thanks to their protein and fiber. Extremely versatile, beans and lentils can be incorporated into soups, chili, patties and “meatballs” and used as salad toppers or taco fillings. For the ultimate in convenience, opt for dry lentils (which do not need to soak before cooking) or canned beans or lentils. If purchasing canned, look for no-added-salt or low-sodium products and rinse before using. Dried beans do need to be soaked for hours. However, they’ll reward you with the ideal tender-but-not-mushy texture.
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