Plant-Based Proteins and How to Eat Them

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According to food industry experts, 2018 is the year to be eating all kinds of plant-based foods. Plant foods high in protein are some of the most sought-after items and also happen to be the most commonly misunderstood category. It's easier than you might think to get these popular high protein foods into your family’s daily diet. Here are a few of the most sizzling protein-rich foods, grown from plants.

Protein 101

Look up amino acids in any biology textbook and you will find they are the building blocks of proteins. Despite their humble definition, amino acids are a vital component of health. Amino acids and their health benefits have become nutrition buzz words but the science behind them is still confusing to most.

When we eat protein-rich foods, they are broken down into their amino acids components. Different foods contain different amino acids. There are twenty amino acids in total and once they enter the body, they are shuffled and reorganized to serve several important functions including forming muscle tissue, allowing for fluid balance, immune system function, and enzyme production.  

When deciding which protein-rich foods to eat, the goal is to consume all the building blocks. Animal foods like meat, eggs, and dairy contain all 20 amino acids, while protein from plants may be missing one or more amino acid. Select plant-based foods do meet the 20 amino acid quota, while others, when eaten in certain combinations, can also meet these needs. For example, rice and beans together add up to all 20 amino acids.

Plant-based options for protein are appealing since many are lower in saturated fat when compared to animal-based foods. Plant foods also contain fiber for a healthy digestive system and have a smaller carbon footprint. Plants also contain various phytochemicals and antioxidants which protect cells and fight inflammation throughout the body.

Superstar Plant Proteins

There are plenty of ways to enjoy plant-based proteins if you gravitate towards these seven nutrient-dense foods. Thanks to the increasing popularity of plant-based foods, these foods are affordable and easy to find at your local grocery store.

Soy
The rumor mill has given soy foods like edamame, tofu and soy milk a bad reputation. Put the gossip aside and embrace these foods, as the scientifically proven health benefits of soy are extensive. Soy and soy-based foods are low in fat and come naturally equipped with a full arsenal of amino acids, the same ones found in meat. Enjoy cubed extra firm tofu as a replacement for scrambled eggs, roasted in a hot oven, or sautéed in a nonstick pan with a few drops of oil and seasoned with salt. Soy milk contains 7 grams of protein per one-cup serving. The same portion of cow’s milk contains eight grams. Soy milk also comes fortified with vitamin D and calcium, making it a wonderful dairy-free swap for cereal, smoothies, and baking.

Lentils
Lentils are a severely underappreciated legume because from a nutrient standpoint they have it all. Lentils pack in a big dose of nutrients, including healthy fats and fiber-rich carbs. With double the protein content of quinoa and a long list of vitamins and minerals, they are worth eating more often. Use lentils in soups, stews, side dishes, or main course staples like tacos and lettuce cups. Lentils can also be used as a meat replacement in recipes for burgers and chili.

Nuts
Find ways to incorporate plant-based nuts such as almonds, walnuts, and cashews into your meals and snacks. Each type of nut highlights their own special nutrient profiles and there’s room for all of them in a healthy diet. Omega-3 rich walnuts add a unique flavor and texture element to smoothies and make for an optimal meat alternative in vegetarian dishes. Crunchy almonds are filled with vitamin E (a powerful antioxidant) and are an easy way to curb an afternoon case of the munchies. Almonds can also be used for healthy batches of homemade granola, almond butter, and muffins. The mild, buttery flavor of cashews are a welcome addition to stir fries and fried rice. Soak cashews in water overnight and then blend to incorporate into smoothies and soups as a vegan replacement for cream.

Quinoa
Quinoa is yet another plant-based food with the same full panel of amino acids as meat. Quinoa are very small seeds that can be used raw or cooked in soups, cold and warm salads, and overnight oats.

Quinoa also makes a wonderful grain-free filling option for stuffed peppers and veggie burgers. Each cup of cooked quinoa packs in fiber, iron and eight grams of protein. Make batches in bulk on a meal prep day, it only takes about 20 minutes to prepare.

Peanut Butter
Look beyond sandwiches for the lunchbox and utilize peanut butter to give flavor, texture and plant-based goodness for salad dressings, smoothies, homemade snack bites. Each two-tablespoon serving of this classic kid favorite contains eight grams of protein, plus heart-healthy unsaturated fats. When shopping for a jar of peanut butter, look for a brand with a simple ingredient list (peanuts and salt) instead of processed oils and added sugar.


Chickpeas
Beans are one of the most versatile plant-based proteins. In one cup of chickpeas (garbanzo beans) you’ll find 15 grams of protein and a half day's worth of hunger-fighting fiber. Add chickpeas to avocado toast, vegetable or grain salads or blend up a batch of hummus for dipping and spreading on sandwiches. Rinsed, drained and dried chickpeas can also be seasoned and roasted in the oven for a crunchy finger food.

Chia Seeds
Known for having plentiful amounts of omega-3 fats and their ability to sprout into delightfully fuzzy green plants, there are numerous nutritional benefits of chia seeds. Once an elusive and hard to find ingredient, chia has gone mainstream. They are a popular garnish for smoothie bowls but most folks don’t realize chia's impressive protein content.  Two tablespoons of chia seeds contain six grams of protein along with an ample dose of fiber. Stir up chia seeds with yogurt, almond milk and chopped fruit and store in the fridge overnight for a batch of dreamy chia pudding the next morning. Blend a few spoonfuls into smoothies or mix with water and use as an egg replacement in muffins and other baked goods.