A growing number of people are turning toward a plant-based diet or at least are trying to eat more whole plant foods, which we know can support weight loss, cardiovascular health, and chronic disease prevention. However, one of the biggest questions that many people still have is how to obtain sufficient protein sans animal products. Fortunately, this is easier than many people believe, partly because we don’t need to carefully combine amino acids at each meal to ensure adequate protein intake from plants. In fact, protein deficiency is unlikely on a vegan or vegetarian diet if one is consuming enough calories. To help clients meet their needs on a plant-based diet, it’s important for dietitians to be knowledgeable about meatless protein sources. Below is an outline of six animal-free, minimally processed protein sources and their culinary uses.
A curd made from soybeans, tofu provides an affordable source of high-quality protein, offering 8.5 g per 3-oz serving of the extra-firm variety. It comes in silken, soft, firm, extra firm, and prebaked and marinated varieties. Tofu also provides iron, manganese, copper, and, if calcium- set, is an excellent source of calcium.
Tofu can be sliced, pan-fried, and used in place of lunch meat in sandwiches piled with vegetables and condiments. It can be cubed, seasoned, and baked until crispy for use in salads and pasta dishes. Silken tofu can be easily blended into smoothies, used to make whipped toppings or vegan cheesecake, or used as a base for creamy dips and vegan cheese sauces. Firm varieties can be crumbled by hand into a skillet to make a veggie tofu scramble for breakfast, or sliced plain and used in stir-fries, buddha bowls, or miso soup. Tofu takes on most any flavor it’s seasoned with or marinated in, making it a versatile protein option.
Tip: To help tofu keep its shape when cooked, drain and wrap the block in a towel for 15 minutes to remove excess water (you also can place something heavy on it such as a tea kettle filled with water).
A cake form of fermented soybeans and grains, tempeh provides 17 g protein per 3-oz serving.
Tempeh can be sliced and used in stir-fries and pastas. It also can be crumbled, cooked in barbecue sauce, and used for sloppy joes or in a hearty chili or stew. With the right seasoning and a little liquid smoke, it can be used to make vegan bacon and added to sandwiches, burgers, pasta dishes, and casseroles.
Tip: Place sliced tempeh in a steamer basket and steam for 10 minutes to reduce bitterness before cooking.
Made from vital wheat gluten, seitan isn’t friendly for those with celiac disease, but it can offer more protein than beef steak. It provides 20 g per 3 oz and has a chewy, meatlike consistency, making it an excellent substitute in traditionally meat-centered dishes.
Seitan can easily be homemade with just a few ingredients and seasonings. Sliced thinly, it can be a great alternative for roast beef sandwiches au jus. It also can double for beef strips in a Mongolian barbecue or stir-fry. Vital wheat gluten also can be used to make high-protein seitan burgers that hold their shape when cooked.
Tip: The broth used to make seitan at home can be recycled as a sandwich dipping sauce or as a rich base for soup the next day.
Beans and Peas
These legumes come in many varieties, all of which can provide different tastes and textures when substituting for meat. Beans are inexpensive, shelf stable, and can be purchased canned or dried. Green split peas provide 4 g protein per 1/4 cup cooked, while 1/2 cup cooked chickpeas provides 7 g, and 1/2 cup cooked navy beans provides 7.5 g.
Chickpeas have poultrylike similarities, including having a similar smell to canned chicken. They can be mashed with a fork and used to make chickpea salad sandwiches or roasted to make crunchy chickpea croutons. Black and kidney beans are great for chilis, burritos, and nachos. Cannellini and navy beans work well in pasta and soups or to make a white bean spread for pizza or quesadillas.
Tip: The quick soak method for dry beans involves bringing them to a boil for one minute and then removing from the heat and soaking for one hour before cooking.
Lentils are high-protein pulses, or edible legumes. They come in black, yellow, green, red, and brown varieties, all of which contain around 4.5 g protein per 1/4 cup. These can be purchased dried or canned, and their best uses vary depending on the type of lentil.
Red lentils can be used to make fragrant Indian dals and to add bulk to other soups, while green and brown lentils hold their shape better and can be used to make salads and side dishes, in veggie burgers, or in a lentil loaf.
Tip: To avoid mushy and overcooked lentils, bring them to a boil and then reduce to a gentle simmer. Cooking them more slowly will help maintain their shape and texture.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds often are thought of simply as snack foods or components of trail mix, but they also can be a main protein source in meals. You’ll find 7 g protein in 25 peanuts, almost 10 g protein in 1/4 cup of pepitas, and 7 g protein in 3 T of chia seeds.
Cashews can be blended with liquid to make a creamy base for soups or vegan cheese sauces for topping pizzas, smothering enchiladas and nachos, and dipping soft pretzels. Peanuts, almonds, and sunflower seeds can be blended to make spreadable butters. Almonds, hazelnuts, and cashews also can be used to make homemade nutmilks. Flax and chia seeds make fantastic egg substitutes that bind baked goods together. Walnuts can be blended with mushrooms and rice to make vegan meatballs. Nuts and seeds also can be sprinkled on top of salads or used in smoothies, muffins, and pancake batters to add protein (and healthful fats, too).
Tip: Be sure to choose ground over whole flaxseeds for better nutrient absorption.
In short, whether clients are going totally plant-based or simply looking to try new protein sources, plants proteins have a place.
— Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD, is a plant-based lifestyle strategist for families and a health/nutrition freelance writer in Colorado. She works to normalize veganism for all ages and advocates for a more ethical, sustainable, and nutritious food system. She can be found at www.chronicplanet.net or on Instagram @chronicplanet.