Plant-based eating is on the rise, for both health and environmental reasons. Some research links vegetarian and vegan diets with better protection against heart disease and cancer—but you don’t need to give up meat entirely to reap the health and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet.
In a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, Toronto researchers found that replacing 1 to 2 servings of animal protein with plant-based protein every day resulted in about a 4 percent decrease in the three main cholesterol markers: LDL (“lousy” cholesterol), non-HDL (total cholesterol minus HDL or “healthy” cholesterol) and apolipoprotein B (artery-clogging proteins). Soy, nuts and pulses contain components such as soluble fibre, plant sterols, and healthy fats, which in and of themselves lower cholesterol, and consuming these foods displaces the meat (and saturated fat) that you would otherwise be eating. While this decrease may seem modest, when the reduction of about 4 percent in each of the three markers is added together, the effect is quite significant.
If you’re looking to eat more plant-based sources of protein, you’ll want to know which foods are going to satisfy you and keep you full. Here’s a primer:
Soy is the only plant source that is a complete protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids. In the case of other plant proteins, various sources provide different amino acids, and only when combined do they make a complete protein.
Tofu packs 13 grams of protein per 85-gram serving (this will vary by brand and variety). It comes in different textures: silken (best used as a pudding-style dessert, added to a smoothie or pureed into sauces like a caesar salad dressing), soft (nice in miso soup or as an appetizer), medium (pan-fry it or try it in a scramble) and firm/extra-firm (marinate it, then pan-fry, toss it in a stir-fry, try it roasted, or use it in a curry).
Edamame—fresh soybeans—have 9 grams of protein per ½ cup. Buy it frozen, either in the pod or pre-shelled. For an easy snack, steam the pods in the microwave with a splash of water for about 2 minutes, then sprinkle with sea salt. You can also add shelled beans to soups and stir-fries, steam them and toss into salads, or whirl them into a dip.
Tempeh is made from whole soybeans that are partially cooked, then fermented and formed into a dense loaf. It sometimes has a white layer on the outside (which is totally safe to eat). With a satisfying, chewy texture, it offers up 15 grams of protein per 85-gram serving, as well as healthy gut probiotics. It marinates nicely, then you can grill, pan-fry or roast it. Eat it on a sandwich, chop it and use it like bacon bits in a salad, grate it and use in place of ground beef in chili or spaghetti sauce, or try our tempeh superfood burger. Find it in health food stores and some grocery stores (even PC Blue Label makes a variety now).
Soy milk has 8 grams of protein per cup (more than any other non-dairy beverage). Try it in smoothies or on your cereal, but avoid flavoured varieties that can contain a lot of added sugar.
Veggie ground (or veggie crumble) is made predominantly of soy protein with various flavourings added. At 9 grams of protein per 1/3 cup serving, it can be used anywhere you’d normally use ground beef. It’s great for chili, tacos or spaghetti sauce, and it goes mostly undetected by meat-eaters. Look for it by the tofu and veggie burgers, near the produce section of your grocery store.
With plenty of fibre and 10 grams of protein in ½ a cup, lentils are sure to fill you up. Dried lentils are cheap, fast and easy to cook, but for even more convenience you can buy them canned. Red, brown, green and specialty varieties offer tons of variety and versatility. Lentils are fantastic in burger patties, lentil curry over brown rice, lentil bolognese, a pot pie, or in grain bowls. For satisfying lunch, try a hearty lentil soup with a whole grain roll.
Chickpeas provide 7 grams of protein in ½ a cup, and are an easy way to turn any salad or grain bowl into a complete meal (drain and rinse to remove excess sodium). Try chickpea burgers, or a Moroccan stew. Spread hummus (about 5 grams of protein in ¼ cup) on sandwiches instead of using deli meat, or snack on hummus cups with crackers and baby carrots. Stuff whole-wheat pitas with store-bought falafel, spinach and chopped veggies. Roasted chickpeas make for a satisfyingly crunchy snack, and chickpea flour turns into tasty, protein-rich pancakes.
Black beans, kidney beans, navy beans, white beans (you get the idea…) all contain about 8 grams of protein in ½ cup. Chilis, soups and stews are beans’ best friends, but you can also make them into dips, nachos, rice dishes, toppings for toast or even gratins. Use refried beans (homemade or store-bought) in quesadillas, burritos and tacos.
Nuts and Nut Butters
Almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, peanuts, etc., provide about 6 grams of protein in a ¼ cup, and nut butters provide 5 to 8 grams in 2 tbsp. Stash nuts at your desk or in your purse for snacking (but keep portions in check—one small, closed fistful is enough). Dollop a spoonful of peanut butter into your oatmeal, or top whole grain toast with almond butter and sliced banana. Pack containers of trail mix or make energy balls with nut butter, oats and dried fruit for snacks that will keep you fuelled. Use a quick cashew or peanut butter dressing in stir-fries or grain bowls.
Seeds and Seed Butters
Sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, flaxseed, hemp seeds, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, etc., have around 6 grams of protein in 2 tbsp, and seed butters such as tahini have 5 grams per 2-tbsp serving. Try making chia pudding for breakfasts and snacks and top with thawed frozen cherries. Top cereal or yogurt with pumpkin seeds. Blend flax or chia seeds into your morning smoothie. Toss sunflower seeds into your salad, or toasted sesame seeds into your stir-fry. Tahini dressing on roasted vegetables is to die for.
Whole grains are an important part of plant-based eating. Per ½ cup serving, quinoa provides 4 grams of protein, brown rice 3 grams, oats 3.5 grams, buckwheat 3 grams, and farro 4 grams. Try batch-cooking steel-cut oatmeal for filling breakfasts, and quinoa, brown rice or farro to use as the base for quick meals throughout the week. Grain bowls are perfect plant-based work lunches.
A lesser-known option, “SAY-tan” is made from wheat protein (a.k.a. gluten) and at 21 grams per 85-gram portion, it’s very high in protein. Its texture is similar to meat, and it can take on a variety of different flavours depending on what ingredients it’s prepared with. Slice and serve on sandwiches, in tacos, add to stir-fries or use in dishes like grilled marinated kebabs because of its distinct texture. Look for it in Asian supermarkets, specialty grocers and most health food stores. You can also make your own.
An inactive form of yeast, this flaky yellow powder is a cheesy-tasting flavour-enhancer that packs 4 grams of protein per 2 tbsp, and a whole lot of B vitamins. Use it to top popcorn, add to soups, risotto or other dishes you’d normally use parmesan cheese in.