By now you’ve surely heard researchers, nutritionists and perhaps even your friends praise plants: Diets that include more plant foods have been shown to lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer and more. Plant foods offer a source of protein, fiber and healthy fats, along with a host of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals.
The best part? You don’t have to completely give up meat to get these benefits. Adding a serving of plant-based protein to your diet even just a few days a week can have a big impact on your health. Start with these nine plant-based proteins:
This small dried bean is part of the pulse family and can be found in a variety of colors including green, red, yellow, orange and brown. Brown and green lentils are the most versatile, while yellow, red and orange tend to get mushy when cooked and are best added to soups or sauces. Lentils cook quickly (no soaking required), making them ideal for nutritious weeknight meals. Just 1 cup of cooked lentils has 18 grams of protein and 16 grams of fiber. This means they digest slowly and help keep you full. The protein and fiber in lentils is also linked to better blood sugar control, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, reduced risk of heart disease and colon cancer, and more. Try tossing them into leafy green or grain-based salads, sandwich wraps, veggie burgers, soups, stews or curry dishes, or eating them as a simple side dish.
Beans get lots of points for versatility: You can add them to pasta or grain-based meals, soups, salads, sauces or burgers. Or, try making a bean-based dip like hummus or black bean dip. Canned beans are great for quick meals when you don’t have much time to cook; just rinse and drain the beans before using them to get rid of some of the sodium. Dried beans require soaking prior to use, but they take on more flavor as they cook and are great to use when beans are the star of the dish. They’re also inexpensive, on average costing less than 16 cents per serving. A cup of cooked beans provides between 15 and 20 grams of protein. Similar to lentils, the fiber and protein in beans help with satiety, weight control and reducing your risk of many chronic diseases including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Soy is one of the few plant sources of complete protein, meaning it contains all nine of the essential amino acids. Edamame, or cooked soybeans, has 17 grams of protein per cup. It is also a good source of fiber and unsaturated fat. Sprinkle steamed edamame in pods with a little sea salt and enjoy it as an appetizer, or roast frozen edamame in the oven for a crunchy snack. Edamame can also be added to salads, stir-fries, tacos and more.
Tofu is made from curdled soy milk and comes in block form in a variety of consistencies, ranging from silken (very soft) to extra firm. Three ounces of firm tofu contains 8 grams of protein. Tofu has a very mild taste and takes on the flavor of whatever you’re making. Try marinating it in your favorite dressing or sauce then baking, grilling or sauteing it in a pan. Firm varieties are great when baked or pan-fried, while softer tofu can be added to smoothies for a protein boost or scrambled on the stovetop. Tofu is also a great addition to tacos or burgers.
Tempeh is a textured soy product made by fermenting cooked soybeans. It is a good source of probiotics, or naturally occurring healthy bacteria that come from the fermentation process. Tempeh has a firm, chewy texture, which makes it more similar to animal proteins and can be appealing if you don’t like the soft texture of tofu. Tempeh comes in flat, rectangular-shaped cakes and tastes nutty and sweet. Each 3-ounce serving has 16 grams of protein. Cut tempeh into cubes and stir-fry it with veggies or use the whole cake and bake or grill it. Like tofu, tempeh absorbs flavors easily, so it’s a versatile addition to many dishes.
6. Hemp Seeds
These tiny seeds are a good source of plant-based protein as well as omega-3 anti-inflammatory and heart-healthy fats. They have a subtle nutty flavor and their small size allows them to be easily added to recipes to boost the protein and fat content. Three tablespoons of hemp seeds provide 10 grams of protein. You can toss them into smoothies, oatmeal or yogurt, sprinkle them on top of salads, stir or blend them into soups or stews, add them to dips, dressings or hummus, or use them in desserts or baked goods like muffins.
7. Chia Seeds
The word “chia” comes from the Mayan word for “strength” since Aztec warriors used chia seeds to boost their energy and stamina. Chia seeds are an excellent source of fiber and protein, with 2 tablespoons providing 6 grams of protein and 12 grams of fiber. Like hemp seeds, chia seeds are a plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats help to reduce inflammation in the body, boost brain function and lower cholesterol. Chia seeds absorb water and turn into a gel-like substance, making them a super satiating food. Unlike flax seeds, chia seeds can be eaten whole and their mild flavor makes them a versatile addition to meals. Stir them into hot or cold oats, toss them into smoothies, sprinkle them on top of cold cereal or yogurt, or soak them in your favorite milk to make chia seed pudding.
Quinoa is often considered a whole grain, but it is technically a seed, which is why a single cup of cooked quinoa contains 8 grams of protein – more than any other grain. It has a crunchy texture and nutty flavor. Quinoa is gluten-free, so it’s a good choice for people who are allergic to wheat. Cooked quinoa makes a great alternative to oatmeal in the morning, or you can toss it into green salads, make a grain-based salad or side dish, and use as a base for a stir-fry instead of rice.
Almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, pistachios, cashews and more – all nuts are rich in protein, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals. Each nut provides varying amounts of vitamins and minerals, so eat a variety of nuts to get the most nutrition benefits. The serving size for most nuts is 1/4 cup, which contains between 7 and 9 grams of protein. Add nuts to oatmeal, smoothies and yogurt, or toss them into salads, grain dishes or burgers to boost the protein and healthy fat content. You can also make your own nut butter by blending your favorite nut in a food processor until smooth. I love using different types of nuts to make muesli and granola.