Protein is an essential macronutrient. It has numerous functions in the body, including tissue repair, muscle building, enzyme function, and more. 1 2 3 You may have heard of both ”complete proteins” and “incomplete proteins.” Protein is made up of amino acids, and complete proteins are those that contain all nine essential amino acids, while incomplete proteins contain fewer essential amino acids. 4 Animal proteins are complete proteins, and most plant sources are deficient in some amino acids, with the exception of soybeans and pea protein. 5
There is no debate that protein is necessary for a healthy diet, but many people are seeking an alternative to animal protein, either as a supplement, for religious or ethical reasons, or for planetary health. There are many plant-based proteins that provide nutritional options for vegetarians, vegans, or those looking to reduce animal products in their diet. When it comes to protein in your diet, it is important to make sure that you are getting all nine essential amino acids. If you are eating strictly plant-based foods, the trick to ensuring a balanced and complete diet is to get your protein from a variety of plant-based sources.
Why Choose Plant-Based Protein?
There are a number of reasons why people may be interested in limiting or cutting meat and other animal products from their diet, ranging from environmental and ethical reasons to health reasons. Research shows that a plant-based diet may be linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and could play a role in cancer prevention. 6 7
It is important to note that many commercially-prepared, plant-based proteins are highly processed and do not contain significant nutritional value. Keep in mind that just because something is plant-based does not automatically make it a healthier option. Instead, choose nutritional plant-based proteins prepared with methods that do not minimize health benefits. Make sure to consume a variety of plant proteins in order to get all of the essential amino acids necessary to make up a complete protein. Some vegetarians and vegans find it helpful to supplement the B vitamins and amino acids found in animal sources to ensure they do not become deficient in vital nutrients.
Plant Proteins to Try
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Tofu is made from soybean curds that are pressed together, and can be found in soft, firm, and extra firm varieties. Tofu has a substantive texture and is relatively flavorless on its own, but effectively absorbs and takes on the flavors around it, making it a great choice for marinades and sauces. Tofu is a good source of iron and calcium; organic sources are best. 8
Like tofu, tempeh is also soybean based. It is made from cooked, somewhat fermented soybeans that are compressed together. Tempeh has a savory, earthy flavor that some people find similar to the taste of mushrooms. Tempeh is a good source of iron, calcium, probiotics, and B vitamins. 9 When choosing soy-based products, organic versions should be selected, as conventionally grown soy is GMO and a crop typically sprayed with large amounts of pesticides.
Pea protein is getting more press lately because it is a main ingredient in popular meatless products. Pea protein can be purchased in powder form to add to your home recipes. This protein option is extracted from yellow peas and is naturally vegan, dairy and gluten free, making it a popular alternative to other protein powders. Pea protein is a good source of fiber, iron, potassium, and calcium. 10
Beans are a good source of incomplete protein and come in many varieties, making them a versatile ingredient that can be added to all sorts of recipes, such as salads, wraps, chili, soups, and stews. In addition to protein, beans are a great source of fiber, folate, iron, manganese, and potassium. 11 12
This comfort-food recipe is satisfying, savory, and hearty. Baking the tofu gives it a firm, chewy texture. For a completely plant-based version of this recipe, use non-dairy butter, milk, and sour cream options.
Recipe courtesy of Bastyr University.
- 2 lb organic tofu
- 1⁄4 cup tamari
- 1⁄4 cup water
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1 large onion, minced
- 2 tbsp unbleached flour
- 1 1⁄4 cup milk (or non-dairy alternative)
- 1 cup sour cream (or non-dairy alternative)
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1 lb mushrooms, sliced
- 3⁄4 cup olive oil (divided)
- 1 lb egg noodles, rice noodles, or pasta of your choice
- 1 tbsp chopped parsley
- to taste salt
- to taste pepper
Cut tofu into 3/4-inch cubes and saute in half the oil, making sure all sides are evenly browned. Remove from the pan and drain. Place the tofu in a 12-inch baking pan with the tamari and water and bake for approximately 1 hour, stirring every 20 minutes.
Sauté the onion in the butter until browned. Add flour and sauté 1 minute; add milk and cook until thickened. Remove from heat and let cool for about 10 minutes. Add sour cream and mustard.
Reserving 1 tablespoon of oil, sauté the mushrooms in the remaining oil until brown; add cooked mushrooms to sauce. Add tofu and salt and pepper to taste.
Bring 3 quarts of lightly salted water to a rolling boil, add noodles. Cook until done. Drain and coat lightly with remaining oil. Spoon sauce over noodles and garnish with chopped parsley.