Here is a quick intro to some of these meat-free options, plus some tips on how to enjoy them:
Tofu, otherwise known as bean curd, is made from soybeans. It’s been enjoyed in Japan for more than 2,000 years and contains all nine of the essential amino acids that your body cannot make on its own. One 3-ounce slice has 78 calories, 8.7 grams of protein, 2 grams of carbs and 0.8 grams of fiber. Tofu is also packed with minerals and vitamins like: iron, zinc, vitamin B, magnesium, selenium and potassium. While bland on its own, it absorbs the flavors of whatever you cook it in. It’s great in a stir-fry, baked and even grilled—just add a fun marinade or some teriyaki sauce. You can even scramble it with olive oil and nutritional yeast and eat it for breakfast in place of eggs.
Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans and is pressed into a block, like tofu. So in addition to giving you a high dose of protein – one 3-ounce serving contains 18 grams of protein – it also has some probiotic that may help with digestion. Tempeh is firmer than tofu and can be sautéed in a pan and added to a stir-fry or crumbled over a dish as a ground meat substitute.
Beans and lentils
Beans, like kidney beans, pinto beans, chickpeas and black beans, provide a multitude of benefits. “They offer protein, fiber, and many other nutrients,” says Amy Gorin, a plant-based registered dietitian and owner of Plant-Based Eats in Stamford, Connecticut. Research suggests that people who regularly eat beans are 22 percent less likely to be obese, versus people who don’t eat them. And bean eaters tend to have higher intakes of dietary fiber, magnesium, iron, potassium and copper than non-bean eaters.
The texture of lentils is similar to ground beef and can be added to stews and tacos. And chickpeas (also referred to as garbanzo beans) are delicious in salads.
“This is an underrated vegetarian protein but it’s a relatively low-calorie, high-protein vegan protein source,” says Gorin, who notes that seitan is also a source of iron. Gorin recommends cooking it in a stir-fry along with vegetables and serving it over a bowl of rice. But don’t eat this if you are gluten-sensitive, as seitan is made from hydrated gluten.
This tropical fruit from Asia, Africa and South America is a favorite among plant-based eaters. “While a serving only packs about 2 grams of protein, it’s loaded with potassium and vitamin C,” says Stacey Simon, a registered dietitian-nutritionist and owner of Stacey Simon Nutrition LLC. (Simon, S., RD, personal interview, Sept. 26) It’s a fun alternative to meat since it mimics the texture of pulled pork. You can purchase it canned or in plastic pouches. Sauté it in a skillet with olive oil and sprinkle it with taco seasoning for a taco meat alternative. Or top it with BBQ sauce and serve it on a bun as a meat-free pulled pork sandwich.
Nuts and seeds
“Nuts and seeds provide fiber, healthy fats, magnesium, vitamin E, and other nutrients,” explains Lubeck. These can be used as a snack or sprinkled on a salad to boost protein intake. You can incorporate scoops of almond or peanut butter into a smoothie or stir into a bowl of protein. You can also use walnuts to make a healthy taco meat mix. Here are four different recipes to try.
Quinoa is both a whole grain and a protein source. “These tiny grains offer about eight grams of protein per cup when cooked,” says Lubeck. You can swap it out for rice in regular recipes and even eat it like oatmeal with fresh fruit and some nut butter.
You may be surprised to know that many vegetables are packed with protein. “These include potatoes (5 grams of protein per potato), Brussels sprouts (6 grams of protein per cup), avocado (4 grams of protein per medium avocado), and mushrooms (3 grams of protein per 5 medium-size mushrooms),” says Lubeck.
Meat and seafood substitutes
If you head to the vegan section of your local grocery store, you’ll see products like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers. “These typically provide ample protein and can be served as a traditional burger or even as a topper to a salad,” says Gorin. Many of these brands also sell plant-based sausage or ground “meat.”
Companies like Gardein make plant-based chick’n strips, and Good Catch sells vegan seafood, like crab cakes and tuna, which are made from ingredients like peas, soy, lentils and chickpeas. You can enjoy these the same way you would eat traditional chicken breast or tuna – such as over a salad or in a sandwich.
“While these meat alternatives can be an overall okay option, less processed protein food sources are typically a better choice,” says Lubeck. Simon notes that Beyond Burgers and Impossible Burgers are good sources of protein. And Impossible Burgers even have B12, a vitamin that’s often lacking in vegetarian diets. “These plant based burgers are comparable in calories and saturated fat to beef, and are high in sodium (390 mg in the Beyond Burger patty, to be exact),” she shares.
So it’s generally fine to eat an occasional Beyond Burger but likely better to prioritize more natural foods like beans, chickpeas, walnuts, quinoa and tofu.
Ways to work plant-based eating into your life
Here are a few tips for making some quick and easy plant-based swaps:
Try Meatless Monday: This is a national movement that encourages people to forgo animal-based products for an entire day of vegan eating. Start small and choose one meal on Mondays to make plant-based. So instead of having beef tacos for lunch, you could try bean burritos. Then, gradually move towards making Mondays completely meat free. “Choose a new recipe to try ahead of time and then plan the rest of your meal around that plant-based recipe,” suggests Gorin.
Keep it simple: Rather than boiling your own dried beans, consider purchasing no-salt-added canned black beans for an excellent protein and iron boost. “Black beans mix well in homemade salsa, egg scrambles, tacos, casseroles, the list goes on,” says Mary Wirtz, a registered dietitian with the Mayo Clinic.
Don't be afraid to experiment: “If you are a rice enthusiast, quinoa (a higher protein whole-grain alternative) would be a great option to experiment with if you want to boost your protein intake,” Wirtz suggests. Try swapping out quinoa for rice in certain dishes – like stir fries and taco bowls – every now and then.
Make it easy: Many plant-based meats can be substituted for regular beef. “For example, plant-based beefless crumbles can be utilized in a spaghetti marinara sauce or taco meat,” Wirtz explains.
Build a bowl: Simon likes this recipe for a Mediterranean quinoa bowl: Scoop some quinoa into a bowl and top with white beans. Add your favorite veggies and top with a Greek yogurt dressing. You can also do black beans over the quinoa and top with guacamole and salsa to make it a taco bowl.
Have a plant-based BBQ: Beyond Burgers and Impossible Burgers can be heated in a skillet or cooked on the grill. Serve them on a bun with all your favorite burger condiments. Here’s a fun recipe for a Grilled Pineapple Beyond Burger.
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