First and foremost, plant-based proteins are better for you, your pocketbook, and the planet.
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cashew-chickpea salad with cabbage slaw
Credit: Ryan Liebe

Like meat and fish, beans and lentils offer protein to help you build muscles and regulate hormones, but they're also full of fiber, and more affordable—with less environmental impact—than meat. In fact, "various types of beans are the cornerstone of every longevity diet in the world," says Daniel Buettner, author of The Blue Zones ($19.96, amazon.com), who researches communities where people stay healthy to age 100. Dried legumes (a term covering beans and lentils) may need a soak before cooking; canned can be tossed right into salads or curries. Seek brands labeled "low sodium"or "sodium free"; avoid those with nitrates.

If you're ready to pivot towards an eating style that includes more plant-based proteins, consider our favorites, outlined here.

Key Players

Mighty plant-based proteins will energize you all day. Our favorites? Chickpeas, seeds (including sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower), peas (like split, black-eyed, and yellow-eyed), lentils, and tempeh. Here, we explain how to enjoy each.

Chickpeas

Each orb contains protein, folate, manganese, and all but one of the essential amino acids. They're not just for hummus, add chickpeas to stews, soups, and salads like our Cashew-Chickpea Salad with Cabbage Slaw, pictured above. Did we say "salad"? This meal is more like a flavor rave, pulsating with color and crunch. It's also a lesson in synergy. When eaten in combination, vitamin C–rich fruits like mandarin oranges and strawberries help make the iron in greens and nuts more bioavailable. Chickpeas and cashews provide protein, and you should eat at least five servings a week of something cruciferous, like the cabbage in the slaw. This family, which includes kale, broccoli, and bok choy, is rich in vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Cabbage also has glucosinolates, which may help prevent cancer. "Nobody respects cabbage enough," says Blatner.

Sesame, Pumpkin, and Sunflower Seeds

Sprinkle them on just about anything to add protein and crunch.

Split, Black-Eyed, and Yellow-Eyed Peas

Simmer any of these fiber-laden legumes into hearty stews.

Lentils

Toss green ones into a salad, red into a soup, or yellow into a creamy dal—they're all low in fat and high in vitamin B. But the Le Puy variety of green lentils wins for most protein, at 36 grams a cup.

Tempeh

Fermented soybeans pressed into a nutty, chewy cake, this wonder has fiber and healthy prebiotics in addition to protein. You can sear it like steak, crumble it like ground beef, or layer sautéed slices into a sandwich (banh mi, baby!).

The Bottom Line on Rice and Beans

Together they form a complete protein, since each contains amino acids the other lacks. But their relationship isn't totally codependent. "As long as you eat a varied diet, you don't need both in one meal," explains registered dietitian nutritionist Maya Feller, MS, CDN. If you have plant proteins and whole grains on different days, your body combines them. The more types of both you eat, the better.

Art Direction by James Maikowski; Food Styling by Laura Rege; Prop Styling by Tanya Graff

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