If you’re thinking of barbequing this weekend, hamburgers and hotdogs may be the obvious choice, but don’t feel restricted to processed meat as your only option. Tofu dogs and veggie burgers can be convenient, tasty alternatives and are much lower in saturated fat and cholesterol.
A couple of decades ago, you would have been hard pressed to find vegetarian hotdogs and burgers in many supermarkets, but now these products, and many other plant-based proteins, are available in most grocery stores, in a variety of flavours. The public’s demand for more vegetarian options seems to only be growing. And why wouldn’t it? A plant-based diet can help to lower your risk of chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease, and help to manage weight and improve overall health.
Despite those important potential benefits, there are still considerations to be made when choosing plant over animal proteins. Any diet that restricts or eliminates food categories will create an increased risk for deficiencies. By cutting back on animal proteins, greater consideration needs to be placed on the variety of protein sources in your diet.
To provide some background: proteins are made-up of chains of amino acids; some are produced by the body, and others are not. The ones not produced by the body are called essential amino acids because they need to be consumed in your diet. A lack of these essential amino acids could lead to a breakdown of the body’s proteins, including muscle. Unlike fat, the human body does not store excess amino acids; they need to be consumed in food every day. All plant proteins contain some essential amino acids but most are deficient in at least one, so it’s important to include a variety of plant-proteins throughout the day to ensure you’re meeting your daily requirements.
Plant-based, protein-rich foods include tofu, seeds, nuts and nut butters as well as legumes such as kidney beans, red and green lentils, split peas, chickpeas, black beans, navy beans, and black-eyed peas.
Deficiencies in iron, zinc, calcium, vitamins D and B12 can be associated with plant-based diets, but eating an assortment of plant proteins, vegetables and grains will help you meet these requirements.
Besides the potential health benefits, plant-based proteins can often be less expensive than their animal-based alternatives, especially if you’re buying dried beans in bulk and cooking them yourself.
If you’re considering including more plant-based proteins in your diet, an easier way to get started would be to simply substitute a plant-based protein for your regular meat alternative. Swap beans for hamburger in burritos, lentils for beef in soup and tofu for chicken in stir-fries. Or even swap half the meat in your normal recipe for a plant protein.
Including more plant-based proteins in your diet doesn’t have to mean eating foods you don’t like; it can be an opportunity to experiment with unfamiliar flavours. Beans, tofu and lentils have a mild flavour and can handle a heavier hand with herbs and spices. Choosing pre-prepared foods such as hummus or black bean burgers are also good options, with added convenience.
If you’re interested in including more plant-based proteins into your diet, look for recipes and inspiration at www.cookspiration.com.
— Kelsey Leckovic is a registered dietitian with Northern Health working in chronic disease management.