Healthy plant foods with protein like beans and nuts

Only 5 percent of Americans call themselves vegetarians, but more and more people are realizing the health and environmental benefits of replac­ing some of the meat in their diet with plant sources of protein.

According to a recent report by Mintel, a market research agency, 32 percent of those 55 and older are trying to eat more plant-based foods. Even among those who call themselves carnivores, 25 percent aim to increase their intake of such foods.

Numerous studies have linked diets that swap meat (especially red meat) for plant proteins, such as beans and nuts, with better heart health and an overall lower risk of dying early. A 2019 report in The Lancet found that if plant-based diets became the norm, it could prevent up to 11.6 million deaths per year globally and, the report stressed, help preserve water, soil, and energy resources.

Ready to start eating more plant-based foods but still have questions about how to do it right? We have the answers you need to eat well.

Do You Have to Stop Eating Meat?

Replacing even just a few meaty meals with meatless ones can lead to improve­ments in health, such as lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels and less fat around your middle. (Larger waistlines are associated with a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease.)

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A 2016 study of 131,342 people found that trading just 3 percent of calories from red meat for an equivalent amount of plant protein ­resulted in a 12 percent lower risk of dying from any cause. If plant protein ­replaced processed red meat—such as deli meat or hot dogs—it equated to a 34 percent lower risk of death.

A recent review published in the journal Circulation analyzed 36 studies comparing diets high in red meat with diets high in other types of animal and plant protein. The researchers found that eating plant protein in place of red meat ­resulted in a 10.20 mg/dL decrease in total cholesterol and a 7.65 mg/dL ­decrease in LDL (bad) cholesterol. But even swapping a single serving of red meat with an equivalent amount of nuts or soybeans resulted in improved cholesterol levels. And a 2018 study that compared a low-calorie vegetarian diet with a low-calorie Mediterranean diet, which includes moderate amounts of meat, poultry, and fish, found that the two were equally effective at promoting weight loss. 

Can You Get Enough Protein?

Yes. Although meat is very high in protein (a 3-ounce steak packs about 26 grams, for example), it’s not the only way to meet your protein goals. “Almost all plant foods have some protein—even fruits and vegetables,” says Dana Hunnes, Ph.D., R.D., senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. “But foods like beans, nuts, and soy are the most concentrated sources.” (See “10 High-Protein Plant Foods,” below.)

“Protein is essential for keeping your muscles strong—something that ­becomes even more important as you get older, ­because we do tend to lose some muscle mass as we age,” Hunnes says. And a 2019 study found that protein—­especially from plants—helps control the low-level inflammation that increases with age and contributes to disease. Older people should aim for at least 0.6 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day—about 90 grams for someone who weighs 150 pounds. (Exercise is also key for maintaining muscle.) 

Why Are Plant Proteins Good?

“A diet rich in plant-based foods helps provide a number of important nutrients that are lacking in the typical American diet,” says Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., R.D., a distinguished professor of nutrition at Penn State University in University Park, Pa.

Fiber—a nutrient many people fall short on—is one of them. Fiber does more than just keep you regular. It can help to lower cholesterol, regulate blood sugar, lower your risk of colorectal cancer, and prevent weight gain. 

Men older than 50 should have at least 30 grams of fiber per day; women, at least 21 grams. A 2014 study found that the ­average vegan diet (which includes no ­animal products) provides about 41 grams of fiber per day, and even a semi-vegetarian diet (defined as eating meat or fish no more than once a week) supplies about 34 grams. To give you an idea, 1 cup of cooked chickpeas has 13 grams of fiber, ½ cup of almonds has 9 grams, and 1 cup of cooked quinoa has 5 grams.

Plant-based diets are also rich in potassium and antioxidants, such as vitamin C and carotenoids. Potassium helps to regulate blood pressure, something that becomes increasingly impor­tant with age. (More than 60 percent of people 60 and older have high blood pressure, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.)

“Antioxidants help prevent the buildup of oxidized compounds in the body, which may be the precursors to chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s,” Kris-Etherton says. They also may help your skin protect itself from sun damage and premature signs of aging. 

Are All Plant-Based Diets Equally Healthy?

It’s as easy to load up on junk food and empty calories on a plant-based diet as it is on a meatier one.

“Unhealthy plant-based diets are as bad—if not worse—than the typical American diet,” Kris-Etherton says. “Replacing meat with nutrient-poor foods like french fries and sugar-­sweetened beverages is not beneficial.”

In some studies that compared high-quality plant-based ­diets (rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes) with low-quality ones (which included more fruit juice, ­refined grains, potatoes, and sweets), only the high-quality diets ­decreased the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

And although much of the current ­research has focused on the importance of replacing red meat with plant protein, a small study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition compared plant protein and white meat (such as poultry) with red meat. The researchers found that only the plant-based diet resulted in lower LDL cholesterol levels; choosing white meat over red had no positive impact on LDL cholesterol. 

How Can You Get Started?

“Your strategy for eating less meat should start by ridding your diet of processed meat and limiting red meat,” says Marta Guasch-Ferre, Ph.D., a research scientist in the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. Processed meat can be high in ­sodium and saturated fat, which can harm your heart. And research shows that eating just 1.8 ounces a day increases ­colon cancer risk by more than 15 percent.

When it comes to making protein-­rich, meat-free meals, Hunnes suggests beginning by adding plant protein to dishes you’re already familiar with. That could mean using less ground beef and more beans in chili, replacing half the meat in your Bolognese with tofu crumbles, or blending ground lentils or nuts into a burger patty. 

Try to go meatless one or two days a week, or aim for one or two meatless meals a day. “The key is to experiment ­until you find healthy plant-based foods you love,” Kris-Etherton says. “Then it won’t feel like a sacrifice to skip the meat.”

Replacing just a few meaty meals with meatless ones can lead to improvements in health, such as lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels. 

10 High-Protein Plant Foods

• Tempeh, 34 grams per cup
• Tofu, 21 grams per cup
• Edamame, 19 grams per cup
• Lentils, 18 grams per cup*
• Almonds, 15 grams per ½ cup
• Chickpeas, 15 grams per cup*
• Quinoa, 8 grams per cup*
• Peanut butter, 7 grams per 2 Tbsp.
• Wild rice, 7 grams per cup*
• Oatmeal, 6 grams per cup*

*Cooked

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the September 2019 issue of Consumer Reports On Health