Plant Proteins—A Delicious Way to Eat Healthy

From The Lecture Series: The Everyday Gourmet—Making Healthy Food Taste Great

By Chef Instructor Bill Briwa, The Culinary Institute of America & Connie Guttersen, Ph.D., The Culinary Institute of America

While dietary proteins may not be your major source of fuel (like carbohydrates), they can be a source of energy within your body, and they can also play an important role in your health. Contrary to what many people believe, it’s easy to extract flavor out of plant proteins, and this article will teach you how to do so.

Healthy plant vegan food, veggie protein sources: Tofu, vegan milk, beans, lentils, nuts, soy milk, spinach and seeds
(Image: Rimma Bondarenko/Shutterstock)

Balancing Plant and Animal Protein

Modern large-scale studies that are being published are alluding to the importance of the balance between lean animal protein and nutrient-rich plant protein. For example, the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals’ Follow-Up Study found compelling evidence that eating a plant-based diet can actually reduce the risk of heart disease. Emerging science from these same studies also finds that eating nuts and fish can decrease your type 2 diabetes, but at the same time, eating a large amount of processed foods will increase your risk of type 2 diabetes.

animal versus plant proteins: one plate with beef, eggs, salmon, cheese and chicken grill and another with nuts, mushrooms, broccoli, lentil, hummus and quinoa
Studies have shown the importance of having a balance between lean animal protein and nutrient-rich plant protein(Image: Skydive Erick/Shutterstock)

Research shows that excessive amounts of protein that are out of balance in the daily meals that you eat can actually upset the delicate balance of calcium within your bones. Other evidence suggests that too much protein in your diet puts excessive strain on the function of your kidneys.

Protein has been found to help people achieve a trimmer waist and to minimize the loss of lean muscle mass that everyone experiences as they age. Many high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets—or even high-protein, no-carbohydrate diets—promise immediate weight loss, but the research doesn’t support the success of these types of diets for long-term weight loss. If you’re eating a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, you miss out on opportunities to eat healthy carbohydrates.

This is a transcript from the video series The Everyday Gourmet — Making Healthy Food Taste Great. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Learn more about the importance of nutritious cooking for a healthy and happy lifestyle

Sources of Plant Protein

There is an abundant source of dietary protein in just about all of the foods that you eat. The trick is achieving a natural balance between animal sources and plant protein.

Greek yogurt actually contains the highest amount of protein compared to any other yogurt.

Animal sources of protein include dairy, lean meats, and cheeses. For example, Greek yogurt contains eight essential amino acids, which qualify it as a complete protein—a protein that has a high biological value. It is a great option within the animal sources of protein. It is often tricky to consume animal sources of protein that don’t provide too much saturated fat, but it is important to focus on consuming lean sources of protein that have high biological value.

Plant protein sources provide a much broader range than animal sources, and the possibilities are almost endless because they are found in a wide variety of foods. However, plant proteins are incomplete proteins—which does not necessarily mean that they are less healthy or that they have less protein.

Soy beans and soy milk
Soy is an excellent source of protein that has high biological value. (Image: Freedom Life/Shutterstock)

They are incomplete in the sense of not always containing all of the eight essential amino acids; they are often missing a few of these amino acids. There are a few exceptions, however. Soy, for example, contains the eight essential amino acids and is an excellent source of protein that has high biological value. Another example is quinoa, which is perfect for semi-vegetarian or strict vegan diets because it contains the eight essential amino acids.

Proteins from plants provide added health benefits beyond protein, including B vitamins, fiber, and vital chemicals that are typically not found in animal sources. Beans—including black beans and white beans—are the vegetable with the most protein and contain healthy compounds that come from antioxidants.

An ounce of nuts has as much protein as an ounce of meat (Image: Dionisvera/Shutterstock)

Nuts are another great source of protein. Although they don’t contain the eight essential amino acids, an ounce of nuts has as much protein as an ounce of meat. Relying on plant proteins—striving to pick high-quality protein that has high biological value—and focusing on reaping the benefits of the entire package of the plant is really smart eating.

Learn more about ordinary foods whose health benefits make them extraordinary

Using Plant Proteins to Make Latin Barley Salad

Ingredients: Barley, Corn and Spices

  • cilantro
  • lemon zest, finely chopped
  • parsley
  • barley
  • corn
  • oil
  • cherry tomatoes, halved
  • pine nuts, toasted
  • cheese, such as parmesan or queso añejo
  • onions, chopped
  • salt
  • ground black pepper
  • jalapeños or hot sauce
  • olive oil
  • lemon juice

Cooking Instructions

To make a barley salad that has a distinctive Latin bend to its flavor profile, start by adding some cilantro, finely chopped zest from the outside of a lemon, and parsley to a bowl that contains barley. Then, put some corn into a hot pan with a little bit of oil and cook it until it begins to brown. That will give the corn a popcorn flavor. The other way to get that flavor is to roast a whole ear of corn on the grill.

Be careful not to leave corn in the pan so long that it begins to get dry and hard or that it gets so dark that it becomes bitter.

Start to finish, the corn should not take much more than a minute to a minute and a half to brown. You want the color to be a light golden brown. When the aroma is full, it is a good sign that the corn is properly browned, and you can add it to the barley mixture. Then, cut some cherry tomatoes in half and add those as well.

Barley is a whole grain, and corn is a fresh grain. Toasted pine nuts carry a lot of protein, and the combination of nuts and grains results in a complete protein. Add some toasted pine nuts and a small amount of a full-flavored cheese (such as parmesan or queso añejo), which brings protein to the mix as well. Finally, add some chopped onions and stir.

Season the barley salad with salt and pepper. In a Latin salad like this, you can add a jalapeño or a little bit of hot sauce if you like your food spicy. Dress the salad with olive oil, a good-quality fat that is healthy. Then, squeeze lemon juice from an entire lemon over the top of the salad and stir everything together.

Learn More: Protein—Understanding Your Choices

Common Questions About Plant Proteins

Q: What are some of the best plant proteins?

There are a massive number of very high protein plant products, some of the best being legumes such as soybeans and lentils, nuts or seeds including nut and seed butters, and grains like quinoa and amaranth and especially the powerhouse teff. Green vegetables such as green peas, broccoli, and spinach are packed with protein as well.

Q: Is animal protein superior to plant protein?

The question comes down to complete proteins, which have all 9 essential acids the body needs. Plant proteins generally need to be combined, which means eating a variety. Variety is one of the staples of healthy eating so that trace minerals and nutrients are also attained. Animal protein often contains all 9 essential aminos; however, it comes at the cost of large-scale environmental destruction, hormones and antibiotics in the meat from livestock, and higher cholesterol levels in those who eat it.

Q: Can body muscle be built with plant protein?

You can absolutely build muscle with plant protein. The science proves it, and there are vegan or vegetarian bodybuilders and fighters who only use plant protein and plant protein supplements such as pea protein for protein shakes. And no, there is no pea taste.

Q: Do any plants contain complete proteins?

Yes, there are many complete-protein-containing plants. Some of the major ones are quinoa, teff, buckwheat, and soy.

This article was updated on 8/7/2019

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