Experts have long known that protein is an essential beauty nutrient, helping to replenish skin cells and keep hair and nails growing and healthy. Now there are more ways than ever to get the essential proteins your body needs, and all of them can come from plants. The Vegetarian Proteins can be as powerful as the ones from animal sources.
Grocery stores and online specialty shops offer a stunning range of beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains that are high in protein and satiating fiber, low in cost and absolutely luscious. With benefits that go way beyond the cosmetic, these proteins may cut your risk for heart disease and cancer, and they help the planet as well.
“It’s cheaper and healthier to eat vegetarian proteins, because they don’t contain saturated animal fat and the contaminants of production-fed meat,” says Paulette Lambert, director of nutrition at the California Health & Longevity Institute, who advocates quasi-vegetarian diets to help the environment. “Eating one vegetarian meal a week as a family saves 21,000 gallons of water a year.”
Here’s a guide to some of the fashionable and affordable proteins that can add new flavor to your culinary staples.
Bored with black beans and kidney beans? Expand your legume repertoire. Top chefs, like Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame, are turning to heirloom beans that have been cultivated for centuries without genetic modification and are now being rediscovered and replanted. There are about 10,000 varieties of legumes, carrying exotic names such as Tongues of Fire, so you’ll never have trouble finding something novel to try.
Consider dense Yellow Indian Woman beans and Good Mother Stallard beans, a meaty chef favorite. Both are available at ranchogordo.com for $4.95 a pound and offered at some of the top restaurants in the country. They’re easy to prepare and great for soups, chili and spreads.
You can order fruity Moon beans and creamy Red Scarlet Runner beans at Nativeseeds. Or visit Zursunbeans to explore a wide selection that includes marbled chestnut-flavored Jackson Wonders, which date back to 1888 and are delicious when cooked simply with butter, garlic and fresh herbs.
Loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients, beans help manage blood glucose levels and weight. You’ll find basic cooking directions as well as recipes for soups, stews, dips, chili and bean salads on each of the retail Web sites. Or check out the Heirloom Beans cookbook, co-written by Rancho Gordo founder Steve Sando, with an introduction by Keller.
Healthy Whole Grains
Most people think of them merely as carbohydrates, but grains can also pack a powerful protein punch. The ancient grain quinoa, considered sacred by the Incas in the Andes of South America, contains more protein than any other grain. What’s more, quinoa is a complete protein, which means it has all the essential amino acids for building muscle, skin and bone. With a wonderful nutty flavor, quinoa can be used as a substitute for rice or couscous.
The cereal-like herb amaranth, grown mainly in Asia and Latin America, is also a complete protein. Buy it in bulk for $2 to $3 per pound and use it as a flour substitute for baked goods. Or try buckwheat, sometimes referred to as kasha, which is found in such traditional Jewish foods as knishes and blintzes, Russian pancakes called blinis and in Japanese soba noodles. Buckwheat is not only high in protein and essential amino acids, but it has also been shown to help lower blood glucose levels and cholesterol.
Teff, another high-protein grain from Ethiopia, is used to make that country’s fermented flatbread, called injera. It can be used as a flour substitute in pancakes and breads. Barley, spelt and kamut are also great grains for protein, although it’s best to mix them with other plant proteins, such as nuts, to get all your essential amino acids.
If you’re seeking a veggie alternative that has a meaty texture and versatility, tofu is not the only option. Try meat-like substitutes such as tempeh, made from fermented soy, and seitan, also known as “wheat meat.” They’re both perfect for stir-fry.
Jenny Hontz is an investigative reporter and lifestyle writer for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Details, Harper’s Bazaar, Sunset, People, Health, Shape and InStyle.