How to Incorporate More Beans and Plant-Based Proteins into Your Diet

Here's how to take the first steps of your plant-based, bean-filled journey.

Plant-based diets have never been more popular. Science shows us there are benefits to this fibre-packed diet pattern, including lower rates of heart disease and both breast and colon cancer. And, if you’re worried about getting enough protein, legumes and beans are the perfect answer—along with a balanced diet of whole grains, vegetables, nuts seeds fruits, and healthy fats. But what does plant-based eating entail, and how do you get started if this whole idea is brand-spanking new to you?

(Related: 24 Plant-Based Dinner Recipes to Make in Quarantine and Beyond)

What is plant-based eating?

The good news is that you’ve already started! If your diet contains anything that does not come from an animal, then you’re enjoying plant-based meals right now. Fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains are all plant-based foods. The purpose of plant-based eating is to include these foods more often. Some people may continue to consume their usual amounts of meat, fish, and other animal products; others may replace such food entirely with plant-based options. Plant-based foods contain a variety of nutrients that can meet your nutrition needs just as much as a diet with animal products.

(Related: What Is Plant-Based Protein and How to Add More to Your Diet)

What are the main benefits of eating more plants?

Health: Eating more plant-based food is associated with lower risk of chronic diseases and can also help with managing abdominal fat—all while still providing the nutrients your body needs.

Environmental: Farming livestock uses up massive amounts of land and water resources, making plant-based foods, and in particular plant-based proteins, a more sustainable food source than meat and poultry. Animal production also causes excessive amounts of pollution. And, the current rate of population growth makes it impossible to feed the world with animal protein alone.

Cost: While this obviously varies depending on what you’re buying and where you’re buying it, balanced plant-based diets can be created at a reasonable cost. Plant-based proteins such as dried beans and lentils are a fraction of the cost of most animal protein products. Learning to shop seasonally and effectively using plant-based foods can also cut down on your food waste.

(Related: These Plant-Based Products Are Having a Negative Impact on the Environment)

What are plant-based proteins?

Plant-based proteins are a specific category of plant foods that contain protein. And there are a lot of them! Legumes such as lentils, beans and peas, nuts, tofu, and tempeh, are specifically good sources, but protein is also found in whole grains such as steel-cut oats and whole wheat. Eating a variety of these foods can meet some or all of your protein needs. Plant-based proteins are also a great way to add this nutrient without the additional saturated fat that is commonly found in all animal products. Bonus: plant-based proteins like black beans and lentils will also increase your daily fibre intake.

It’s true that animal products contain “complete” proteins—in that they have all of the essential amino acids that humans can’t make, and therefore need to eat in their diets. Luckily, different types of plants contain different amino acids and eating a variety of them, even at separate meals over time , can still give you all the amino acids you need to meet your protein needs. The key is to maintain a diverse diet.

(Related: 6 High-Protein Plant-Based Meals This Nutritionist Loves)

Does this mean going vegetarian or vegan?

Only if you want it to. Animal products have many benefits and can fit into a balanced diet. But if you want to take the plunge into vegetarian, pescatarian or vegan diets, you can usually do so and still get all of the nutrition you need. What exactly you restrict or allow is up to you. Many people do variations on these diets and choose to still eat eggs, dairy, or fish.

The main challenge here is planning. You’ll want to be proactive about picking meals that make up for key nutrients, such as protein, iron, and Vitamin B12, that are much easier to get through animal products. To make sure you’re getting enough iron, try plant-based foods such as legumes and tofu. There are also many fortified products on the market, such as plant-based “milk,” that will sometimes add Vitamin B12 as well. Do your research, and check out some of our vegetarian and vegan meal plans as well.

(Related: How Does This Trendy Plant-Based Egg Compare to the Real Thing?)

What are some examples of plant-based, protein-rich foods?

1. Grains

This group often gets neglected because of the plethora of low-carb diets out there, but whole, intact grains provide a protein-energy punch. Typical bread and pasta are made with wheat flour, and whole wheat contains fibre, vitamins, and protein. But it’s just the beginning of the whole grain category. Think also: rice, oats, barley, bulgur, quinoa, amaranth, teff, rye buckwheat, and many more varieties of flour. Many of these are quite high in protein and fibre, which help to keep you full, making many meals and snacks more satisfying.

(Related: 19 Oat Recipes for Every Time of Day)

2. Legumes

Legumes are by far the most protein-rich, high-fibre, calorie-efficient way to get protein from plants. This category includes beans, peas, and lentils in all their forms. But in their whole form—meaning when they are not ground and/or crushed—beans provide the most protein.

If you haven’t cooked beans before, the easiest way to start is with canned beans! They are industrially pressure-cooked and can be found in no-salt versions. You simply open the can, and because they are already cooked, you can easily add and create any meal.

Once you do get the hang of it, cooking beans from scratch is easy and economical. It is important to break down the natural sugars in beans and lentils, so they don’t cause digestive distress, and this is best done with a pressure cooker, slow-cooker or instant-pot. This additional pressure breaks down the natural sugars quickly and shortens cooking time.

Otherwise, soak your beans overnight, throw out that water the next day and extend cooking time on the stove top. For lentils, rinse, and then cook with a 3:1 ratio of water for 15-20 minutes. Beans take a little longer as they require a good soak to cook evenly. If you can, rinse, then soak overnight in a covered bowl with about 2 times the water. Then drain that liquid, cover with water in a pot and bring to a boil and cook.

Many legumes are now also processed into other popular foods. Often these are pureed or ground into flour, similar to other grains that are added to pasta and bread. You can use these flours for baking and they’re often found in gluten-free products—something fun that you can experiment with too!

Beans are more versatile than just your typical baked or chili dishes. They can be the main protein of your stew or curry, roasted as a snack, baked into brownies, pureed into dips, added to salads, tortillas, or wraps—and that’s just the start.

Small but mighty, lentils are a great addition to your meals. An easy way to start using them is to replace half of your ground meat in any recipe with lentils. The consistency is so similar you’ll barely notice the difference in your chili, shepherd’s pie, or sloppy joes. They’re also great as the star of soups, dahls, sauces, or stews.

Peas are a member of the legume family, and contain protein, iron, fibre, and zinc. Split peas are regular peas that are dried and have the outer skin removed, and act more similar to lentils when cooked. Peas are great in soups, dal, and can be used to create little fritters as well.

(Related: 6 Types of Beans to Meet Your Protein Needs)

3. Nuts

Nuts are high in protein, fibre, and healthy fats. They’re also incredibly versatile. Include them in your diet as a snack, throw them into a curry or salad or use them to form the basis of many creamy vegan dishes. It’s better to opt for unsalted when you’re buying them—you can always roast and flavor them yourself (it will almost always end up being less sodium content than the store-bought versions). A standard portion size of nuts is about ¼ cup.

(Here’s what to know about the health benefits of hazelnuts, walnuts, macadamia, and Brazil nuts.)

4. Seeds

We often overlook these tiny ingredients, but good things come in small packages. Just 1oz of seeds can deliver 4-10g of protein, not to mention healthy omega fats and antioxidants. They are so great to include in your baking, salads, smoothies, and more. Try a chia pudding for wonderful soluble fibre to help aid digestion or roasted pumpkin seeds to give you a powerful punch of dietary zinc!

(Here’s what to know about the health benefits of sesame, hemp, poppy, chia, and flaxseeds.

How much plant-based protein do I need?

Babies and toddlers have a higher protein requirement per body weight than adults because they are growing. This age group needs between 1-1.2g of protein per kg of bodyweight whereas the requirement for adults is closer to 0.8g/kg. So, if your child is about 10kg (22lbs), then they would need about 10-12g of protein each day. The numbers in the chart below show average portion sizes commonly eaten by adults.

Food Amount of Protein Portion Size

  • Beans: 9-11g ¾ cup cooked, served on their own or mixed into a soup
  • Lentils, canned or cooked: 13g ¾ cup cooked into a veggie patty or mixed into a sauce
  • Nut butter: 7g 2 tbsp spread on to toast or mixed into oatmeal
  • Tofu: 12g ¾ cup baked tofu strips
  • Soy burger patty: 10g 1 patty, cut into pieces
  • Soy milk: 7g 1 cup (not recommended under 2 years of age)
  • Hemp hearts/seeds: 13g ¼ cup mixed into cereal
  • Chia seeds: 5g 2 tbsp in overnight chia pudding
  • Weight Watchers or lentil pasta: 3.5g ½ cup cooked
  • Quinoa: 3-4g ½ cup cooked

Okay, I’m in! What’s my first step?

Make your next meal a bean-based one! Adding beans and more plants to your diet has a whole host of protective effects for the heart, brain and body—not to mention the earth and your budget. And remember, you don’t have to give up animal protein to enjoy plant-protein; they can co-exist beautifully in your diet together!

Next: 3 of Our Favourite Plant-Based Meals From the New “Oh She Glows” Cookbook

Originally Published in Best Health Canada