Why You Should Eat Plant-Based Foods by Emily Weeks, RDN, LD

When it comes to reducing inflammation and the risk for chronic diseases, switching to plant-based foods is an excellent choice. Eating more plant-based foods such as tofu, beans, soy, and lentils and using substitutes for dairy and meat, helps to reduce inflammation in the body and increase phytochemicals and antioxidants in our daily meals. For those with prediabetes or diabetes, consuming more plant-based foods can also help reduce the risk of other chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and heart disease. Including more protein at meals also helps to reduce how high blood glucose (blood sugar) rises after you eat.

Why You Should Eat Plant-Based Foods

Getting Protein from Plant-Based Foods

Tofu is one of the most versatile plant-based proteins. It’s made from coagulated soy milk that’s been pressed to various firmness. Common varieties are silken, soft, firm, extra firm, and super firm. Silken tofu has the texture of yogurt and can be easily added to smoothies or used as an egg substitute in dishes like quiche. Extra-firm tofu is used often in stir-fries and bakes—it’s usually pressed at home once more before cooking to squeeze out any excess moisture. One way to remove the moisture is to place the tofu on a layer on paper towels. Add another layer of paper towels on top, then place a weight, like a large can of food or heavy book, on top to squeeze out the moisture. Let sit for 30 minutes or until the paper towels stop absorbing moisture. Tofu has 10 grams of protein per half-cup serving.

Tempeh is made from fermented, pressed soybeans and has a nutty taste and firm texture. It can be sliced and stir-fried and commonly used as a bacon or meat substitute for sandwiches. Try marinating tempeh in barbecue or teriyaki sauce before cooking to infuse it with flavor. Tempeh has 15 grams of protein per half-cup. To remove the slight bitter taste, steam tempeh slices in a little bit of water in a covered saucepan for about five minutes before marinating and stir-frying with your favorite sauces.

Beans are a wonderful source of plant-based protein, fiber, and nutrients. They also come in a wide variety of shapes and textures—black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, white beans, and more. A half cup of beans has 20 grams of protein, 15 grams of fiber, and are an excellent source of iron. Beans can easily be added to soups, stews, stir-fries, bakes, and puréed into dips and sauces.

Lentils are also a wonderful source of plant-based iron and contain about nine grams of both protein and fiber per half cup. Red and brown lentils are the most commonly found variety and are delicious added to soups and stews. Red lentils tend to hold their shape and have a firmer texture than brown lentils.

Plant-Based Meats and Meat Substitutes
Today’s market has an abundant supply of plant-based meat products, meant to mimic the taste of beef, chicken, seafood, and sausage. Many companies use soy products to imitate the appearance and texture of meat, also using red beets or carrots to give it a meat-like color. Plant based burgers are made from these soy products and are also available made with a combination of soy and bean products.

Portobello mushrooms are often used as a burger substitute as they have a fibrous, thick texture and can be grilled easily. Jackfruit—a fruit with a thick and stringy texture like pulled pork or brisket—is also used as a substitute for meat dishes.

Dairy and Egg Plant-Based Options

There are also plenty of dairy and egg replacements on the market. Common dairy replacements are made of soy, coconut, tapioca, chickpeas or cashews. Most brands of soy- or coconut-based cheese substitutes have less saturated fat per serving than regular cheese and contain calcium, which is essential for healthy bones.

Plant-based milk options include soy, almond, oat, and cashew milk. If you get unsweetened milk substitutes, they often have less carbohydrates (carbs) than regular dairy milk. Cashews are a popular plant-based thickening agent for creamy vegan sauces—they’re soaked in boiling water until soft and blended to create a smooth consistency.

Egg replacements are also hitting the market, made with mung beans and turmeric to provide that classic scrambled egg yellow color and texture.

The Takeaway
Whether you’re planning on going completely plant-based or just looking to make a few swaps, know that you’re doing the body good. Choosing more plant-based proteins will provide your body with the essential nutrients and antioxidants it needs to help reduce inflammation and your risk for chronic diseases.

Ready to start incorporating plant-based foods into your diet? Try our Dairy-Free Loaded Nachos recipe. 

 This article is brought to you by Daiya Foods, a proud sponsor of the Diabetes Food Hub®.

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