Vegetarian diets are becoming more popular, but even if you are just trying to eat healthier, you may be cutting out meat. Remember to replace the animal protein with plant protein, found in grains, nuts and seeds, and beans. Try black-eyed peas, turtle beans, garbanzo beans, fava beans, kidney beans, navy beans . . . the list goes on and on! There are thousands of different beans eaten around the world, but unless you frequent ethnic restaurants, you may not have tasted them all. Most cuisines offer beans as a main course with a cornucopia of flavors, and textures. Think Mexican rice and black beans, Indian daal (lentils) and naan, Italian fagioli with pasta (cannellini), and on and on.
Beans can be found frozen, canned, or dried in most grocery stores. Dried, the most economical version, need to be either soaked overnight or brought to a boil, wait an hour, and then cooked. If you prepare the whole bag, you can easily freeze the leftovers and save yourself some steps next time. Lentils are so small that they don’t require the soaking stage, and cook in less than 30 minutes.
There are many health benefits to substituting plant proteins for animal ones. Beans have zero cholesterol or saturated fat, which is a boon to people with heart disease, and are a good source of soluble fiber, which helps to lower cholesterol and prevent spikes in blood sugar for those with diabetes. Vegetarians tend to have lower cholesterol levels, lower body weight, and less risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Plus plant proteins are much less expensive, saving your pocketbook while protecting your health.
A complete protein contains all the essential amino acids (your body can manufacture the rest from these). Soybeans are the only bean with “complete” protein, like animal sources. Other beans are limited in the amino acids methionine or tryptophan, but these are easily found in grains or nuts and seeds, and don’t have to be consumed at the same time. Your body stores some extra amino acids until they can be combined with the missing ones. Examples of complementary proteins are kidney beans and cornbread, black beans and tortillas, or pita bread and hummus.
Those who can’t bear to give up meat completely can still benefit from a meatless dinner once or twice/week. Substitute beans in your favorite chili recipe, or use hummus (made from garbanzo beans) on your next wrap. Order stir-fried vegetables with tofu the next time you eat Chinese food, or throw beans instead of meat into your next homemade casserole. You’ll soon find lots of delicious ways to include them in your healthy diet.