Try these exciting plant-based swaps for meat, plus 3 delicious recipes
When people think of protein they often think of meat. There are loads of alternative plant-based foods that are excellent sources of protein. We take an in-depth look.
A number of food movements have drawn attention over the past few years, but plant-based eating continues to rise and shake our thinking about food, nutrition and planetary health. As more people transition from traditional meat-oriented meals to plant-based, the question of what and how to swap meats for plants while still including essential nutrients in the diet and, of course, flavour and sustenance arises. And, while there is a growing number of plant-based “meats” available on supermarket shelves which can support the initial phase of transition, the best option with meat for plant swaps is, as always, with wholefood ingredients.
When making the switch from meat to plants a few key nutrients need to be considered, namely iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D3, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)and protein. Each of these nutrients is found abundantly in animal tissues and in a form generally more bioavailable to the body. However, you can still keep on top of your dietary intake of these nutrients with a few simple hacks.
Iron is required for a range of metabolic processes, including oxygen transport, DNA synthesis and electron transport, and is particularly important in certain stages of development such as early childhood, during menstruation and pregnancy. Haem iron is found in animal tissues, while non-haem iron is present in plant foods. Both can be absorbed and utilised by the body, but haem iron generally has a higher rate of absorption. This means that in order to meet the recommended daily intake of iron while consuming plant-based foods, you need to consume them on a more frequent basis. Iron-rich plant foods include lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashews, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pepitas, kale, dried apricots and figs.
Try iron-rich plant-based swap for meat meals including:
Tofu meatless balls with tomato pasta sauce and zucchini noodles
Lentil burgers with the lot on whole grain rolls
Cauliflower schnitzel (recipe below) with hemp crumb and nutty seed salad
Vitamin B12 is important for the function of nerve and blood cells, for synthesis of DNA and to reduce risk of megaloblastic anaemia. It is present in animal tissues, fortified foods and synthetic forms via supplementation. Monitoring B12 levels when consuming a 100 per cent plant-based diet is essential and can be done via blood pathology. You can incorporate some B12 into plant-based meals with B12 fortified foods such as nutritional yeast, breakfast cereals and vegan spreads.
Grab some nutritional yeast and include it in meals and snacks such as:
Homemade risotto with herbs, beans and root vegetables to deliver that cheesy flavour without the cheese
Sprinkled on avocado on a seeded toast
Seed snaps with hummus
Vitamin D3 functions in the body to support the absorption of calcium and the work of the parathyroid gland, and to keep bones and teeth strong and healthy. While the greatest source of vitamin D is through sunlight, these days with more people working indoors for longer periods, children with increased screen time versus outdoor time and the frequent application of sunscreens, vitamin D deficiency has become more prevalent. There are some animal foods (cod liver oil, swordfish, salmon) which contain vitamin D, but your best option to get a hit of vitamin D3 while transitioning to more plant-based meals is through time outdoors in the off-peak sunlight. Aim for 20 minutes each day in the morning and late afternoon hours.
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)
DHA is an omega-3 essential fat playing a number of roles in the body, including providing cell membrane structure and viscosity, reducing inflammation and for proper foetal development and healthy ageing. Although it’s common in animal foods such as fatty fish, sardines and anchovies, when making the switch to plant-based meals and considering DHA intake, fear not because it’s also rich in algae and seaweed, too.
Aim to integrate seaweed such as nori and dulse throughout the week in your meals including:
Sushi with a brown rice and additional edamame on the side
Nourish bowls with a seaweed and sesame seasoning
Dulse flakes incorporated into slow cooker bean and root vegetable-based meals
Your body requires protein for growth, development, repair, communication and signalling and, while meat is a complete protein source containing all nine essential amino acids, all plant foods contain some of these essential amino acids required to then build a complete protein, too.
When it comes to protein and making the switch from meat to plants, the focus should be to eat diversely throughout the day with the aim of integrating plant foods rich in protein such as lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, tofu, tempeh, nuts and seeds, including the tiny powerhouses hemp seeds, linseeds and chia seeds.
Go for gold on plant-based protein-rich meals such as:
Thai-spice bean curry with brown rice
Seared spicy tempeh with baked eggplant, vegies and caramelised onion on toasted sourdough
Cajun chickpeas with avocado and leftover baked sweet potato for breakfast
Boost your plant-based meal
Haem iron present in most animal tissues has been shown to be readily absorbed by the body, thereby more efficiently meeting iron requirements than non-haem iron present in plant-based foods. However, you can effectively increase absorption of non-haem iron in plant foods by combining it with its synergistic nutrient, vitamin C. Not too much planning is required for this either — add tomatoes to a salad or a burger, spice things up with fresh chilli, include delicious herbs like parsley in the meal or very simply add a big squeeze of lemon juice.
When it comes to absorbing plant proteins best it all starts in the mouth and with chewing your food well. Be present, mindful and slow with eating your food. Chew thoroughly before swallowing. The chewing process activates key salivary enzymes which support the breakdown and absorption of proteins as they move through the digestive tract and into the small intestine where they are fully absorbed, but the first stage of protein digestion starts in the mouth.
If you are turning to more plant-based meat alternatives and being conscious of your iron intake, be aware of how you consume other foods and nutrients with iron-rich plant sources, in particular calcium-rich foods and caffeine. Both calcium and caffeine when consumed with iron-rich sources (supplementary or through food) can inhibit the absorption of iron. Easy solutions are to avoid the coffee or tea with an iron-rich breakfast or lunch and, if still consuming dairy such as cheese, milk or yoghurt, to enjoy it as part of a snack rather than accompanying your iron-rich dinner.
There are a couple of schools of thought when it comes to the physical combinations of foods and ingredients in a plant-based meal in order to tick key nutrient macro and micro boxes. One promotes combining whole grains and legumes or legumes and seeds in a meal. Legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains contain essential amino acids but not all amino acids in a single food ingredient, so in order to create a complete protein for the meal you need to eat both or a combination within the same meal. In doing so, there is reduced risk of protein deficit in the diet and the body’s need for protein for growth, development, repair and the production of hormones and enzymes (among many other biochemical roles in the body) are met.
The alternative philosophy is to eat a diverse range of plant-based ingredients across the course of the day and week (aiming for about 30 different plant-based ingredients each day), thereby working on the accumulation of essential amino acids over the course of the day rather than focusing on the combinations of foods in single meals.
At the end of the day, the choice of one approach over another is over to the individual and what they feel they can realistically achieve (as with all practical approaches to diet). However, one point to draw attention to here is to consider the satiety that comes with ingredients such as whole grains and legumes in a meal. While a big salad sandwich on wholegrain bread with plenty of vegetables and some healthy fats is delicious, the addition of plant proteins such as seared tempeh or tofu, lentil patties or chickpea burger for instance will undoubtedly deliver more sustenance to the meal. With this inclusion you’re less likely be hungry in the hours following and reaching for suboptimal food option to fill the void.
Miso Tempeh & Eggplant Burger
- 300g eggplant, cut into slices 5mm thick
- 2½ tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 350g tempeh, sliced 4–5mm thick
- 2 tomatoes, sliced
- 1 avocado, mashed
- ¼ cup caramelised onion
- 1 cup rocket leaves
- 2 tbsp hemp seeds
- Fresh herbs of choice, to serve
- 4 wholemeal or gluten-free rolls
- Sea salt & black pepper
- Miso Marinade:
- 2 tbsp white miso paste
- 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tbsp maple syrup
- Place eggplant slices on a plate, sprinkle with sea salt and set aside for 10 mins. Wipe eggplant with paper towel to remove the liquid.
- Heat a large frying pan on medium heat, add 1½ tbs extra-virgin olive oil and spread around the pan. Place eggplant slices in the pan and cook for about 3 mins each side or until golden and tender. Set aside covered to stay warm.
- Add another 1 tbsp olive oil to pan, then add tempeh slices and cook for 2 mins.
- While cooking, smear miso marinade on the side facing up, flip and cook another 2 mins on the other side.
- Once cooked, build the burger: spread avocado mash over the base of the bun, top with avocado, caramelised onion, eggplant slices and rocket and finish with tempeh.
- Sprinkle with hemp seeds and add herbs of choice.
Red Thai Bean Curry
- ⅓ cup Thai red curry paste
- 1 × 400mL tin BPA-free coconut milk
- 2 medium carrots, sliced about 4mm thick
- 1 × 400g tin BPA-free lentils, rinsed & drained
- 1 × 400g tin BPA-free butter or cannelloni beans, rinsed & drained
- ¼ bunch fresh basil or coriander, finely chopped
- Cooked rice, to serve
- Heat a saucepan on medium heat, add curry paste and coconut milk and simmer for about 5 mins.
- Add carrots, lentils and beans, cover and cook for 10 mins, then remove lid and cook a further 10 mins to thicken.
- Serve with cooked rice and a sprinkle of coriander or fresh basil leaves.
Plant-Based Cauliflower Schnitzel with Broccoli Quinoa Salad
- Broccoli Quinoa Salad:
- 1 head broccoli, cut into small florets
- ½ cup quinoa
- 3 tbsp mixed sunflower & pepitas
- 2 tbsp hemp seeds
- 1½ tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1½ tsp vegan Dijon or seeded mustard
- 1 tsp maple syrup
- 2 tsp apple-cider vinegar
- 1 cauliflower
- 1 cup wholemeal flour
- 1 cup sparkling water
- 1 cup wholemeal breadcrumbs
- 2 tbsp nutritional yeast
- 2 tbsp hemp seeds
- ¼ cup almond meal
- ¼–⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- To make broccoli quinoa salad, place broccoli in a heatproof bowl and pour boiling water over broccoli to cover. Stand and blanch for 5–6 mins, then drain and refresh under cold water and set aside.
- Rinse quinoa well, then add quinoa and ¾ cup water to a small saucepan, cover and bring to the boil. Reduce heat and cook until water is absorbed, for approximately 8-10 mins, fluff and set aside to cool.
- Once the salad is ready to be served, whisk ingredients for dressing together then combine with salad ingredients in a bowl and toss to coat.
- To make the schnitzel, slice cauliflower into large steaks or smaller florets as preferred and if necessary pat dry with paper towel.
- In a wide bowl, combine wholemeal flour and sparkling water and mix well to form a no-egg binder. Place breadcrumbs, nutritional yeast, hemp seeds and almond meal on another plate, season with sea salt and mix ingredients. Coat cauliflower pieces generously in the wholemeal flour binder, followed by the breadcrumb mix.
- Heat a frying pan on medium heat, add olive oil and cook about 6 mins each side or until golden.
- Serve with broccoli quinoa salad.
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