Protein is needed for growth and can also be an energy source. Proteins perform many tasks in your body. All your body’s enzymes and also many hormones are proteins.
Varied choices of plant protein eaten throughout the day can easily supply the essential amino acids.¹ It is not necessary to plan combinations of foods to obtain enough protein or the right mix of amino acids (protein components) since a varied diet throughout the day will provide a good balance already. If you require any dietary advice, please consult a reputable (vegetarian) naturopath/dietitician or nutritionist.
Good food sources of protein
- legumes (beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils…)
- wholegrains (oats, brown rice, barley, wholegrain bread, quinoa, millet…)
- nuts & seeds (almonds, walnuts, flaxseed, tahini, pumpkin seeds…)
- peanut butter
- soy products (tofu, tempeh, soy milks…)
And remember, every plant has some protein in it. It all adds up! If you’re eating enough calories on a reasonably varied diet, it would be hard to avoid consuming enough protein.
Soy products are especially good plant-based sources of protein, and contain all the essential amino acids.
It is important for vegetarians and vegans to obtain protein from a variety of sources. This should include legumes. Beans are not only excellent protein sources but also rich in fibre and micronutrients such as magnesium and potassium. They are filling, nutrient-dense, tasty and low in calories. They are inexpensive and easy to use. As a bonus, beans can even lower your cholesterol levels!
A tin of baked beans with wholemeal bread and some alfalfa sprouts makes a perfect lunch that will sustain you for hours!
There are a large selection of legumes available; soya, pinto, black-eyed, pink, navy, lima, haricot, kidney, red, great northern, chickpeas, split peas, lentils … Legumes have the ability to absorb nitrogen from the air through their root tubercles, with the aid of bacteria in the soil. The nitrogen is the basis for their high protein content. Mature legumes which are usually dried, have more protein than immature legumes such as garden peas.
There are a lot of great recipes using legumes and they’re not all with chilli! Using them as a staple in your diet is inexpensive, healthy and easy. We have tips below on how to soak and cook beans but you can also easily buy tinned beans and lentils, meaning that you can cut out the soaking steps in any recipe you find. Check out our bean recipes page and/or try our Home Tried Favourites recipe book which has plenty of great recipes, with additional cooking tips.
Soak the beans overnight in plenty of cold water which helps remove the complex sugars that contribute to flatulence. Discard the soaking water and cook until tender in fresh water.
Some beans contain toxic substances but these are eliminated by correct simple cooking procedures. You may hear that beans contain hemaglutins (which can clump red blood cells) and trypsin inhibits (which retard growth) but this is not a concern when the beans are soaked and cooked until tender. Liken beans to potatoes; we were not meant to eat potatoes raw either – they can be poisonous raw, but nutritious cooked.
When buying legumes look for the brightness in colour, uniformity in size, and choose beans which do not have cracks. Dry beans store well for several months in containers; keep in a cool, dry place. Mixing new with old beans results in uneven cooking.
Cooked beans freeze very well for convenient future use. When you have time e.g. in a weekend, have a ‘bean day’. Cook a variety of beans which have been soaked overnight, and store in one cup lots in the freezer for the busy weeks ahead.
Ideas for using beans
If you’re new to eating pulses, introduce them slowly in to your diet, and that way you’ll get all the benefits of the added fibre and protein without any drawbacks.
- Beans can be used as the central ingredient, e.g. mashed and used to form the basis of a patty mix or a loaf with veges and flavourings; or they may be an addition to other dishes to increase their protein content. Beans are excellent added to casseroles, soups, patties, a stir fry, a savoury loaf, a pie. They are a truly versatile food.
- Add legumes to your salads, soups, even smoothies and desserts!
- Start the day with legumes: hummus, baked beans, burritos…
- One cup of dried beans yields approximately 3 cups of cooked beans. To say beans are economical is an understatement!
- Adding one tablespoon of oil to cooking water for each cup of dry legumes helps reduce foaming. If using a pressure cooker it prevents the valve from becoming blocked.
- A pressure cooker is a wonderful asset for the chef because it reduces the cooking time significantly, and there is no mess or fuss. However, if you are not fortunate enough to own a pressure cooker, you need only to be more vigilant and patient! When cooking lentils only, bring to the boil then leave the lid off the saucepan. With other legumes, when the beans have come to the boil, cook on low heat with lid on. A bean is cooked when it easily squashes between the finger.
Worried about gas?
Flatulence come from two places: swallowed air (chewing gums, sucking hard candies, eating too fast, smoking, talking while eating etc.) and bacterial fermentation of undigested sugars in the bowel. Common culprits are dairy products, sorbitol and xylitol in sugar-free candies, fizzy drinks, cruciferous vegetables (such as cabbage, kale) and yes, beans.
The good news is that studies are showing that increased flatulence only happens in the first few weeks – after that our bodies adapt to digesting these nutritious foods.
Tips to reduce flatulence/discomfort
- Prepare them correctly: repeated soakings of dried beans and discarding of the cooking water. Cook until tender.
- Chew foods adequately: digestion begins in the mouth with the secretion of enzymes in the saliva, so chew thoroughly to assist nature in its work.
- Introduce them slowly to your diet.
- Start with black-eyed peas, adzuki, lentils and mung beans – they are easier to digest.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Eatrightpro.org.
Greger, M (2011). Beans & Gas: Clearing the Air. Available at: Nutritionfacts.org