The best vegetarian meat substitutes pack a heart-healthier punch.
You might not even know that you’re a flexitarian. Huh, you say? Exactly. That’s the name food marketers are giving to a growingnumber of health-conscious folks who have cut back on meat and choosing vegetarian options more often. “Health, the environment and increased availability of tasty vegetarian options are all reasons people are choosing the flexitarian diet,” says registered dietitian Vandana Sheth, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics (also a lifelong vegetarian!). “This is a good thing as research studies have consistently proven that vegetarians have lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure than meat eaters, and are at less risk for heart disease, cancer and diabetes.”
And there are more and more plant-based options and strategies for putting together a hearty meal. While shopping for vegetarian meat substitutes and preparing meatless meals might initially seem daunting, with just a little know-how, you can start incorporating alternative ingredients or methods into your meal making. Here are some top tips from the experts.
Go heavy on the beans. Registered dietitian April Rudat (dietitianapril.com) likes to double up on beans in chilis, soups and stews protein-packed deliciousness.
Just add tofu. “Crumbled tofu can be used in so much, including in place of ground meat in your tacos or meat sauce,” Sheth says.
Try a veggie burger. “Veggie burgers are typically lower in fat and cholesterol and higher in fiber than regular hamburgers,” Sheth says. Whether your taste buds prefer one that’s made with grains, soy, beans or vegetables, she recommends choosing one that is low in sodium and making sure that it doesn’t have a long list of ingredients that are difficult to pronounce.
Make it a mushroom. Portobello mushrooms are a great alternative to beef or turkey burgers for their juicy, meaty texture and nutrients. “Portobellos have a good amount of protein as well as folate and other B vitamins, selenium, potassium and more,” Rudat says. “When marinated and grilled, top with a roasted red pepper and a chunk of fresh mozzarella, and serve on a fresh whole-grain roll.”
Attempt tempeh. Tempehis made from fermented soybeans and has a firm texture and unique nutty mushroom flavor. “It is an excellent source of complete plant protein as well as riboflavin, magnesium, manganese and copper,” Sheth says, who recommends cubing it and adding to soups, slicing and stir-frying for sandwiches or crumbling in place of beef in casseroles.
Sample seitan. A wheat-based protein, it has a unique ability to provide the texture and flavor of meat. Get creative with it and stir-fry strips for a Chinese-style dish or fajitas. You can also use it in stews, kabobs and with bbq sauce as wings!
Put on the dog. The makers of veggie sausages and hot dogs—now widely available in the grocery store—are working overtime to closely mimic the taste and texture of the real thing. Just be sure to still look at the nutrition facts on the back. “Recognize that veggie dogs and sausages are still processed foods and select one that is lower in sodium and fat,” Sheth says. Rudat adds, “Meatless sausage or bacon can be a nice substitute for hot dogs and pork, and add a great smoky flavor in soups like minestrone.”
Go ethnic when eating out! Unlike most American food joints, ethnic cuisines such as Chinese, Indian, Mediterranean and Thai, all have tons of vegetarian options. Happy taste testing!
Going vegetarian? Get beginner’s tips from the pros.