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10 Protein Alternatives to Consider

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Whether you’re vegetarian, vegan, or just thinking about trying a couple of plant-based meals here and there, making meatless tacos is a great idea.

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With countless recipes and ingredients to choose from, they can be just as delicious and nutritious as their meaty counterparts.

In fact, they may even bring some additional benefits to the table, including reduced risk of chronic diseases, improved animal welfare, and environmental advantages (one, two).

This article explores 10 different ways to make tacos without using meat.

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Black beans provide all the flavor and meaty texture to your tacos without the meat.

They belong to a food group known as legumes or pulses, which are one of the go-to choices for animal-based protein swaps due to their high plant-based protein content (3).

In fact, one cup (172 grams) of boiled black beans provides 15 grams of protein, along with 20% of the Daily Value (DV) of iron.

Iron is a mineral needed to transport oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. However, it’s often lacking in meatless diets because the iron from plant sources is less bioavailable than that of animal proteins — meaning that it is not as easily absorbed (4, 5, 6).

Additionally, black beans are a fiber-rich food, which — alongside their plant-based protein content — may keep you feeling fuller for longer, help manage your appetite, and lower the risk of chronic diseases (7, 8).

Since black beans are a fundamental ingredient in Mexican cuisine, you can never go wrong with pairing your black bean tacos with a side of guacamole or pico de gallo — a traditional Mexican salsa made with red tomatoes, onion, pepper, lime juice, salt, and coriander.

Chickpeas — or garbanzo beans — are another type of legume, meaning that they also provide a good amount of plant-based protein and fiber to your tacos (3).

A 1-cup serving (164 grams) of cooked chickpeas packs 14 grams of protein and 12.5 grams of fiber (9).

Furthermore, since they are a nutrient-rich food, research suggests that people who consume chickpeas tend to also have higher intakes of heart-healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), vitamins A, E, and C, folate, magnesium, potassium, and iron (10).

In addition, these nutritional powerhouses may even help lower total and low density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol levels, manage your blood sugar, and improve gut health (10, eleven).

Chickpeas are characterized by a mild nutty flavor and soft texture. However, roasting them may help add a little crunch to your tacos.

Here’s a simple chickpea tacos recipe you could follow if you want to give this meatless option a try. Consider pairing with a side of coleslaw or cucumber salad for a refreshing lunch or dinner.

Mushrooms’ mild flavor, soft texture, and unique nutritional profile make them another popular ingredient for meatless dishes.

Like legumes, mushrooms are low in fat but high in fiber and protein. In fact, mushroom proteins contain all essential amino acids (12).

Additionally, they are rich in plant-bioactive compounds, such as antioxidants and polysaccharides, which may confer antimicrobial, immune-boosting, and cholesterol-lowering properties. That’s why they have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years (12, 13).

While more than 100 mushroom species are fit for human consumption, portobellos are often the top choice for meat swaps. Some of the most popular mushroom-based meatless dishes are portobello steaks, burgers, fajitas, and wraps.

Thus, going for portobello mushroom tacos will undoubtedly be a success for your next meatless taco night.

You can either grill or roast mushroom slices and serve them on soft tortillas topped with avocado, corn, red onion, and a bit of chipotle mayo for a tasty and colorful meal.

Butternut squash is a type of winter squash known for its culinary versatility. Aside from its sweet flavor and bright orange color, it can add plenty of nutrients to your tacos.

It is celebrated for its high antioxidant content, namely carotenoids — which give it its characteristic color — phenolic compounds, quercetin, and vitamin C.

These antioxidants scavenge free radicals and may help boost your immune system, potentially leading to a reduced risk of cancer and chronic diseases (14, fifteen).

Butternut squash is low in calories while also providing fiber, eight out of the nine essential amino acids, and numerous vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and B, potassium, magnesium, and calcium (14, 16).

To make butternut squash tacos, roast it with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and serve with red cabbage slaw and guacamole. You can even add some black beans to the mix to give it a Mexican twist with added protein.

Quinoa is a seed that’s considered a pseudocereal, meaning that it is mainly used in the same way as cereals like wheat, oats, or rice (17, 18).

Like mushrooms, it has a unique nutritional profile characterized by high protein content that provides all essential amino acids. In fact, quinoa’s protein quality is comparable to casein, one of milk’s main proteins — making it an ideal ingredient for meatless recipes (17, 18).

It is also a fiber- and antioxidant-rich food that may benefit gut health and could provide cancer-fighting, antidiabetic, and anti-inflammatory properties (18).

Quinoa makes a great plant-based substitute for ground beef due to its crumbled yet firm texture.

If you want to give quinoa tacos a try, follow this easy and delicious recipe for a meatless twist, which you could pair with your favorite green salad.

Tofu is a soy product made by pressing condensed soy milk into solid blocks. It is an all-time favorite ingredient for meatless dishes due to its great culinary versatility and nutritional profile (19).

Tofu is considered a high quality plant-based protein source because it also provides all nine essential amino acids. In addition, it’s rich in vitamins and minerals, including calcium, iron, zinc, phosphorus, and magnesium (19, twenty).

It has a smooth, cheese-like texture and mild flavor that easily soaks up marinades and sauces, meaning that it adapts to almost any taco recipe.

Here are a couple of recipes you could try if you’re looking for a Mexican or Asian twist on your meatless tofu tacos.

Lentils are another legume that can take your meatless tacos’ nutrition to the next level.

Like black beans and chickpeas, they contain plenty of high quality, plant-based protein and complex carbs, along with B vitamins and minerals like potassium, iron, and zinc (twenty-one, 22, 23).

They’re also a good source of prebiotics that promote gut health and antioxidants that may have antibacterial, anti-diabetes, anti-cancer, and heart-protective effects (twenty-one, 22).

However, their antioxidant content can differ between different types of lentils. The most common ones are green, red, and yellow varieties (22).

Given their small size and firm texture, they are also often used as a ground beef substitute in meatless dishes. It all comes down to how you season them.

Pair your lentil tacos with a side of grilled veggies for a nutritious and wholesome meal.

From cauliflower rice to steak or pizza, this vegetable has grown in popularity over the years.

Cauliflower belongs to a group of vegetables known as cruciferous vegetables, which are praised for their cancer-fighting properties (24, 25).

Yet, they provide numerous additional benefits, such as anti-diabetes and cholesterol-lowering effects, as well as plenty of vitamins and minerals (24, 25, 26).

If you’re a fan of buffalo cauliflower wings, this recipe for buffalo cauliflower tacos topped with cilantro sauce and guacamole will be perfect for your next meatless taco event.

Walnuts are one of the most widely consumed tree nuts globally, both due to their numerous health benefits and their mildly nutty flavor that pairs well with multiple dishes, including tacos (27).

They are a rich source of plant-based PUFAs, making them an excellent source of essential fatty acids for vegans and vegetarians. In fact, they hold the highest omega-3 to omega-6 ratio among tree nuts (27, 28).

Aside from their high PUFA content, walnuts are good sources of fiber, potassium, magnesium, vitamin E, and antioxidants known as polyphenols that contribute to their anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and brain- and heart-protective effects (27, 28, 29).

Like quinoa and lentils, walnuts are another ground beef substitute for tacos, which you can top with some sweet corn and pico de gallo for a fresh and colorful meal.

Jackfruit is a tropical fruit native to India but common in Asia, Africa, and South America (30, 31).

Like most fruits, it is a good source of carbs, vitamins, and minerals.

However, it is one of few fruits rich in B vitamins, such as pyridoxine, riboflavin, niacin, and folate. Similarly, with 3 grams per cup (165 grams), it packs more protein than most fruits (30, 32).

Furthermore, it provides a wide range of health benefits, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, wound-healing, and immune-boosting effects (30, 31).

Jackfruit is often used as a meat substitute because its texture is very similar to shredded meat. In fact, it is almost always the go-to ingredient for vegan “pulled pork” recipes (30, 31).

Here’s a quick jackfruit “pulled pork” tacos recipe you could try if you want to give this meatless option a shot.

Even if you only do it once or twice a week, enjoying meatless tacos may have health benefits.

For starters, research shows that excessive meat intake — particularly red meats and processed meats — is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and other conditions (one, 33).

On the contrary, plant protein sources like legumes, nuts, and seeds may help reduce those risks (33).

Research also shows that non-meat eaters tend to have a higher diet quality, as well as a lower body mass index (BMI), total and LDL cholesterol levels, and blood sugar levels, compared to regular meat-eaters, or omnivores (one, two, 33, 3. 4, 35).

However, keep in mind that adding or eliminating a single food to your diet can’t define diet quality by itself.

Similarly, while healthy plant-based diets may help reduce your risk of chronic diseases, plant-based diets primarily composed of highly processed grains and sweetened, fried, and prepackaged foods may actually increase it (35, 36).

Another benefit of consuming meatless meals is that they cause less environmental damage than meat-based meals, which are linked to greater greenhouse gas emissions and a far greater use of resources like water and fuel (one, two).

Lastly, they can be cheaper and may help support animal welfare.

There are countless options to enjoy deliciously healthy meatless tacos, including various beans and legumes as well as some potentially unexpected choices like jackfruit and walnuts.

Try switching your meat for legumes, veggies, nuts, or even fruits on your next taco night. Not only are delicious meatless alternatives, they may provide some health benefits, such as anti-inflammatory properties and high amounts of important nutrients.

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