Protein doesn’t have to come from animal products. Here’s what you should know about plant proteins, and a recipe for marinated baked tofu.

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On Nutrition

Why do our bodies need adequate protein? Let me count the ways: to build and repair muscle, skin, organs and red blood cells, plus create enzymes, hormones and antibodies. Including protein-rich foods at each meal can also help you stay satisfied longer between meals, and who doesn’t like to feel satisfied? Because protein helps build muscle, you might assume that animal foods like meat, poultry and fish, along with eggs and dairy, are the best sources of protein. But you can get protein from plant foods, too, and in fact there are many good reasons to include plant proteins in your repertoire.

Protein: complete vs. incomplete

First, lets get past the common worry that plant proteins — unlike animal proteins — are not complete. It’s true that most plant foods don’t contain all nine of the essential amino acids — the amino acids that you must get from food because your body can’t make them. Soy and quinoa do contain all nine, but most plant foods are missing or extremely low in one or two.

The good news is that you don’t need to get all of your essential amino acids from the same food. If you eat a variety of protein-rich plant foods in the course of your day, you will get everything you need. Not all plant foods are missing the same amino acids, so eating a variety easily fills in any gaps. Beans, nuts, seeds and soy foods are the most protein-rich plant foods. Grains and vegetables contain smaller amounts of protein, but even these smaller amounts can add up quickly when you make plants the foundation of your meals.

Health benefits of plant proteins

As an added nutritional bonus, protein-rich plant foods come “packaged” with some nice extras like fiber, healthy fats and phytonutrients. (Phytonutrients are a diverse group of compounds found in plants that have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.) People who eat vegetarian or flexitarian (semi-vegetarian) diets tend to get more phytonutrients along with more fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate and vitamins C and E.

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What if you have no intention of giving up meat, poultry or fish? You can still eat and enjoy an abundance of plant foods, including some plant proteins, but also include moderate amounts of animal foods. In fact, many people go flexitarian instead of vegan or vegetarian because they want to eat some fish for the healthy omega-3 fats. A great way to start is to go meatless a few days a week. Try adding beans or lentils to salads, soups and casseroles. Snack on vegetables dipped into a tasty bean-based dip (like hummus) or have a piece of fresh fruit with a small handful of nuts. Make your favorite stir-fry with tofu or tempeh.

A few words about soy

This leads me to another worry: phytoestrogens. One type of phytonutrients in soy, isoflavones, is also a phytoestrogen — a plant compound that weakly mimics the effect of the hormone estrogen. This once raised concerns that eating soy might increase breast cancer risk. The American Cancer Society says the evidence indicates that soy foods are safe and possibly beneficial. When eaten regularly, isoflavones have been linked to lower risk of breast and prostate cancer, as well as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. It’s best to avoid high doses of isoflavones in supplement form, and the jury’s out on the soy protein isolate found in many energy bars and soy “meats.”

My soy picks are those that have a long tradition — tofu, tempeh, miso (be aware that miso is high in sodium), soy milk and edamame (immature whole soybeans, sometimes sold still in the pod). This recipe for baked tofu is tasty, simple and works well as leftovers (I like to add the leftover cubes to an Asian salad or slaw for lunch the next day).

Marinated Baked Tofu

Serves 3-4

1 12- to 14-ounce block extra-firm tofu

1 tablespoon dark sesame oil

1 tablespoon soy sauce or tamari

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

1-2 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon rice wine (mirin), optional

Other optional ingredients: minced ginger, minced garlic, Sriracha or Asian chili paste

1. Open the package of tofu and drain the liquid. Remove tofu from the package, wrap in a few layers of paper towels and place on a plate or shallow dish. Place a second plate on top and weigh it down with a 28-ounce can (of tomatoes, pumpkin or whatever you find in your pantry).

2. Allow tofu to rest for at least 30 minutes. Peel off the now-wet paper towels, blot the tofu with fresh, dry paper towels, and place the tofu on a cutting board. Cut the tofu into cubes of about 1 inch (you don’t have to be precise).

3. Combine the rest of the ingredients in a small bowl. Pour into either a shallow dish large enough to hold the tofu cubes in a single layer, or into a gallon-size Ziploc bag. Add the tofu and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 8 hours. If marinating longer, turn the cubes a few times (this is easier if you are using the Ziploc method).

4. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat liner. Drain the tofu and arrange the cubes in a single layer on the lined baking sheet. Don’t let the cubes touch.

5. Bake until the outside of the tofu is golden brown, anywhere from 30-45 minutes, turning the pieces every 10 minutes. The longer you bake the cubes, the chewier they will be.

6. Serve immediately, or refrigerate for later use. The tofu cubes will keep in the refrigerator for about four days.