Best Fat-Burning Vegetarian Proteins

If you’re in the veggie camp, you’re in luck, because all 10 negative calorie foods are vegetables and fruits. When you eat two or more of these foods at your main meals, you’ll keep your body in a fat-burning mode.
But what about protein?
A common myth about plant-based diets is that it’s tough to get enough protein. But there are many wonderful plant-based proteins that have weight-control benefits. Here are the 10 best I’ve found.

1. Chickpeas

Like other beans, chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans) are full of fiber and protein, which promote fullness. Chickpeas are also high in “resistant starch,” a type of fiber that is impossible for the body to digest, and instead winds its way through the digestive system intact. Along the way, it helps produce fatty acids that stimulate fat-melting enzymes (particularly in the belly), and it helps promote fat-burning in your liver.

One of my favorite chickpea-based snacks is hummus—it is always in my refrigerator! What I love about the stuff is that it is a nutritional slam dunk. It’s easy to buy at the store, of course, but it’s just as easy to prepare at home and, in my opinion, it tastes much better when homemade. Just put a can of chickpeas, a little tahini (a sesame-seed butter), garlic, freshly squeezed lemon juice, and a bit of olive oil in a blender or food processer, and give it a whirl. You can season and flavor the hummus to your taste. Like it spicy? Add in some minced jalapeño or red pepper flakes. Like it milder? Cut back on the garlic and add more lemon juice, or an herb like basil or oregano. It takes about five minutes to make yourself a batch that you’ll have all week long.

USE IT TO LOSE IT There are lots of ways to eat chickpeas besides in hummus. Try them in soups and salads, or just by their lonesome on the plate. Spice them, garlic them, or herbify them . . . Just keep them coming.

2. Hemp Seeds

This plant food probably doesn’t immediately spring to mind when you think of veggie proteins, but hemp seeds are an excellent source of plant-based protein because they are a complete protein. That means they provide all of the amino acids your body needs to support metabolic function. (Your body can’t make certain amino acids on its own, so you need to provide them with your food choices!).

Hemp seeds are particularly rich in the amino acids methionine and cysteine. Both are involved in the repair and growth of lean body tissue, particularly in response to exercise. The branched chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine—nick-named by their acronym BCAAs—are also plentiful in hemp. BCAAs are known for their fat-burning and muscle-building power.

Another quality of hemp I like: It’s never genetically modified, so you don’t have to worry about GMOs here. And to address the elephant in the room: no, hemp seeds will not make you high. Hemp food products, from seeds to protein powders, contain undetectable levels of THC (the mind-altering chemical found in marijuana), so you’re not going to get a buzz from your protein smoothie!

USE IT TO LOSE IT It’s easy to incorporate hemp seeds in your diet: Sprinkle them on cereal and salads. Add them to smoothies. You can also make your own hemp milk in seconds by blending or food-processing ½ cup seeds, 1½ cups water, 2 teaspoons coconut nectar, and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. It will keep in a jar in the refrigerator for up to a week. Simply shake it well just prior to serving it. Use the milk in smoothies or pour it over cereal.

3. Kidney Beans

I’m definitely a bean boy. I’m not sure what it is I like best about kidney beans— whether it’s their flavor (so rich, so delicious) or their versatility—the fact that they can be made into anything from soups to chili to salads to brownies (yes, they make a delightful flourless base for these beloved treats).

Studies show a strong association between eating the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris—which includes kidney beans, black beans, pintos, and others) and losing body fat and improving body composition.

Beans also rank low on the glycemic index. By definition, this indicates that they produce a relatively low rise in blood glucose after a meal compared with high-glycemic index foods such as white rice, which sharply elevate glucose. Other studies have found that beans improve satiety.

Eating lots of beans may not be the best practice for your next date or social event (along with beans do come, for most people, some digestive issues). It’s better to load up on kidney beans in the privacy of your own home!

USE IT TO LOSE IT Some of the best ways to prepare kidney beans are in chili, stews, and soups. They taste so meaty that no one will know you’ve served a meatless dish. If you buy uncooked beans, it’s a good idea to soak them overnight. This helps prevent the gassy, bloated feeling some of us get after eating beans. As for canned beans, rinsing them well under cold running water in a colander, and then draining them, also reduces the chance of digestive distress.

4. Lentils

Thinking about lentils might make you yawn, but hear me out—these legumes are underrated. Lentils have so much flavor, and are loaded with fat-burning fiber and protein. What I love the most about lentils is how quick and easy it is to cook them. In 30 to 40 minutes lentils are ready to serve; no overnight soaking is necessary. I’m not advocating a lentil-heavy diet. But I strongly suggest that you make lentils a pantry staple if you haven’t done so already, and cook with them often.

Studies have found that consuming lentils increases satiety. The reason lentils fill you up is threefold: (1) they contain slowly digestible starch; (2) they are rich in protein; and (3) they are high in fiber, which helps make you feel full.

USE IT TO LOSE IT Lentils are great in stews, in soups, and as the base for veggie burgers. They require very little prep work. However, I advise checking for, and discarding, any of the tiny stones or stems that are often found in lentil packaging. After inspecting the lentils, place them in a strainer and rinse; they’re ready to cook. You don’t have to soak them like dried beans. Season lentils with spices such as cumin, garlic powder, or allspice.

5. Peas

I love peas. They’re among my favorite legumes by a Manhattan mile, and my freezer is full of them. Peas are rich in vitamins and contain a variety of disease-fighting phytochemicals.

Scientists have recently begun to study, and isolate, protein in peas, and that is why you now find pea protein powder at many health food stores. Pea protein is one of the few vegetable protein sources that does not trigger food allergies; nor does it contain gluten. And peas are not genetically modified, either. Pea protein powder also supplies BCAAs, the fat-burning, muscle-building amino acids also contained in hemp seeds.

As for satiety, pea protein shines here, too. In one study, 39 healthy subjects supplemented with either pea protein, whey protein, or a control of milk protein. The participants who were given the pea protein reported feeling less hungry than participants who consumed other types of protein. Peas rule!

USE IT TO LOSE IT Like most legumes, peas are delicious in soups and stews, or as a side dish. You can even puree them with garlic, freshly squeezed lemon juice, and a little olive oil to create a lovely green hummus for dipping with negative calorie veggies such as celery, raw cauliflower, or raw broccoli. Try adding pea protein powder to your smoothies, too.

6. Pistachios

Pistachios have earned the nickname “the skinny nut,” and rightly so. One of the most interesting studies on pistachios proved once again that a calorie is not a calorie. Researchers from UCLA decided to find out if near-equivalent numbers of calories from either pistachios or pretzels would produce any significant body composition changes when eaten as part of a calorie-modified, 12-week fat-loss diet. The volunteers—a group of obese men and women—were instructed to go on a reduced-calorie diet. Along with it, they were randomly assigned to a protocol
that included a mid-afternoon snack of either 2 ounces of unsalted pretzels (220 calories), or 3 ounces of in-shell pistachios (240 calories; about 75 nuts).

At the end of the study, the researchers measured everyone’s body mass index (BMI). Both groups had lost weight. But the results showed that the pistachio group had better success at reducing body mass index (BMI), compared with the pretzel group. The volunteers on the pistachio protocol went from a 30 BMI to a 28.8 BMI, which meant that they were no longer considered obese, versus the pretzel eaters, who moved from only a 30.9 to a 30.3 BMI, still considered obese.

Note that the pistachio snack contained more calories than the pretzels, and the dieters eating pistachios were the weight-loss winners. A calorie is not a calorie! The pistachio is definitely among the negative calorie nuts. In fact, the fat calories in these nuts may not be completely absorbed by the body, making them effectively lower in calories than previously thought.

Pistachios are also a treasure trove of nutrients: protein, good fats, fiber, potassium, magnesium, vitamin E, and a number of phytochemicals. Clearly, pistachios should be a part of any healthy weight-loss plan.

USE IT TO LOSE IT A handful of these little green nuts makes a great-tasting snack. Or crush them and sprinkle over oatmeal, yogurt, or salads.

7. Quinoa

Though often praised as a healthy grain, quinoa is not technically a grain at all, but rather a seed. It originated in South America and dates all the way back to the Incan Empire.

Like hemp seeds, quinoa delivers a complete protein package, offering all of the amino acids your body requires. Quinoa has a low glycemic index (very similar to vegetables), so it won’t spike your blood sugar. Quinoa is also brimming with fiber, making it a great choice for weight loss, and for anyone with diabetes.

I love to cook with quinoa—it has a unique flavor often described as a cross between brown rice and oatmeal, with a subtle, nutty nuance. And because it is gluten-free, it makes a great substitute in all kinds of grain-based dishes.

USE IT TO LOSE IT Not only is quinoa a superfood, it’s also quick and easy to prepare and so versatile that it can be eaten at any meal. Try cooking it for breakfast in some almond milk as a substitute for oatmeal, or swap it into any dish that calls for rice or pasta.

8. Chia Seeds

I used to feel sorry for chia seeds. That was back in the days when this nutritional treasure trove was consigned to late-night TV commercials selling clay “pets” with the seeds that sprouted to look like fur.

But in the last decade, chia seeds have burst onto the health scene not as hair plugs for a kooky pet but as a functional food that is loaded with protein, fiber (just 2 tablespoons contain nearly 30 percent of your daily requirement!), healthy fats, and fat-burning minerals like calcium. Who knew?

Well, now the world knows, and chia seeds are one of the best entries into the world of healthy nutrition. I cook with them a lot because they pack such a powerful nutritional wallop.

The main reason I love chia seeds is that they fill me up and keep me from getting hungry. In that regard, I classify them in the negative calorie food category. They are satiating. After you digest them, they start absorbing a lot of liquid in your stomach to form a gel that keeps you satiated (in fact, the gelatinous coating is what bonded the seeds to that clay pet). Research published in 2010 in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that chia seeds curb your appetite for two hours after you eat them—plus, they help reduce the blood sugar spikes that typically occur after a meal.

Chia seeds may be among the newest nutritional kids on the block, but they’ve been around since ancient days. They were a food source for the Mayas and cultivated by the Aztecs as a cash crop more than five hundred years ago. Both cultures considered chia a medicine, as well as a food. You’re going to see chia seeds in a lot more products soon. Stay tuned.

USE IT TO LOSE IT Chia seeds are amazingly versatile. Sprinkle them on oatmeal, salads, Greek yogurt, quinoa, or rice. You can also blend them into smoothies.

9. Tofu

I’ve always supported the idea of tofu as being healthy, but until recently, I didn’t really cook with it. My typical MO was, “This tofu stir-fry recipe sure looks delicious.” Then I’d proceed to toss in strips of beef, chicken, or fish instead.

But now I really like tofu, and I enjoy cooking with it because tofu probably is one of the most versatile ingredients in a plant-based diet. Like tempeh, tofu is made from soybeans, the only beans that contain more protein than carbohydrates. As such, soy protein ranks right up there with animal protein in terms of thermogenic effect. Soy protein also improves insulin resistance, the hallmark of obesity.

Soy coaxes your body into releasing the hormone glucagon, which unlocks fat and carb stores to keep your body lean and supplied with energy, thereby controlling hunger. A 2006 study published in the journal Appetite revealed that tofu, in particular, is as satiating as chicken and keeps you feeling full for several hours after a meal.

The many varieties of tofu you’ll find at the grocery store differ mostly in how much water they contain. Silken tofu, which I prefer, has the highest quantity of water. That’s why it’s so soft and creamy.

USE IT TO LOSE IT Tofu absorbs the flavors of anything it is cooked with, yet retains a distinctive, almost meaty texture. Use tofu in salads, stir-fries, and smoothies for extra protein. It also makes a great substitute for cheese in traditional Italian dishes such as lasagna.

10. Walnuts

One ounce of walnuts contains 4 grams of protein, so these tasty nuts are a great protein alternative. Walnuts are also rich in healthy fats, including alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). This omega-3 fat is a key player in maintaining healthy brain biochemistry and stabilizing mood. (Some say there’s a reason why walnuts seem to resemble the shape of the human brain!) A 2011 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that for every half-gram increase of ALA eaten per day, a person’s risk of depression fell by as much as 43 percent.

Another thing going for walnuts: They trigger a reaction in the body that slows the rate at which your stomach empties. That means—you guessed it—they perform well as a natural appetite suppressant. And speaking of tummies, research with walnuts has shown that they can also help reduce your waistline.

USE IT TO LOSE IT Try snacking on a handful of walnuts a half hour prior to mealtime; they can help control your appetite. Sprinkle walnuts on yogurt or oatmeal, or toss them into salads and stir-fries for a quick source of veg-friendly protein.