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Powered by Plants: Healthy vegetarian or vegan diet could help boost immune system; vegan banh mi recipe

This vegan banh mi uses tofu as the protein. (Jonathan Glover / The Spokesman-Review)
By Jonathan Glover For The Spokesman-Review

When’s the last time you reached for an apple instead of chocolate for that midnight snack? Substituted a head of cauliflower for chicken breast? A veggie burger for cow?

I get it – COVID-19 has us all feeling stressed. And what better way to combat the anxiety than your favorite foods?

But if staying healthy is your goal – and why shouldn’t it be – turning toward fruits and vegetables, and away from animal protein, might just be the best and easiest step you can take to maintain a healthy immune system.

Don’t just take it from me: Nutritionists and food scientists have been saying it for years. Maybe now’s the time we listen – it’s not like we have much else going on.

“We know that mostly protein, and fat from animals, can be more inflammatory and harder on the immune system,” said Franck Carbonero, an assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine in Spokane. “It would definitely not be a bad idea to try to just focus on some vitamin-rich food.”

Research says foods high in animal proteins and fats can lead to inflammation in the digestive system. That inflammation can lead to infection and a weakened overall immune system, says Carbonero.

That’s because it takes more energy to digest and can be harmful to vital gut microbiota. Not a good sign for America, which has the fifth-highest per capita meat consumption in the world, according to a recent study.

That same study says, “Meat consumption in the USA exceeds healthy levels by 20% to 60% based on recommendations in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

But there’s hope yet. According to a nutrition review article published in 2019, a plant-based diet “appears to be beneficial for human health by promoting the development of more diverse and stable microbial systems.”

The review, citing recent studies, also found vegetarians and vegans had higher levels of gut bacteria, which “provide anti-pathogenic and anti-inflammatory effects and cardiovascular protection.”

That’s all to say a diet higher in plants and fiber is more likely to make your gut bacteria happy. And while you can still enjoy animal protein and keep a strong immune system, Carbonero recommends substituting plant protein whenever possible.

That means opting for that veggie burger. Or that head of cauliflower. And if getting adequate amounts of protein from plants is your concern, consider that myth thoroughly busted.

I’m not going to leave you hanging without a meal idea to get you started. Consider what follows my easy, no-hassle suggestion for a plant-based sandwich that doesn’t skimp on protein, vegetables or flavor: vegan banh mi.

If your taste buds have never experienced the simple flavor of a banh mi, consider yourself lucky. Everybody remembers their first one.

A banh mi is a Vietnamese sandwich consisting of protein, cucumber and pickled veggies. That’s about it. Where you go from there is up to you – add, subtract or iterate. It’s all the same as long as you check those boxes.

Vegan Banh Mi

Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen.

1 package firm tofu

1/2 cucumber, peeled

2 carrots, peeled

1 lime

1/2 bushel cilantro

Vegan mayonnaise


Dijon mustard, optional


Hoagie roll

Open the package of tofu, drain it of water, and slice the tofu into 1/4-inch slabs – or thicker or thinner, depending on your preference. When I cut my tofu for this sandwich, I end up with 8 slices of tofu.

Place the tofu on a paper towel-lined baking sheet and let them sit for about 20 minutes. Once the water is drained, place the slices on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees for about 20-25 minutes.

Alternatively, you can coat the slices with corn starch and pan fry them with a few tablespoons of vegetable oil. This method makes them nice and crispy but less healthy.

Meanwhile, take your half cucumber and peel it. Slice it lengthwise and remove the seeds with a spoon. Then slice it thinly into little crescent-shaped pieces.

Peel and grate the carrots, then combine them with the cucumbers in a large bowl.

Squeeze the fresh lime juice on the cucumber and carrots. Sprinkle a dash of salt, stir and let the vegetables sit for 15 minutes or longer. The salt and lime juice will pickle the two vegetables ever so slightly, softening them and marrying all the flavors together.

In a bowl, combine about 1/4 cup vegan mayo with 1 tablespoon of Sriracha. I love Sriracha, so I end up using a lot more.

Once the tofu is out of the oven, I like to coat it with Dijon mustard. (Mustard isn’t part of any banh mi recipe I can find. I just think Sriracha and Dijon go so well together, it’s difficult not to use it here.)

Now it’s time to pile it all together. Spread the Sriracha mayo on the hoagie roll, place your tofu on the roll, then pile high with the carrot and cucumber mixture. Before you’re done, top with cilantro and, voila, a simple vegan banh mi.