By Florencia Tagliavini, The NutraMilk Nutritionist.
Thinking about going plant-based?
Research has linked many health benefits including reducing your risk of heart disease, certain cancers, obesity, diabetes and cognitive decline to eating plant-based, this is why many respected health institutions now recommend reducing consumption of animal products, especially red meat, while increasing plant-based foods.
What is exactly a plant-based diet?
Plant-based can mean different things to different people, some think of it as a vegan diet, which is the strictest vegetarian diet where no animal products or byproducts are consumed at all, while others say it’s a vegetarian type of diet where some animal products such as dairy ("lacto-vegetarian") or eggs ("ovo-vegetarian") are included and others say eating meat on or animal products less frequently is okay and so on. There is no consensus on the definition, but, we can all agree that including more plant-based foods in our diets is beneficial for our health and not to mention for our planet. Now, all plant-based foods are not created equal. The food industry has responded to the high demand for plant-based foods offering several animal-product substitutes. There are substitutes for dairy cheese, milk, hot dogs, sausages, hamburgers, butter, mayonnaise, creamers, the list goes on. These vegetarian products try to simulate the non-vegetarian version in appearance, texture, taste and culinary use. While this may make it easy for people to transition, you don’t want to build your diet around these foods. Eating processed foods should be kept to a minimum and instead, you should aim to consume a whole-foods, plant-based diet which is not so much a diet as it is a lifestyle.
What is the right plant-based diet for you?
The focus should be on eating more of the right plants, which should make up the majority of what you eat, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts while avoiding, unhealthy foods, and moderating your intake of healthier animal products.
Regardless of the type of whole-foods, plant-based diet you choose (vegan, ovo-vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian or flexitarian) adopting a plant-based approach to eating is sure to boost your health.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind to help you eat more plant-based:
1. Ease into it
It doesn't have to be all or nothing. Choose the right whole-foods, plant-based diet that´s going to fit your lifestyle and start making small changes. This new lifestyle should not feel like a struggle or deprivation of any sort. The key to building long-lasting lifestyle habits is to make slow moderate changes.
2. Be inspired
Get some plant-based cookbooks at your local bookstore or library to get simple recipe ideas. Follow plant-based chefs, nutritionist or foodies on social media to get inspiration and connect with vegetarian/vegan communities or like-minded people that can help guide you and provide advice.
3. Be prepared
A little planning and organization goes a long way and will make these changes a lot simpler. Stock your kitchen with the healthy, plant foods you want to eat such as seasonal fruits and vegetables, whole grains, tofu, dried and canned beans, nuts and seeds, plant-based milks, nut & seed butters, spices, and herbs. Try new foods, don’t discard anything without trying it. As you begin to explore with plant foods and connect with people following this lifestyle, you will see there is an abundance of plant foods that most people never eat and are missing out on and so many ways to prepare easy, wholesome and delicious dishes.
4. Change your focus
Don’t focus on what you´ll be missing out on, instead focus on what you´ll be gaining from eating a plant-based diet. Start by adding more plant foods to the mixed meals you are eating and change the way you think about animal foods like dairy, eggs, poultry, meat, and seafood. Have smaller amounts. Use it as a compliment instead of a centerpiece and base your plate on plant foods.
Up for a challenge? What about joining the Meatless Mondays movement or challenge yourself to cook a plant-based meal at least once or twice a week,build these meals around beans, whole grains, and vegetables, or to challenge yourself to add one new serving of legumes to your day or make a goal to get your 5 servings of vegetables a day. These are a few ideas- choose one and commit to it and you'll see that afterwards it will be easier to establish a routine of eating more plant-based meals.
5. Swap animal foods for plant-based foods
One easy way to transition towards a more plant-based diet is to start swapping some of the animal foods you eat for plant-based foods. Don’t think of these swaps as replacements but as healthy and delicious options to choose.
- Swap dairy milk for non-dairy milk
This is probably one of the easiest swaps in my opinion. Non-dairy milks or plant-based milks have the same use as dairy milks (drinking, baking, cooking, pouring over cereal, etc.). They are not nutritionally comparable but if you make your own, you get so many health benefits from the nutrient dense nuts and seeds such as various vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals, heart-healthy fats and much more without the additives of store-bought milks. Just make sure you get your calcium and vitamin D from other sources -unless you make your own sesame seed milk which has more calcium than dairy milk. The options of milks you can make with the various nuts and seeds and plant sources are so abundant plus you can flavor them in so many ways.
Here are some ideas:
- Swap dairy milk for almond milk in your coffee
- Swap dairy milk for hazelnut milk in your hot chocolate
- Swap dairy milk for oat milk or almond in your cereal or oatmeal
- Swap dairy milk for pumpkin seed milk in your smoothies & pancakes
- Swap dairy creamer for coconut milk
2. Swap dairy butter for nut & seed butters to spread on toasts, pancakes or to cook.
Dairy butter is very high in saturated fats which we want to limit for various health reasons while nut butters are a rich source of heart-healthy unsaturated fats and provide so many nutrients that butter does not, such as fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals and a load of vitamins and minerals. Nut and seed butter will help you stay full for longer which can aid in weight loss. If you use dairy butter often, this swap is sure to give your diet a nutritional upgrade.
3. Swap your sandwich filling:
Instead of mayo use hummus. Mayonnaise is a source of unhealthy fats, does not provide much nutrition and usually has a long list of ingredients or additives that your body will not appreciate, while hummus offers fiber, protein, healthy fats, folate, iron, other vitamins, and minerals.
Instead of cold deli meats, which many of them were classified as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization, try some roasted or fresh veggies or tofu.
4. Swap chocolate for a cacao & hazelnut bar or make Nutella
Sometimes you just need chocolate! You can pick up a vegan chocolate bar or make your own with cacao and hazelnut butter. This combination is delicious and will satisfy your chocolate craving, plus when you use a good cacao you get all the antioxidants which make chocolate a healthy addition to your diet!
5. Swap ground beef for lentils, beans or any legume in dishes such as tacos, casseroles, pasta sauces or you can even make some delicious vegetarian burgers. All legumes, in general, are a good source of protein, an excellent source of fiber and other healthful nutrients and they will make any dish hearty and satisfying.
Transitioning to a whole-foods, plant-based diet, whether is just shifting the balance towards vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, legumes, and whole grains instead of processed foods, refined foods and animal products or going completely vegan, it´s going to have an impact on your health and the planet. Give it a try!