Going plant-based but don't know where to start? I've got you covered. The what, the how, and a sample day's menu - Nutritionist approved!
A plant-centric diet is one that is based on a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, seaweeds, herbs and spices - all in their most natural state.
The benefits of going plant based are extremely note-worthy: in a nutshell, it’s nutrient dense, alkaline forming, high in fibre, lowers your risk factors for many diseases and contributes to longevity.
But let’s not forget – it’s also a conscious, compassionate and sustainable lifestyle choice.
We can ALL benefit from getting back to nature and including more plants!
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Vegan vs plant based: what’s the difference?
A vegan diet excludes all foods of animal origin – meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, dairy and bee products.
A vegan diet is just one part of the vegan lifestyle – which aims to avoid products of animal origin across all industries – agriculture, textiles, fashion and beauty to give some examples.
Surveys show that the main reason for adopting a vegan diet, is to end the exploitation and suffering of animals, with health and environmental impact as secondary drivers .
Consequently, the vegan diet may not in fact be nutritionally sound. It’s possible to do vegan really well, and really, quite poorly – with heavy reliance on carbohydrates, soy products, and heavily processed ‘meat’ alternatives.
A whole food, plant-based diet is centred around minimally processed whole foods, and an abundance of plant foods. Animal products are limited but not necessarily excluded entirely.
The key emphasis is on consuming enough plant foods daily – as current studies are suggesting we need upwards of 800g (10 servings) of fresh fruits and vegetables (mostly vegetables) daily to prevent disease and all-cause mortality .
Health and nutrition are really at the forefront with this diet.
So, what do you eat on a plant-based diet?
Going plant-based is all about crowding out the 'bad' stuff with the good. Less refined and processed foods, more whole foods. Less (and better quality) meats and animal products, more plants.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables: eat from the rainbow, and include something raw, daily. The bigger the spectrum of colour to eat, the greater the amount of protective phytonutrients you will receive
- Tubers: starchy vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, beets, celeriac
- Berries: fresh and raw – deserving of their own category as they’re low sugar, high fibre, and packed with antioxidants. The perfect healthy snack
- Legumes: beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, carob and peanuts… exceptional source of dietary fibre, legumes are wonderfully supportive of gut-health
- Whole grains: grains with their outer endosperm, germ and bran intact. Brown, wild and black rice, sorghum, teff, millet, oatmeal… whole grains are great sources of dietary fibre and B group vitamins. Quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth are also sources of complete protein – as in they contain all nine essential amino acids in good amounts. Sprouting and fermenting can radically improve the nutrient profile
- Nuts: raw or toasted, whole or ground into a nut butter – providing a source of heart healthy monounsaturated fat, minerals such as zinc and selenium, and if raw – the antioxidant vitamin E
- Seeds: again, raw, toasted or ground to a butter – seeds are a great source of heart healthy fats, plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, and protein
- Soy products: organic, non-GMO and minimally processed if possible. Tempeh is preferred over tofu, but both are great sources of protein and calcium
- Herbs: parsley, rosemary, dill, fennel… fresh herbs are pure food as medicine, and many of our culinary herbs are digestive soothers
- Spices: turmeric, cumin, paprika, coriander, clove, saffron… spices are some of the most antioxidant rich, anti-inflammatory foods available to us
- Seaweeds: nori, dulse, karengo… seaweeds are incredibly mineral dense, particularly so in iodine, a key nutrient for thyroid health
- Algae: spirulina, chlorella… both complete proteins that also happen to be sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Algae can be taken as a supplement to maintain omega-3 status, particularly if the diet is limited in or contains no oily fish
- Nutritional yeast: a deactivated yeast grown on top of molasses – nutritional yeast is a nice protein booster and is most often fortified with B group vitamins, including vitamin B12
- Superfoods: raw cacao, bee pollen, moringa, goji, green powders… nutrient dense foods providing more nutritional bang for your buck
And, a limited amount of organic, grass-fed and finished meats, pasture raised chickens and eggs, dairy and wild-caught fish, although many on plant-based diets do choose to avoid them completely.
Even though plant-based diets may include a small amount of foods of animal origin – this blog focuses entirely on recipes that are meat/dairy/egg free. The term ‘vegan’ is used for easy searching of recipes.
The plant based trend as a whole is on the increase. Here in New Zealand alone, 1 in 10 of us have a mostly meat-free diet, up from one in four back in 2014 .
Going plant-based step by step
Nothing can seem more overwhelming than change - but if you're really ready to do this (and I'll be cheering you on!), then making small, sustainable changes is the way to go. My advice:
1 / Make a list of all the refined, heavily processed foods you consume, then look for a whole foods alternative to replace it with: if things like white bread, white pasta, crackers, sugar, jam, soft drinks, processed meats (salami, sausage), feature - then look for healthier swaps. A few ideas:
White bread > whole grain or whole grain gluten free bread
Pasta > legume pasta (delicious), whole grain pasta (quinoa, brown rice, sorghum)
Crackers > mixed seed crackers, flax crackers, toasted nut and seed mix
Jam > chia jam, nut butters
Soft drinks > sparkling water with cucumber slices + basil, homemade or store bought kefir or kombucha
Chips > sweet potato wedges
Ice cream > coconut yoghurt
Sweets > Medjool date stuffed with almond butter
Processed meats > organic grass fed and finished meats and organ meats, organic pastured poultry and eggs
Large fish > smaller fish, oily fish
Margarine > butter, ghee, coconut oil, olive oil, avocado, tahini
Replace items as they run out for healthier options (again, small changes - nothing drastic or sweeping!), and enjoy the flavour as your taste buds adapt to whole foods.
Check back in soon for a more detailed post on healthy swaps.
2 / Make non-starchy vegetables your priority: aim to increase your vegetable intake considerably - I've found in clinic that its not uncommon for people to consume 1/2 - 1 cup of non-starchy vegetables daily. Aim to fill half your dinner plate with the good stuff - mixed salad greens, dark leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, radish, asparagus... anything fresh, green, and lightly cooked (raw, steamed or blanched). The key I've found is to dress your greens well to up the flavour - make a simple olive oil, vinegar, mustard and maple dressing for your salad greens, and drizzle quality olive oil over steamed greens.
No fail dressing for two:
1 tablespoon organic, extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons balsamic or Chardonnay vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon pure maple syrup
Few grinds of black pepper
3 / Gradually reduce your intake of animal proteins: if you're eating meat more than once a day, aim to reduce this at first to just once daily. Eventually look at swapping a couple of meals out to be vegetarian or entirely plant-based. Small steps - and be sure to replace meat with a quality plant protein - eg. beans, lentils, tempeh, peas.
Worried you won't get enough protein on a plant-based diet? Have a read of this article, and take a look at some of the swaps you can make.
4 / Introduce one new food and one new recipe per week: the beauty of a plant-based diet is the share variety of foods - all of which are going to help create a nice and diverse gut microbiome. Diversity is key! Pick something you've not tried - for example - quinoa. Then pick out a recipe for the week and give it a whirl. Don't overwhelm - just one thing a week.
Have a look at some of my favourite, nutrient dense plant-based whole foods here.
5 / Keep things balanced: aim to include each of the three macronutrients with every meal: a fat, a complex carbohydrate, a protein. This will help keep your blood glucose balanced, and keep you feeling satiated.
A breakfast example:
Oats (complex carbohydrate) with berries, almond milk, almond butter and chia seeds (fat and protein).
6 / Consult with a qualified Nutritionist for expert advice: if you're doing this alone, have a health condition or take medications - book a consult for expert guidance. Even if you just have one or two appointments - use it as a blueprint to ensure you're heading in the right direction, safely.
Plant-based sample meal plan
There are so many delicious recipes here on the blog to help get you started going plant-based, but I thought I’d collate a sample daily meal plan for you here.
Coconut Quinoa Porridge – quinoa is a complete protein source and makes for a very filling meal when cooked with coconut milk, dates and warming spices. Sprouting the quinoa by popping it in a bowl with water to soak the night before, decreases cooking time and increases the nutrient profile.
Smashed Chickpea Salad Sandwich – choose your favourite whole grain bread, then fill with salad greens and this insanely delicious chickpea smash. Made with chickpeas, red onion, gherkins, tahini, lemon and coconut yoghurt. Great source of protein, complex carbohydrates, heart healthy fats and dietary fibre.
Raw Beet Salad – we all need something raw and colourful in our diets each day. Beets with fennel, kale and fresh mint provide an array of protective phytonutrients, while the goji berries add extra antioxidant goodness. Simple, quick, delicious.
Kitchari is an Ayurvedic healing meal – a mix of lentils with rice, vegetables and spices. Protein-rich and incredibly nourishing, this is something that features regularly on our table. We adjust the vegetables and spices to give variety. Don’t skip the coconut, coriander and fresh lime to serve!
Get rested with this Ashwagandha Sleep Tonic. A milky brew containing a herb with the botanical name Withania somnifera – to help you better adapt to the stressors of life, relax, ease anxiety and sleep better.
That’s all for now! Health really is the greatest wealth, and Mama Nature has the goods. Be sure to subscribe to my email list for regular updates + new recipes.