There’s lots of talk these days about plant-based or plant-focused diets and as a registered dietitian, I’m often asked for advice on how to start eating this way. Here’s what you should know before beginning a plant-based eating plan.
1. A plant-focused diet can consist mainly of plants, or can be 100% plant based
Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, and whole soy foods are categories of plant foods. But you wonder, “can I have my favorite turkey on whole wheat with lettuce, tomato, and avocado if I’m following a plant-focused meal plan? The answer is yes! The key is that over time, you want to eat more whole food from plant sources than from non-plant sources. Eating a diet consisting mainly of plant foods is associated with lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and reduced risk of many chronic diseases according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Position Paper on Vegetarian Diets
2. Quality matters
There are several types of plant-based eating plans. You should choose the one that fits your taste preferences and lifestyle best. Then be sure to include a variety of vegetables and fruits since each contributes different vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients necessary for good health. Choosing these foods in their least processed form is also important for getting the highest nutrient content from your meals. For example, a broccoli and tofu stir fry (less processed) vs. a protein bar containing soy protein isolate (more processed).
|Plants||Eggs||Dairy||Fish & Seafood||Meat & Poultry|
3. There’s protein and calcium in a balanced plant-based diet
Include a source of protein in each meal and snack and you’ll feel more satisfied.
- Legumes (beans, lentils, peanuts, peas)
- Whole soy foods (tofu, soy milk, edamame)
- Nuts and Nut Butters (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, macadamias, Brazil nuts)
- Seeds and Seed Butters (sunflower, sesame, hemp, chia, flax, pumpkin seeds)
- Whole Grains (quinoa, farro, oats, millet, popcorn)
- Vegetables (spinach, broccoli, kale)
If you’re avoiding dairy, you’ll be glad to know that whole food plant sources of calcium have unique benefits. Leafy green veggies that are good sources of calcium are also rich in vitamin K. Vitamin K supports healthy bones. Potassium & vitamin C are other nutrients also found in fruits and veggies that support healthy bones.
- Green leafy vegetables: collard, kale, mustard greens
- Sesame seeds
- Black beans
- Dried figs
- Chia seeds
You’ll want to note that oxalates which are compounds found in some leafy greens, can interfere with calcium absorption. Beet greens, Swiss chard, spinach, and rhubarb are not good sources of calcium. You don’t need to avoid them, but be sure to include other sources of calcium.
You can also include in your diet fortified sources of calcium such as non-dairy milk alternatives made from soy, almonds, rice, hemp seeds, and oats. Fortification varies among brands so be sure to read the Nutrition Facts label. Breakfast cereals, whole wheat bread and protein bars are other fortified sources of calcium.
4. You may need a supplement
Vitamin B12 is a significant nutrient of concern for vegans and vegetarians. Our bodies need vitamin B12 to make red blood cells, and to keep our metabolism and nervous system functioning. If you become deficient in vitamin B12 you may experience difficulty walking, memory loss, disorientation, or develop anemia.
Vitamin B12 is naturally found in fish, meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. It’s generally not present in plant foods. But fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, nutritional yeast, and vegan meats contain readily available forms of vitamin B12 in varying amounts.
You may be interested to know that whether you choose a vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, or flexitarian diet, the National Institutes of Health recommends that all adults older than 50 obtain most of their vitamin B12 through supplements and fortified foods due to inadequate absorption that occurs due to aging.
Iron is an essential mineral required for cell growth and for transporting oxygen to our organs and tissues. If you don’t get enough iron from your food, you may feel fatigue, lack energy, and experience lower immunity. Iron from animal foods (heme iron) such as red meat, poultry, and fish is more easily absorbed than iron from plant foods (non-heme iron) like lentils, peas, and beans. For this reason, it’s recommended that vegans and vegetarians consume more iron-containing foods than non-vegetarians.
But the absorption of non-heme iron from plant foods is decreased by the phytates (stored phosphorus) found in seeds, nuts, beans, and grains, and the polyphenols (antioxidants) found in coffee, tea, and cocoa. Soaking, sprouting, and cooking the seeds, nuts, beans, and grains increases the amount of iron absorbed from these plant foods, as does eating them with a food source of vitamin C such as bell peppers or citrus juice.
The good news is that our bodies can store iron, and when the iron storage gets low, absorption increases.
5. The easiest way to start a plant-based eating plan is to eat more of the plant foods you’re already eating, but combine them in a new way
- Oatmeal for breakfast—swap in plain rolled oats for the flavored packet, add fresh or thawed frozen fruit, garnish with a drizzle of pure maple syrup and chopped pecans.
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich—swap in whole wheat bread instead of white and sliced apple or banana instead of jelly. Add a side of carrot sticks instead of chips.
- Spaghetti with meat sauce—swap in whole wheat pasta or chickpea pasta instead of white, add broccoli or asparagus and pesto sauce instead of meat sauce, garnish with pine nuts or walnuts.
- Pepperoni pizza—swap in mushrooms, onions, peppers, and broccoli for the pepperoni, and add a side salad. And, you could go all-in and try a cauliflower crust!
- Fresh berries— topped with a dollop of non-dairy yogurt and garnished with sliced almonds instead of a bowl of ice cream with whipped cream and a cherry on top.
6. Avoid boredom by trying new recipes and new foods
Eating a wide array of whole foods will help you feel full and satisfied, and ensure adequate nutrition. Try grocery shopping at a different store or market. Invite a friend to join you on your new plant-based adventure.
Making changes to your diet can be challenging so seek the help of a Registered Dietitian for guidance with meal planning, preparing new recipes, food shopping, and ensuring that you’re feeling your healthiest, most energetic self.