The idea of plant-based eating at first seems so simple. Yet it can still confound us when we sit down and start to think about what to eat.
How can we eat a healthy and manageable diet consuming nothing but plants? How do we get enough protein? Will it be hard to eat out? What does plant-based really mean? Let’s clear up some of the confusion and provide some practical steps so you can get started on your plant-based journey.
What is Plant-Based Eating?
First of all, why is eating plant-based not the same as being vegan? The key difference is that plant-based has a focus on natural, whole-food plant choices rather than just avoiding animal products.
A vegan might be happy eating an artificial and processed soy burger. But someone who is plant-based would prefer to choose a more natural option instead. Heavily processed foods and synthetic ingredients are out in the plant-based diet.
Another big difference is that veganism is tied to all aspects of your life. And it often has a side-order of activism thrown in. Being plant-based is only about eating, and looking to the most natural and healthy options.
Why Go Plant-Based?
For most people, going plant-based is about being healthy and choosing the best foods for their body. Another common reason for choosing a plant-based diet is due to its lower impact on the environment.
Plants are low in fat and calories while also being high in healthy fibre and antioxidants. But that doesn’t reflect every single plant-based food option. For example, avocados are high in fat, as are nuts and various plant-based oils. But in the grand scheme of things, plant-based diets are lower in fat. And they’re definitely lower in cholesterol because that particular kind of fat is only found in animal products.
With a lower fat profile, plant-based eating can help reduce the risk of heart disease and strokes. You also get a lot more fibre with a plant-based diet, which is great for your digestive system.
Another point to consider is that meat and animal products can be more expensive than fruits and vegetables. When you cut dairy and meat from your diet, and start relying on natural produce, you could see your shopping bills shrink. It’s probably not going to be the main reason you change your eating habits, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
The Skinny on Plant-Based Nutrition
Let’s get the obvious elephant out of the room first: what about protein? Though meat advocates insist that you can’t get enough protein from plants alone, science says otherwise.
Adults need around 45-55g of protein a day. You can easily get that from nuts, beans and various grains (quinoa is a good one for protein). Is the protein content going to equal that of a huge slab of steak? Of course not. The point is that you never needed that huge serving of protein to begin with. Once you realise how much protein you need, you’ll see that it’s not hard to do it with plants alone.
Those following a plant-based diet also worry about where to get their iron and calcium. These are nutrients that are often associated with animal-based foods. Again, it’s not that hard to manage with plants.
Dark leafy greens like kale, spinach or broccoli are loaded with iron and calcium and are super easy to cook. Lentils, soy and chickpeas are also great sources of iron. Collard greens and tofu will help with the calcium. A lot of non-dairy milks are also fortified with calcium.
How to Stock Your Fridge and Food Cupboards for Plant-Based Eating
It’s not as simple as filling up the freezer with frozen foods, as your goal is whole-foods not fast-food. But a few frozen meals from allplants might help on busy days when you don’t have the time or energy to cook!
Cooking plant-based means using lots of fresh, natural ingredients. This can be daunting if you’re not used to cooking or preparing ingredients from scratch. To help you get started, here’s a handy list of products and foods you should aim to keep in the kitchen at all times.
- Beans – lentils, black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans
- Grains – rice, quinoa, whole oats, barley
- Pasta – whole wheat or brown rice varieties
- Nuts and seeds – cashews, almonds, chia seeds, flax, sunflower seeds, nut butter
- Fresh fruit and vegetables – every kind you can think of!
- Baking goods – flour, baking soda, baking powder, dark chocolate chips, shredded coconut, maple syrup, non-dairy margarine or butter
- Some extras – tomato paste, soy sauce, nutritional yeast, soup stocks, coconut oil, olive oil, herbs, spices and more spices
Often, dried products like lentils and beans are cheaper and easier to store. But canned varieties can be a lot quicker to cook with as they don’t need soaking first. Don’t worry if you have no idea what to do with some of these. Experiment to find your inner chef! And besides, nobody is going to come to your kitchen and judge you for not knowing everything.
How to Go Plant-Based? Take It Step-By-Step
All that’s left now is to get started. It can be a bit overwhelming to look at your entire diet and try to manage a wide range of changes all at once. Take it one step at a time.
Experiment with New Ingredients
Trying to adjust your diet to plants-only will seem daunting if you’re only familiar with a handful of veggies. Green beans, lettuce and carrots are going to get really boring, really quickly. Beetroots, kale, mushrooms, spinach and sweet potatoes are all worth getting to know.
Take It Slow
Learn one or two new plant-based recipes, and maybe drop the meat for one meal a week. Reduce your meat and animal products as your confidence grows. Patience is important, especially if a trial recipe or two doesn’t work out. Don’t give up, try again!
Leaving yourself with no food in the kitchen will just stress you out when trying to prepare a plant-based meal. Keep an eye on your grocery shopping and have great produce and whole foods around you at all times. It makes it a lot easier to whip up a healthy meal that way.
Learn to DIY
A lot of common foods can be made at home, saving you money and keeping a lot of preservatives out of your diet. You can make your own vegan cheese with nuts and a few other natural ingredients. Or whip up a batch of lentil burgers instead of going for pre-made frozen patties made with extruded wheat gluten.
You’ll get the freshest produce if you look for locally-grown foods that are in season. Find your nearest greengrocer or farmers market and stock up!
You don’t need to ditch every morsel of meat or every drop of dairy to gain the benefits of a plant-based diet. Every small change is positive, and you should be proud of each one.
Don’t fret over “mistakes” or unhealthy choices. It’s all a journey, so enjoy the ride!