Despite the rumours you may have heard, plant-based eating does not mean sitting down to a miserable bowl of dry leafy greens. Like many terms in the field of nutrition, being ‘plant-based’ exists on a spectrum and it can mean something different to everyone.
You may want to be a plant-based eater for moral reasons or maybe you’re wanting to make a liberating health choice. Whatever your reason, plant-based eating brings about an exciting sense of experimentation. For most people, it’s about discovering ways to include new foods and recipes into their current repertoires as opposed to putting a restrictive ban on meat and animal by-products.
If you’re interested in a plant-based diet but you’re not yet well acquainted with this style of eating, read on to find out what it all means and how you can move to a plant-powered pattern of eating.
Defining a plant-based diet
Plant-based diets involve high intakes of (you guessed it) plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, wholegrains, as well as nuts and seeds. This is usually combined with a reduced or limited intake of animal products. People who are curious about adopting a plant-based diet may shy away from conclusive labels such as vegetarian or vegan as these eating patterns have higher expectations attached to them.
Plant-based eating, however, exists on a spectrum and each pattern of eating has their own inclusions and exclusions. Let me explain.
Veganism avoids all animal meats, both land and oceanic, as well as other by-products such as eggs, dairy and honey. Instead, vegans embrace only plant foods as well as plant-based protein alternatives (e.g. dairy-free products and soy-based proteins such as tofu or tempeh).
Vegetarians typically avoid animal meats, both land and oceanic, but choose to consume both dairy and egg products in combination with an abundance of plant food sources. Some vegetarians may choose to label themselves as ovo-vegetarian which means they consume eggs (ovo is Latin for egg) but not dairy. Conversely, lacto-vegetarians consume dairy products (lacto is the Latin root word for milk) but not egg.
Pescetarianism includes seafood and fish in addition to vegetarian foods such as dairy and eggs as well as all other plant-based food sources.
Omnivore diets include both animal-based meats such as red meat, poultry and fish and by-products such as dairy and eggs as well as all other plant foods.
It’s possible to have a plant-based diet that’s within a pescatarian and omnivorous pattern of eating. It simply means that a greater proportion of your food intake is coming from plant foods.
The key takeaway is plant-based can be whatever you want it to mean! It comes down to creating a higher plant to animal ratio, which can range from a meat-free dinner one night of the week, all the way to eating completely animal-free.
Why choose a plant-based diet?
Plant-powered eating patterns are a ‘yes’ vote for personal and environmental health as we shift to a more sustainable future for the next generations. We know that having a higher intake of plant foods is associated with reduced body weight and lower risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease as well as certain cancers such as bowel, breast and prostate.
Trading animal foods for diverse plant proteins such as beans, lentils, nuts and seeds as well as wholegrains also increases the body’s intake of fibre and other nutrients that optimise the gut microbiome. In turn, this leads to a happier tummy and a more efficient immune system which helps to fight inflammation within the body.
While you may not be interested in completely removing animal products from your diet, you can still dip your toe in by reducing your meat consumption and embracing a flexitarian-style approach. This way of eating is more about adopting healthier eating patterns by including more plant-based foods and viewing meat as an occasional accompaniment.
Sneaky substitutions, inclusions, and additions
Given the open-ended territory of this style of eating, building a plant-based diet can be as fixed or as flexible as you wish it to be.
To start building, it’s easier to focus on adding foods in, before restricting or limiting food options. This means focusing on upping your plant food intake rather than reducing your meat and dairy intake as the first call of action.
For those already following more of a plant-based eating pattern, it can be worth focusing on experimentation with new and varied plant foods because your body craves and thrives on variety.
Focus on upping vegetable intake rather than reducing meat
- Make vegetables the ‘hero’ of the dish and aim for half the plate coming from vegetables.
- Try placing the veggies on your plate first, and try to think of meat as the accompaniment rather than the other way around like you’re used to.
Pick one night of the week to have a vegetarian meal (hello ‘Meat-Free Mondays’)
- Have fun! Experiment with different meals and cuisines that you already enjoy and filter your fave recipe websites for vegetarian meal options.
- Don’t be afraid to make changes to your favourite recipes. If your go-to Monday meal is chicken stir fry, try using tofu or tempeh in replacement of chicken.
The 50/50 approach
- Reduce the amount of animal-derived proteins eaten at each meal by half and bulk out the gap with filling legumes, lentils or vegetables.
Think of the fab four when building meals – plant protein, fibre, healthy fats and greens
Elevate your meals by emphasising the inclusion of the fab four (plant protein, fibre, healthy fats and greens) to ensure the meal is as nourishing, satisfying and enjoyable as possible.
Try one of these recipes:
Plant-based proteins to experiment with:
- Chickpeas or pea protein isolate
- Beans e.g. kidney, cannellini, navy etc.
- Soybeans and soy-based products e.g. Textured vegetable protein (TVP)
- Nuts and seeds
- Tahini paste or hummus
- Quinoa/brown rice/barley/couscous
- Pulse pasta varieties
While these little tweaks may seem daunting, focus on wholefood abundance, as opposed to limitation, when it comes to building your plant-based diet. The small yet sustainable changes that you can see yourself doing long term are a huge step in the right direction for your personal health.
If you would like individualised advice on how to move to plant-based eating, the team of Accredited Practising Dietitians at The Healthy Eating Clinic can help. Call us on 02 6174 4663.
At The Healthy Eating Clinic, we want to equip you with habit-based nutrition advice so that you can eat well for the rest of your life! Make an appointment today