I get asked all the time, “How did you become a vegan?”
“How do you get your protein?”
“How do you get enough nutrition, especially for running and breastfeeding?”
I also frequently get, “How do I get started on a plant-based diet?”
“How can I follow a plant-based diet and train for a marathon/have a healthy pregnancy/get enough nutrition/etc?”
“I could never do that.”
“I don’t know where to start.”
In today’s society, with its focus on protein is king, and carbs are bad, it can seem really daunting to figure out how to get enough nutrition, regardless of any other parameters. This month, I’ve decided to focus on the basics of plant-based nutrition, sharing the benefits, busting the myths, and outlining how it does not have to be complicated to eat well.
The term “plant-based” itself can be confusing. How is it different from vegan or vegetarian? What are the benefits of plant-based vs. the standard American diet? Before embarking on any new health journey, it is first important to understand what it means, why it’s valuable, and how to practically implement it into your daily life.
What does a plant-based diet mean?
First, and foremost, a plant-based diet does not mean animal foods are off-limits. It does not mean you must omit, restrict, or count any particular food or nutrient. And it is not a diet in the sense that it is something you are “on” or “off.” A plant-based approach to nutrition is simply the way you choose to eat, based on your personal and cultural preferences. If you decide to give up meat and dairy, and then choose to eat a slice of pizza one night, you have not “failed.” You have simply made a choice based on what your body wants to eat at that moment.
A plant-based approach to nutrition focuses on fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains It does not mean no animal products. You may be ready for a plant-only diet, you may have a dairy allergy, or maybe you just want to feel healthier in your every day life. A plant-based approach can work for you!
Plant-based means focusing on plants FIRST. Instead of thinking of the protein first as the main element of your plate, focus on the plant foods. Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, with protein and starches on the side.
A plant-based diet promotes optimal health and wellness. Whole plant foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and other bioactive compounds. A plant-rich diet has numerous health benefits including lower blood cholesterol, reduced risk of heart disease and stroke, lower blood pressure, and a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes. Plants are high in dietary fiber, low in saturated fat, and contain no cholesterol.
Plant foods support healthy brain function by reducing chronic inflammation and oxidative stress. Healthy fats rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as walnuts and flax seeds may also play a role in reversing cognitive defects and decreasing risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
A topic of much interest today, plants also play a role in supporting a healthy gut and digestive system. By eating a diet rich in fiber, we can cultivate and maintain healthy bacteria in the intestinal tract. This in turn supports the immune system as a whole and can aid in preventing disease.
Creating a balanced plant-based plate
There is no need to make sure you have a “center of the plate” main dish with two sides like we grew up eating. Think of the meal as a whole, with an emphasis on color, variety, and flavors. Mix things up. toss them together. What items do you have in the fridge that you can get creative with? What vegetables are in season? Start there and build your plate around fresh, whole plant foods.
Foods are composed of 3 macronutrients – protein, carbohydrates, and fats. I tell all my nutrition coaching clients to make sure to eat 2 of the 3 at every meal (and snack!) Carbohydrates will give you energy, while protein will slow the absorption of the sugar, and give you steady, lasting fuel, instead of a spike and then crash. A sprinkling of fat will also aid in satiety and brain power.
Plant-based carbohydrates include whole grains, starchy vegetables, and fruits. Legumes (lentils and beans), nuts, seeds, whole grains, and soy foods are all rich in protein. Healthy fats are found in avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds. By incorporating a variety of whole, plant foods into each meal, you will be able to get a balance of macronutrients with ease.
Ready to stock your pantry with plant-based staple foods, so you can always have quick meals on hand in a pinch? My Plant-Based Pantry list is full of the staples I keep on hand at all times. Grab your copy here and always have the ingredients on hand to make fast, satisfying meals anytime!
What about calcium? Leafy greens, broccoli, tofu, beans, and blackstrap molasses are all calcium-rich foods. The calcium content varies by food, but by incorporating a variety of foods into each meal and each day, most people can easily meet their calcium needs through plants and calcium-fortified foods.
At the end of the day, plant-based nutrition is a way of eating that promotes a healthy body, a healthy mind, and a healthy world. Whether you are looking to lose weight, overhaul your dietary habits, or protect the environment, a diet based on whole plant foods provides optimal nutrition to fuel your everyday activities. Remember, no foods are off-limits. No foods are “good” or “bad.” By incorporating more plant foods into your daily meals, you are setting yourself up for a lifetime of rewards.