There are many reasons that can bring a person to consider transitioning to a more plant-based way of eating, whether it’s being more conscious of the environmental impact our food choices have, animal welfare concerns or simply supporting health by reducing the risk of lifestyle driven conditions that has been associated with a plant-based diet.
Whatever the goal behind your choice, don’t feel overwhelmed and think you have to make big changes all at once. There is no right way to do it. Just find the pace that fits your life so that this transition can be something you enjoy and actually benefit from. Here’s a few tips on where to start.
Add more in before taking out
Slowly increase the amount of plant-based foods and meals you have before removing meat, dairy, fish or eggs. Incorporate a plant-based meal two to three times per week, then maybe make one meal a day completely plant-based. Breakfast is often the easiest one to change. For example, if you normally eat eggs, try adding more vegetables. Then, make that one meal completely plant based by using oatmeal, quinoa, buckwheat to turn into porridge or pancakes with nuts or seeds along with fresh fruit.
Next, start reducing your meat consumption down day by day until you’re only eating it about once a week. Have smaller amounts, use it as a garnish instead of a centerpiece. You can then move on to fish, dairy and eggs.
Remember to not compare your journey to someone else’s because the balance you’ll find in terms of how much of your diet centres around plants is completely unique to you.
Simplify by having staples on hand
Stock up the kitchen and fridge with healthy essentials; like dairy-free milks, tins of beans and chickpeas, tofu and tempeh, whole-grains like oats, rice, buckwheat and quinoa, good fats like avocados, nuts and seeds, frozen vegetables that can taste delicious by mixed into a stir-fry, curry, salad, bean chili and pasta dishes, frozen fruit for breakfast and treats, dips like hummus and pesto and the ever-versatile nut butters.
Have a variety of these but at the same time, make sure you have foods that are already your favorites on hand so that swapping ingredients and trying out new recipes will still feel a bit familiar. Cookbooks, magazines and online recipes will become your best friends in terms of experimenting with new kinds of foods.
Build your plate so that meals can be satisfying
Try pairing a carbohydrate like whole grains or starchy vegetables with a source of protein (tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes) and fats (nuts and seeds, coconut, olive oil, avocado) to help you feel satisfied. At the same time this combination tends to help stabilise blood glucose levels and give a slower and steadier release of energy.
You may need to increase the volume of foods you are eating to meet your caloric requirements as plant-based foods tend to be lower in calories than animal-based products.
But with fibre rich items like legumes and pulses, start slow and don’t increase the amount you eat all at once. If you are not already used to consume them daily, they could cause discomfort and bloating since they contain prebiotic fibres that feed beneficial gut bacteria through a fermentation process. Start with 1/4 to 1/2 cup daily, cook them well and digestion should be back to normal in a little while.
Learn about the nutrient content of food
Do a bit of research on the best source of essential nutrients. If you are concerned about specific macro and micronutrients that you often hear may be lacking on a plant-based diet, rest assured that with a bit more attention and guidance you will be able to meet your daily needs.
One essential nutrient that is often discussed is protein. Plant protein sources may be lacking in one or more of the essential amino acids our body needs to obtain from the diet but when more than one source is combined together, they can be utilised just as well as animal proteins.
One of the richest sources of plant proteins are legumes such as beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas. Soya beans and derivatives like tofu and tempeh have a high protein content as well and quinoa and buckwheat are a good source of protein too. And they contain all the 9 essential amino acids in them. The same goes for hemp seeds. Nuts and seeds are another excellent source so try to include nuts like pine nuts, almonds, walnuts and seeds like chia, hemp, sunflower and pumpkin.
In terms of micronutrients, one of the main ones to pay attention to is vitamin B12. While there are plant-based sources like fortified plant milks, cereals, nutritional yeast flakes that can provide good amounts, supplementation is usually recommended on a vegan diet.
Vitamin D is another nutrient where supplementation is suggested and not just for people following a plant-based diet. The NHS recommends taking a supplement in autumn or winter months of 10 mcg (400 IU) daily. Other essential nutrients are iodine, calcium, iron and omega 3s fatty acids. Iodine is often added into fortified dairy free milks or cereals and found in sea vegetables. A supplement could be a good option but only if it’s been recommended.
Calcium is found in dark leafy greens (broccoli, pak choi, kale, collard greens, spring greens), clciim-set tofu, dried figs, chia seeds, almonds and fortified plant milks, yogurts, cereals. While iron can be found in beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, broccoli, kale, cashews, chia, hemp and pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, dried apricots and figs, quinoa, whole wheat and fortified cereals. But its absorption rate is lower than heme iron (the type found in animal sources). So, include sources of vitamin C to optimise absorption.
In terms of essential fatty acids, the body can convert ALA from plant sources into the EPA and DHA (active forms of omega 3s fatty acids the body needs). But this conversion could be impaired or not be optimal. Some doctors recommend doubling the amount of dietary ALA sources of omega 3s fatty acids eaten during the day to ensure adequate amounts. Another option is an algae-based supplement.
Always consult a medical or nutritional professional that can offer individualised advice on what can be the best option for you, before looking to add supplements to your diet.
Alessandra is a Registered Nutritional Therapist, Plant Based Chef, Nutrition & Health Content Writer. She studied at College of Naturopathic Medicine in London and is a medicinal chef that gained her training from the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York.