From Meat to Vegetables
Whether you are making a shift to a more plant based diet for health, environmental or ethical reasons, often the transition can be challenging and somewhat daunting. The best advice I have is to go slow. Think about adding foods rather than taking away and slowly but surely the more animal based foods will be shoved off the plate making room for the plants.
Why go Plant Based?
A plant based diet has the potential not only to improve energy, optimize health and rid your body of excess body fat, evidence shows that eating plant based can lower blood pressure, prevent heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancers. It can improve bone health and protect against Alzheimer’s. Not only does it help our bodies, it helps our environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, water contamination and antibiotic resistance, to name a few. Need I say more?
Change the traditional meat centered plate to one focused on vegetables. Making a plant based meal isn’t about sides and salads without the meat, it’s about creating new combinations of ingredients and flavours while getting all the nutrients you need.
Becoming a “grain-etarian” rather than a “vegetarian”
Dropping the meat and not adding in plant proteins
Low calcium intake without cheese and dairy
Not getting enough key nutrients such as iron, zinc, B12 and DHA
Eating low quality processed foods
Semi-vegetarians – don’t eat meat but do eat dairy, poultry and fish
Pesco-vegetarians – don’t eat poultry and meat but still include seafood and shellfish
Lacto-ovo vegetarians - still eat eggs and dairy
Lacto-vegetarians – still eat dairy but no meat, fish, poultry or eggs
Vegans - avoid all animal foods (even consider honey from bees as animal products)
The Food Groups
Legumes, nuts and soy
Healthy fats and oils
Focus on Vegetables
Leafy Greens: Arugula, Swiss chard, beet and collard greens, rapini, spinach, lettuce.
Cruciferous Vegetables: Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, broccolini, rutabaga, bok choy.
Orange vegetables: Carrots, yams, sweet potato, winter squash (butternut, hubbard, spaghetti etc.)
Include 5 or more servings each day and be sure to include one green and one orange each day.
Adding more vegetables to your diet:
Papaya, mango, acai berries, blueberries, blackberries, apples, pears, oranges, grapefruit, kiwi, bananas, cantaloupe, mango etc. Aim for 2-3 servings per day.
Tips for adding fruit:
Plant Protein Foods: Legumes, nuts and Soy
Getting enough protein is important and not impossible as you transition from animal to plants. Legumes and soy: 3/4c is one serving. Lentils, split peas, chickpeas, black and kidney beans, soy beans, tofu, tempeh etc. 1 serving provides close to 13g of protein. Soy contains 22g protein per serving. 1/4c Nuts provides 6-8g protein. The RDA for protein is 0.8g/kg body weight. Other foods that contain protein include soymilk (8g/cup), fruit and vegetables (0.5-1g/1/2c), whole grains (3-6g per 1/2c cooked)
Delicious ways to add legumes to your diet:
Tempeh: it is made from cooked and fermented soybeans that are then pressed into cakes and can be sliced or crumbled into tomato sauces and stir fry. Has a nutty flavour and often comes already mixed with herbs and grains.
Textured Vegetable Protein: TVP is a dehydrated product often made from soy flour, oats or wheat which needs to be reconstituted in hot water. It comes as flakes or chunks. Use it in place of ground meat in recipes for tacos, spaghetti or chili.
Delicious ways to add soy to your diet.
Brown rice, rye, barley, quinoa, whole wheat, millet, amaranth, oats, spelt, kamut, faro. ½ cup cooked is a serving. Aim for 3-8 of these.
Research shows that people who eat more whole grains have lower risks of heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Grains such as barley, rye, oats and oat bran are excellent sources of soluble fibre which helps lower cholesterol stabilize blood sugar and increase satiety. All grains contain resistant starch which provides a fuel to good bacteria in the gut.
Some grains to check out:
Amaranth is very high in protein, calcium and iron and is a good source of fibre. It is delicious as a cooked cereal for breakfast and can also be sprouted, toasted or ground into flour. Cooking the grain takes 20-25 minutes with a 3:1 water to grain ratio.
Barley is a good source of selenium and fibre, in particular soluble fibre. Hulled barley is the whole grain version and pearl or pot barley is the refined version. Barley is great in soups and cold in salads. Barley takes 60-90 minutes with a 3:1 water to grain ratio.
Kamut is an ancient wheat. It has a lower gluten content that modern day wheat but it is not gluten free. Kamut is used to make pasta and breakfast cereals.
Millet is a tiny yellow grain that cooked is delicious as a side dish. It is also used in cereals and bread. Teff is a type of millet.Millet only takes 25 minutes to cook with a 2.5:1 water to grain ratio.
Tip for Cooking Grains: Be sure to rinse all grains (except oats) before cooking.
Sprouted Grains are grains that have been exposed to just the right amount of moisture and temperature to cause the germ to sprout. Sprouted grains may contain less gluten and are easier to digest for some people due to their natural enzymes. Sprouted grains are often used in breads. Sprouting grains makes their minerals, in particular iron and zinc more bioavailable.
Fats and oils
Olive oil, flaxseed oil, pumpkin seed oil, walnut oil, sesame oil, hemp oil, avocado, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, cashews, macadamia nuts, seeds, canola oil, nut butters, flaxseed, chia, hemp seed, olives are all good sources of poly and mono-unsaturated fats. 1 serving is equal to 1 tsp of pure oil, 1 1/2tsp nut butters, 5-8 nuts, 1 Tbsp seeds.
A plant based diet is naturally low in saturated fats since there are no animal products. The challenge with a plant based diet is that there is plenty of omega-6 fats and not enough omega-3. The other challenge is that the 2 omega-3 fats shown in research to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, heart attack, macular degeneration, arthritis, depression and some types of cancer are DHA and EPA which are found in fish. I also recommend getting a DHA supplement made from algae (200-400mg/day) or eat foods fortified with DHA.
Limit oils that are high in Omega 6: safflower, sunflower, grapeseed, corn and soybean.
Increase oils high in omega 3: olive oil, canola oil, flax seed, chia, hemp and walnuts.
Calcium without Dairy:
Fortified soy, rice, almond and hemp milks (1 cup)
Fortified OJ (1 cup)
Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, collard greens, turnip greens and turnips (1/2-1 cup)
Baked beans, navy beans, black eyed peas, pinto beans, soybeans, tofu, garbanzo beans, black beans, tempeh, lentils (3/4c)
Almonds and almond butter, Brazil nuts, peanuts, sesame tahini (2 tbsp or 1/4c nut)
(Aim for 8 servings of these high calcium foods each day or consider taking an additional supplement.)
Tips for adding calcium to your diet:
Note: swiss chard, spinach and beet greens are high in oxalates and are not good sources of bioavailable calcium. Beans and nuts contain oxalates too. By cooking your leafy greens and soaking the nuts and beans the calcium becomes more available. Iron also interferes in calcium absorption so keep your supplements separate.
To reduce calcium losses, reduce animal protein consumption, sodium, tanins and caffeine.
Vitamin D, known as the sunshine vitamin, increases calcium absorption and deposition into the bones, reduces inflammation and a deficiency has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, MS and certain cancers, in particular colon cancer.
The RDA for vitamin D is 600 IU per day and 800 IU if you are over 70. Getting enough vitamin D from food on a plant based diet is difficult and most likely requires a supplement of vitamin D2 (plant source). If you take a multi or a calcium supplement there may be some in it already.
Iron without meat:
Iron is involved in carrying oxygen to our cells via hemoglobin. Iron is also involved in immune function, energy and neurotransmitter production. A deficiency in iron can leave you feeling tired, short of breath, low appetite and can increase your susceptibility to infection.
RDA for iron for people eating a plant based diet is 1.8 times higher than the RDA. For adult women it is 32mg and for men it is 14mg.
Plant sources of iron:
Legumes, nuts, soy, seeds, leafy greens, whole grains and dried fruit.
The type of iron in plant foods is non-heme iron and is not absorbed as well as the heme iron in meats. To improve the absorption, include a source of vitamin C from fruits and vegetables such as peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, citrus, papaya, strawberries and kiwi. Tannis from tea and wine interfere in iron absorption so try not to include these during the meal but instead before or after. Sprouting grains and legumes and fermenting soy (tempeh) separates iron from the phytates and improves absorption. Be sure not to take iron and calcium supplements together.
B12 without animal foods:
Vitamin B12 is not present in plants, only animals. Vitamin B12 is critical in the production of the myelin sheath around nerves. It is also involved in DNA production and repair, red blood cell production and assists in the conversion of carbohydrates, proteins and fats from food into energy.
Synthetic vitamin B12 called cyanocobalamin is added to some fortified plant based foods such as tofu, soymilk, rice, almond and hemp milk. 1 cup contains 1 mcg. It is also added to breakfast cereals, veggie burgers and dogs. Check the %DV to see how much (based on 2mcg on the label). B12 is also found in Red Star Nutritional Yeast grown on a B12 rich medium.
Recommended intake for B12 for adults is 2.4mcg/day. To ensure you get enough, aim for 3 servings of B12 rich foods per day. 1 serving is ½ cup fortified beverage, 30g breakfast cereal, 42g fortified soy product (veggie burger) or 1 Tbsp nutritional yeast. You may also want to take a B12 supplement or multivitamin.
Zinc: Zinc is involved in proper growth, immune function and wound healing. Absorption of zinc is reduced by phytates in plant foods, however deficiency is rare. Nevertheless, people eating a plant based diet are recommended to have 50% more zinc per day. The RDA for adult plant eaters is 16.5 for men and 12 for women.
Food sources of zinc include fortified breakfast cereals and beverages, legumes, nuts and grains.
Making the transition to a plant based diet
Start slow. Think about the plant based meals you already eat. Toast with almond butter, lentil vegetable soup, salad with chickpeas etc. You may want to start with a “meatless Monday”.
Reduce portions. Consider shifting the focus from meat to plants by reducing the portion of your meat and increasing the portion of vegetables and grains.
Make Clean substitutions. Try swapping out the ground meat for tempeh or veggie ground round in tacos. Replace the chicken with beans and have a Portobello mushroom burger instead of beef. Use soymilk instead of cow milk or soy yogurt instead of cow yogurt. Use almond butter instead of cream cheese on toast.
Discover new comfort foods. Find recipes for mac and cheese with creamy cauliflower and coconut milk instead of cheese sauce. Use non-dairy cheese on pizza.
Learn to use new ingredients. Replace an egg with 1tbsp ground flax whisked together with 3 tbsp water.
Repeat what you know. Repeat the meals you love a few times so they become your go-to standby meals that are easy to prepare without a recipe.
Consider soaking or sprouting. This increases the bioavailability of zinc, iron and calcium from legumes, nuts and grains.