The main reason we should all be eating more plant-based meals is because it’s healthier than eating meat products. Plants offer a range of healthy nutrients including antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals that our bodies need. In addition, they do not contain saturated fat which is commonly found in many meat products.
Scientific research demonstrates that eating more plants, especially in individuals following a strictly vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, often weigh less and have a lower risk for certain diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. There is definitely a need for more research on individuals following vegetarian, vegan and even flexitarian diets. Of greatest importance to research are the long-term effects of eating in these ways. But I don’t think that anyone can really argue that eating more vegetables and less meat is bad for you.
Plant-based foods have many more health benefits than meat, and need to constitute a larger part of our diet. I think that for many of us, meat is often the center of our meals and making that adjustment can be daunting. But with just a few little swaps and changes we can easily reduce the amount of meat consumed.
Vegan: eats strictly a plant-based diet that even excludes items processed by or from animals such as honey and gelatin.
Vegetarian: eats a plant-based diet but includes items processed by or from animals such as dairy products and eggs.
Flexitarian: eats a mostly plant-based diet but will occasionally add in meat or fish.
Pescatarian: eats a plant-based diet but also fish and seafood.
Omnivore: eats other animals and plants.
There are more variations on the above but these are the main ones. I have eaten all of the above styles for a length of time at some point or another. The hardest for me to follow was the vegan diet for two reasons. The first is that I like cheese too much and second eating out is often very challenging.
As far as being an omnivore, I just don’t like the way eating that much meat day in and day out makes me feel. The last six months to a year I have been eating more as a Flexitarian, with the majority of my meals, especially those prepared at home being vegetarian. Today, I eat fish once or twice a week and meat on occasion.
Common misconceptions about eating plant-based.
There are some common misconceptions about eating a plant-based diet that I think are important to understand. Once you understand, it may be easier than you think to actually incorporate more plants into your diet.
You won’t get enough protein eating plants
There may be lower amounts of overall protein in a 3 ounce serving of meat versus a 1 cup serving of beans or lentils. However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to get enough protein. What it does mean is that you may need to make a little more effort to ensure that the meals you are choosing are giving your body enough protein.
You can do that easily by using a meal tracker for a few days such as My Fitness Pal. It has a free version and is very easy to use. In this app, you can track your food throughout the day. The app will show you how many grams you consumed of certain nutrients compared to what was recommended. The app also allows you to look at the overall percentage of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat) you consume each day.
You will have less energy
It is possible that you may feel a change in your energy level when you initially make the change. It is important in those first few days or weeks to look at what types of food you are eating and note how you feel. That way you can make sure that you are getting the appropriate balance of all the macronutrients.
You will be hungry all the time
This misconception is potentially true if you don’t look for plant-based proteins to add to your diet. If you replace your current diet with a diet high in simple carbohydrates such as white rice and white pasta you may find yourself hungry within a short-time of eating. The key is to eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, protein and fat.
Eating plants guarantees weight loss
Avoiding meat won’t lead to immediately weight loss. This fact is especially true if your new diet consists of lots of cheese, pasta and pizza. At the end of the day, the amount of calories you eat does matter and it is best to choose vegetarian foods that are more nutrient dense. Nutrient dense foods are those that give the most nutrients for the calories consumed. These foods are generally any type of fruit, vegetable, grain or legume that isn’t heavily processed.
Making changes to eat a more plant-based diet.
Changing behaviors can be difficult but there are some strategies you can use to help make the transition a bit easier.
Easing into change is especially important if you aren’t fully ready to take the plunge and give up meat completely. You can start with committing to eating meals without meat once a week. There is a program called Meatless Monday that is centered on this idea and asks people to commit to not eating meat every Monday. One day out of seven is more manageable than a full week of no meat.
Half and Half
Another strategy is to take a favorite recipe and start cutting the meat in half and supplementing a plant-based ingredient for the other half. One idea would be combining black beans and ground beef to make tacos. Another suggestion, is using lentils combined with ground beef in spaghetti sauce or your favorite chili. The possibilities are endless.
Find your reason why?
Why do you want to eat more plant-based meals? Is it your health? Or a concern for the environment? Maybe you don’t really want to but know that’s it’s healthier for your family. Whatever the reason, it’s important to find your motivation. Because there is no doubt if you don’t have strong enough reason why you will lose interest.
Look for new plant-based recipes
Afraid you won’t like making changes to your favorite foods or that you family will be difficult to get on board? I think the best thing you can do in this instance is look for new exciting recipes, flavors or ethnic foods to try. There are some excellent vegetarian-based blogs and cookbooks out there that make it easier to be adventurous.
My favorite vegetarian cookbook is “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian”, by Mark Bittman. Mainly because it’s just a good, solid, basic cookbook to have. And one of my all-time favorite online places to find new vegetarian recipes is Hummusapian. On this blog, there are even weekly plans with recipes in case you wanted to implement a more long term approach. I found my all-time favorite black bean burger recipe on her blog so I highly recommend taking a look.
Eat what you like
If you have a favorite meat-based food that’s great. Give yourself permission to enjoy it when you want but also try to find other plant-based only dishes that you enjoy and add them into the mix as well.
Challenges of eating a predominantly vegetarian diet
When trying to eat a mostly vegetarian or vegan diet, there are definitely some situations that are more difficult than others to stick to your plant-based eating.
This one is the biggest challenge I have faced. And by eating out I mean in other people’s homes and at restaurants. Vegetarianism is more common these days and many restaurants have added selections to their menus. However, I still find that unless I am dining at a restaurant geared to vegetarians the options are rather limited for me. I have gotten comfortable just asking them to leave something out of particular dish or make a substitution, but still find this a challenging situation.
Be ready to have to explain yourself
Maybe this will change as more and more people get on board with this style of eating. But I find that often people don’t understand what being a vegetarian or vegan means. And of course, often people just want to understand why you believe eating that way is important to you.
It may require a little more effort to look for vegetarian or vegan meals that you enjoy. Using social media like Pinterest or Instagram may help. On Pinterest there are tons of vegetarian boards that have an unbelievable amount of content with pictures and even step by step instructions. I feel like any type of eating style can get boring after a while, so eating vegetarian or vegan isn’t any different really.
The difficulties of meat replacements
For me, using some meat replacement products is just not an option because I just don’t like them. Many of the processed foods items you can purchase in the store are just not enjoyable. Often the flavor or the texture just don’t do it for me. Everyone is different though and I think it’s important to experiment and find out what works for you.
Tofu is soybean curd. I know that doesn’t sound all that appealing, but it has virtually no flavor so it will pick up the flavors of whatever you use as seasoning. It comes in different consistencies which have different uses. I am most familiar with extra firm and silken tofu. The silken tofu I have used it in smoothies for a protein source and the extra firm for preparing entrees. Personally, I’m on the fence about tofu. I like it some things but sometimes the consistency is hard for me to tolerate. My favorite preparations of tofu are Miso Soup or in this Tofu Taco Recipe.
Tempeh is a cake prepared from fermented cooked soybeans. I have seen it in stores with different flavors or grains added, and I’ve used it mainly to prepare stir fry dishes. Out of all the meat replacements this is probably my favorite but I definitely need to experiment a bit more with it.
Textured Vegetable (Soy) Protein
TVP or TSP, or soy meat comes from soybean oil. Textured Vegetable Protein is found in many processed vegetarian items such as veggie burgers. I generally do not like the flavor or texture this product lends to dishes. I have used it to prepare meatloaf in one of my nutrition classes and when compared to other meat substitutes it failed miserably.
I am least familiar with seitan, or wheat gluten. It also has little flavor and so will absorb the flavors of whatever seasoning or sauce you use to prepare it.
There are definitely other plant-based sources of protein that are available, but these are the most common and the ones I have seen, tasted or used. I think personally it requires being adventurous and patient, as you may need to try several different preparations to figure out which ones you like and what type of preparation works best.
You also need to manage your expectations, because these products are not meat. So the flavor and texture of dishes definitely change. I have found over time that I prefer to use beans as my primary source of protein and use some of the above meat replacements on occasion.
No matter what you decide works best for you, it is definitely a fact that eating more fresh grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits is good for you. The nutrients they provide such as antioxidants, fiber and vitamins and minerals are often difficult to get from animal-based products.
It is important that whatever diet changes you make, at some point you should have a conversation with your doctor or a nutrition specialist to find out if you are missing out on consuming some essential nutrients with your diet choices.
What I do hope is that you do look for ways to increase the amount of plant-based foods you are eating and at least consider consuming vegetarian meals at least once or twice a week.