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Diet is one of the most important pillars of a balanced and thriving lifestyle and a whole foods plant-based diet has all of the benefits that make it an optimal diet. This diet is naturally rich in micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, as well as healthy fats, plant based protein and unprocessed carbohydrates, making it appropriate at every stage of life. Research shows that whole food plant-based diets and plant-forward diets may prevent diseases such as
Type 2 diabetes
Certain types of cancer such as breast cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer
…while also improving many of the diverse aspects of health, including:
Digestion and microbiome diversity
All these benefits, as well as many more, have made the various plant-predominant diets, including vegan, vegetarian and pescatarian, Mediterranean and DASH diets all very popular around the world.
But transitioning to a plant-based diet, especially when you’ve been eating the Standard Western diet, can seem daunting. The truth is, though, that with a little planning, moving to a whole foods plant-based or plant-forward eating style is not difficult at all. Every person is different and a diet that is 100% plant-based may not be feasible for all, however the more plant foods we include in our diet from (legumes, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts & seeds) the bigger the health rewards you will reap.
Here are some tips to get you started:
1) Start gradually!
Transiting to a 100% vegan diet is likely too big a change from one day to the next, but like every other important & big project, the best way to succeed is to break it down into smaller, more achievable goals.
Here are some more ideas to help get you started- do them in any order, and as quickly or slowly as you tolerate:
Start by eliminating two animal-based foods and replacing them with a healthier alternative; on your next pasta night, switch out your traditional dairy Alfredo sauce for a home-made cashew Alfredo! Instead of a meat chili, switch to a completely plant-based bean chili. Or on your next taco night, swap the ground beef for some sautéed tempeh (marinated the same way you would marinate your meat).
Increase consumption of whichever fruits and vegetables that you love or already have at home. You may add an extra serving of vegetables to your daily plate or add fruit to your breakfast and to smoothies.
Try new fruits and vegetables that you don’t eat regularly, adding one or two a week.
Try 1-2 new plant-based foods every week. Perhaps a new grain, or legume you have never had before.
Swap traditional processed meat based foods such as pizza, pasta, hamburgers, nuggets and sodas for plant-based alternatives. Instead of ordering a pizza, try making one at home with veggies, cashew sauce, or marinary, and adding some vegan cheese. If you were big into these foods, try eliminating one day’s worth of these a week, replacing them with a plant-based and less processed alternative.
Change your regular peanut butter to a natural option with no added sugars where the only ingredient is the nut or seed.
Instead of drinking soda, try drinking infused water (water with slices of natural cucumber, strawberries or blueberries).
Cook at home more often rather than go to restaurants, or start cooking a few meals a week if you never did before. Fast foods and restaurant foods are often full of salt, oils and added sugars to enhance the flavors and preserve their shelf life not to mention that they can be pricey. By cooking more at home, both your health and your wallet will thank you!
As you make these incremental changes, you will eventually find that you’ve given up many of your old eating habits and replaced them with new and healthier ones!
2) Stock up on healthy foods
Although people may think otherwise, eating plant-based is actually cheaper than an omnivorous diet. According to a study published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, vegans tend to save almost $750 a year4 (as long as you’re keeping away from consuming many highly processed vegan substitutes). Stock up on a variety of vegetables and fruits, whole grains (like brown rice, buckwheat, amaranth, quinoa and whole wheat, sprouted and sourdough breads) and legumes (like chickpeas, lentils, black beans and organic soybeans).
And as you stock up on the good stuff at home, finish off or donate the less healthy products – not only will it prevent you from consuming them often, it’ll also make sure your pantry isn’t overflowing!
3) Plan your daily meals in advance (Do meal prep 2 times per week)
Planning your meals and precooking what you can in advance will make your days easier, because instead of cooking after a long day, you´ll only need to assemble your plant-based plate. It’s best to do meal prep during the days that you are less busy and cook whatever will keep best in advance, including legumes, vegetables and whole grains. If you’re inclined, you can also whip up some vegan sauces for pasta a day or two early and freeze them, including the above mentioned cashew alfredo or a tasty vegan Caesar dressings.
And don’t sweat making gourmet meals- you’d be surprised at how tasty a bowl filled with a mix of veggies, legumes, grains and a delicious plant-based sauce can be!
4) Replace animal ingredients with healthy plant-based foods
There are tons of healthy and unprocessed replacements for animal products, for example:
Cow’s milk → Plant milks such as Oat, Almond, or Soy milk (I don’t recommend coconut milk for drinking as it is higher in saturated fat and instead recommended using smaller amounts for cooking only)
Eggs for baking → flax seed egg (mixing flax seeds with a little water)
Scrambled Eggs → Tofu scramble
Processed salad dressings → Dressing with natural ingredients such as seeds and nut butters (tahini, cashews etc)
Poultry → Legumes, soy products such as organic tofu or tempeh
Dairy Yogurt → Yogurt made with organic soy or coconut
Cheese → Nutritional yeast and cashews to make cream sauces for pastas, ricotta, sour cream etc. Use store bought vegan cheese alternatives sparingly.
To get Dr. Mendez’s complete guide to optimizing your gut health, click here!
5) Don’t be afraid of volume when eating plant-based!
Plant-based foods are lower in calories and rich in nutrients. Because they are lower in calories, larger volumes of foods are needed to sustain your energy throughout the day. So you should not feel restricted or limited, eat until you’re satisfied. This diagram will show you an easy way to set up your plate.
6) Include foods that are rich in essential nutrients such as:
Iron: Lentils, quinoa, spinach, beans, tofu, cashews, swiss chard.
Protein: all plants have protein but in different amounts. Higher protein plant foods include: legumes: Chickpeas, lentils, black beans, organic soy, tofu, tempeh, seeds, broccoli, quinoa, red beans.
Calcium: Red beans, broccoli, kale, orange, figs, bok choy.
Zinc: Almonds, beans, chickpeas, brazil nuts, sunflower seeds.
Omega 3s: Chia, hemp and flax seeds, Brazil nuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, pecans.
Iodine: Seaweed, navy beans, iodized salt. 1
7) Are supplements necessary?
Supplements are used when a nutrient need is not being met. In a plant-based diet, almost all nutrient demands may be met, except in specific disorders or life stages (Anemia, pregnancy, lactation or others).
However, supplementation of vitamin B12 is important while eating a vegan diet (This means, excluding all animal products from diet). Vitamin B12 requirements vary depending on your age and gender. Always consult with your physician before starting any supplementation regimen. 2
When transiting into a plant-based diet, prioritizing food diversity and meal planning and avoiding processed foods are especially important to achieving the best outcomes: eating ample amounts of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes is ideal.
written in conjunction with Natalia Diaz Villarreal.
1. Linus Pauling Institute (2020) Micronutrient Information Center. Searched August 17th, 2020. Site: https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic
2. Linus Pauling Institute (2020) Vitamin B12. Searched August 17th, 2020. Site: https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/vitamins/vitamin-B12
3. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (2020) Plant-based diets. Searched August 17th, 2020. Site: https://www.pcrm.org/good-nutrition/plant-based-diets
4. Flynn, M. M., & Schiff, A. R. (2015). Economical Healthy Diets (2012): Including Lean Animal Protein Costs More Than Using Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 10(4), 467-482. doi:10.1080/19320248.2015.1045675
5. Barnard ND, Cohen J, Jenkins DJ, et al. A low-fat vegan diet and a conventional diabetes diet in the treatment of type 2 diabetes: a randomized, controlled, 74-wk clinical trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;89(5):1588S-1596S. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736H
6. Noto H, Goto A, Tsujimoto T, Noda M. Low-carbohydrate diets and all-cause mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies [published correction appears in PLoS One. 2019 Feb 7;14(2):e0212203]. PLoS One. 2013;8(1):e55030. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055030
7. Jenkins DJ, Wong JM, Kendall CW, et al. The effect of a plant-based low-carbohydrate (“Eco-Atkins”) diet on body weight and blood lipid concentrations in hyperlipidemic subjects [published correction appears in Arch Intern Med. 2009 Sep 14;169(16):1490]. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(11):1046-1054. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2009.115
8. Ornish D, Scherwitz LW, Billings JH, et al. Intensive lifestyle changes for reversal of coronary heart disease [published correction appears in JAMA 1999 Apr 21;281(15):1380]. JAMA. 1998;280(23):2001-2007. doi:10.1001/jama.280.23.2001
9. Esselstyn CB Jr, Gendy G, Doyle J, Golubic M, Roizen MF. A way to reverse CAD?. J Fam Pract. 2014;63(7):356-364b.
10. Song M, Fung TT, Hu FB, et al. Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality [published correction appears in JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Nov 1;176(11):1728]. JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(10):1453-1463. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.4182
11. Pettersen BJ, Anousheh R, Fan J, Jaceldo-Siegl K, Fraser GE. Vegetarian diets and blood pressure among white subjects: results from the Adventist Health Study-2 (AHS-2). Public Health Nutr. 2012;15(10):1909-1916. doi:10.1017/S1368980011003454
12. Ornish D, Weidner G, Fair WR, et al. Intensive lifestyle changes may affect the progression of prostate cancer. J Urol. 2005;174(3):1065-1070. doi:10.1097/01.ju.0000169487.49018.73
13. Campbell TC, Parpia B, Chen J. Diet, lifestyle, and the etiology of coronary artery disease: the Cornell China study. Am J Cardiol. 1998;82(10B):18T-21T. doi:10.1016/s0002-9149(98)00718-8