What is a Plant-Based Diet?
I was debating with myself whether I should cover the benefits of a plant-based diet in this post as well. I came to a decision to explain what plant-based diet means to me and talk about the benefits in my next post.
So what is a plant-based diet? Is it a different way of saying you are vegan or vegetarian?
I personally dislike labels. If I avoid any animal products but eat a piece of chicken, do I, in that very moment, transition from vegan to carnivore forever? Or if I eat chicken but add a tomato am I sort of a vegetarian now? I also see a lot when either vegans are considered a bit weird by others or people on a vegan diet feel they are superior to carnivores. Vegan/vegetarian does not necessarily equals healthy. A person can eat fries, pasta and oreo cookies so technically be a vegetarian. Do these meals add up to health? I don’t think so. Let’s stay away from jumping to conclusions and judgement.
I love the term plant-based meal plan because it sounds more inclusive, less restrictive and easily accepted as a life-long commitment. And I dare you to find a practitioner who will tell you not to eat vegetables. It is a plan that allows to focus on the plants as much as possible without feeling guilty if you want to add a piece of meat or fish to your meal.
There are over 20,000 species of edible plants in the world. You can play a game with your family and try to name as many as you can. True, a lot of them do not grow in our back-yard but a huge variety is available at grocery stores and farmer’s markets. Try going to the produce section and take in all the colors of fruits, veggies and greens there. Don’t you feel your mood lifting!
The majority of research advises to eat at least 30 plants per week. It sounds like a lot. But it’s really not that difficult with a plant-based diet. And here is why: all plants count including spices & herbs, plus different colors of vegetables deliver different phytonutrients so I count them as different species. If you are used to buying white cabbage, grab a purple cabbage the next time. Or swap your regular oranges to blood oranges. I look at this as some kind of game and get very excited when I find a different color of a familiar vegetable. Kids love doing this too and are more likely to give it a try if they chose the plants at the store. Stews and casseroles are great ways to add a lot of veggie, herbs and spices varieties without cooking a lot of different meals.
What are the plant groups we should be focusing on? Vegetables, fruits, berries, herbs & greens, spices, mushrooms, beans and legumes, nuts & seeds, grains. That is quite a list to choose from!
Important items to keep in mind when we talk about plant-based healthy diet:
Concentrate on wholesome ingredients. When we talk about plants, an important rule is to buy unprocessed wholesome plants, organic and local if possible. If you are adding animal protein, stick to grass-fed meat and wild fish. I remember listening to one of the stories written and read by Stewart McLean, a Canadian radio broadcaster and author of the CBC Radio program The Vinyl Cafe. The series is about the fictional family: mom, dad and two kids. In this episode the son who is old enough to stay home by himself overnight for the first time makes dinner of “two veggies and a protein”. Sounds quite healthy? He was eating popcorn, chips and hot dog. The point here is that not all plants come to us in their original form.
Try to eat seasonally. Although most fruits and vegetables are available to us year-round, buying and cooking what’s in season will ensure you are getting the fresher, more nutrient dense produce. It will also get your body more in balance with the earth cycles.
Plant-based diet does not necessarily excludes meat or fish. But I always say: treat meat as a condiment than as a focus of your meal. Make a bucket of salad and add a piece of grilled salmon.
When you decide to focus on plants that are not processed, it means significantly reducing the consumption of white sugar and flour as both of these substances are highly processed and do not deliver any nutrients except for a very sharp spike of blood sugar. Luckily, there are a lot of alternatives on the market now. They are delicious and made of health-ish ingredients. They still should be consumed as a treat and pay attention to the ingredients list. Some brands only look healthy until you read the label.
So where do you start? Eat a rainbow. The more colors you have on your plate the more nutrient dense your meal is. Avoid anything packaged and anything with a long list of ingredients especially the once you cannot pronounce. Try to choose local and organic, in season plants. Look into pasta options. There are tons of varieties from cauliflower to edamame-based. If you do want regular pasta look into sourdough options.
I usually do not have strict rules on the portions. Once you eat plant-based the calories and size of the meal doesn’t matter as much. Some of my clients do better with stricter instructions though. So I usually advise to get most of your 30 plants from vegetables and greens (50%), beans and legumes 20%, mushrooms and berries 20% and fruits and nuts 10%.
More importantly, do not take yourself that seriously. Experiment with plants, textures, colors and combinations. Some will pleasantly surprise you and some you won’t like even tiny bit. It is an amazing life-long experiment worth committing and waking up to every day.