A well-planned whole-foods, plant-based lifestyle is a health-promoting, nutritionally smart, delicious and enjoyable way to live and eat. Plus, it contributes to fewer animals being farmed for the slaughter-house, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and leads to a safer and healthier world for future generations.
Switching from a carnivorous diet to a plant-based diet while being great for your health and the health of the planet, is not always as easy as it seems, but with a bit of help, it’s easy to identify and avoid the most common mistakes.
There are several common mistakes that can be made when trying to transition. In fact a lot of things can make transition to a vegan or plant-based diet harder, from marketing to habit to availability to busyness, and it’s important to identify which of those things, or maybe something else similar, might affect you so you can be prepared to deal with them. Remember - take the transition at your own pace, don’t try to be “perfect” in one day!
One of these mistakes involves relying on processed plant-based meat and other processed foods. Today there are so many meat-free prepared and packaged burger patties and other foods, it can be both a blessing and a curse. It used to be that a veggie burger was made in your own kitchen out of oats or brown rice, beans or lentils, flax seeds and veggies. You could see the cubed carrots, kernels of corn and chopped green right there on your plate and typically, it fell apart before it reached your mouth. The convenience food of today is fantastic, but that very convenience can mean the product contains unwanted additives and preservatives in addition to extra salt, sugar and saturated fat; and in some cases might even be contaminated with pesticides and GMOs.
Processed foods are certainly a help when initially transitioning, but to avoid becoming reliant on them to the exclusion of all else, plan a nutrient-dense, plant-based menu for each week. This helps with the weekly shopping and can take away much of the stress of worrying about ‘what do you make for dinner’ when you arrive home from work! [Check out the www.vegetarian.org.nz website for recipe suggestions.]
Another mistake is worrying about protein, where do you get it from and how do you get enough? Just remember that well-planned veg~n diets can provide sufficient plant-based protein for everyone, including the most extreme athletes. Plant-based amino acids provide more than enough protein for a human diet. It is not “inferior” to animal protein, nor should it be thought of as an alternative protein source.
Plants contain all nine essential amino acids. While it’s true that some plant foods are low in certain amino acids e.g. some grains are low in lysine while some legumes are low in methionine, getting adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids isn’t difficult when you eat enough food in general, and include a variety of different whole-plant foods.
Some of the best veg~n protein sources include the following: beans (there are at least 15 different types of bean, including chickpeas), and legumes (soy beans, peanuts, fresh peas and beans) nuts, seeds (hemp, flax, and chia seeds are excellent), and soy-based foods such as tofu and tempeh; certain grains and legume-based pastas; even fruits and vegetables contribute a small amount. So rather than fret over protein, simply eat a wide variety of food to cover all your amino acid needs.
Sometimes supplementation for a few nutrients is necessary: It’s important to be aware of the following vitamins and maybe have your levels checked by your GP every 12 to 18 months.
Vitamin B12 is crucial for red blood formation, reproduction, neurological function and DNA production and is one of the most important vitamins to be aware of. It can be obtained from fortified foods such as nutritional yeast and fortified plant milks and cereals – check the labels. Otherwise the Clinicians range from your local chemist has a liquid form of B12.
Likewise vitamin D – some people need a boost during the winter months. Look for fortified foods by checking the check labels, and if supplementing, look for one which has vitamin D & vitamin K2 combined.
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for brain and skin health and protection from neurodegenerative diseases. The best plant sources are flax and chia seeds and smaller amounts are available in walnuts, hemp seeds and some leafy greens. There are also plant-based, algae-derived omga-3 supplements available if needed.
Iron is not usually a problem if you’re eating a good balanced diet, but the best plant sources include legumes, dark leafy greens, seeds and nuts. Absorption of iron can be boosted by eating vitamin C-rich foods at the same time (e.g. citrus fruits, strawberries, bell peppers, broccoli, tomatoes….)
One of the best parts of adopting a plant-based diet is the chance to experiment with an abundance of beautiful, colourful, versatile plant foods you may never have tried before. Eating a wide range of vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fruits, seeds, nuts, mushrooms etc will give your body plenty of variety in the type of fibre each one provides.
And remember, when adopting a plant-based diet, you’re making the change for your own reasons, so you can design your own diet to meet your personal needs and preferences – it doesn’t have to be identical to anyone else’s. Connect with others on the same journey and share mutual support, encouragement and inspiration. Potlucks, collective meals and plant-based recipe swaps can help everyone to enjoy new foods and have more fun in the process. You can always look for a helpful nutrition or dietitian if you feel you need professional advice.