Plant-based eating has become a large trend in the last few years. This is likely because studies show that a plant-based eating pattern is associated with a lower risk for heart disease and improves the well-being of individuals managing type 2 diabetes (1, 2). How do we approach a more plant-based way of eating? The first step is to steer clear from treating this as a new FAD diet. Instead of focusing on eliminating foods, the better approach is to focus on adding more plant-based foods. I like to think of the transition to a plant-based way of eating as plant-forward.
Making the transition to plant-forward eating
A plant-forward eating style does not have to be difficult. Here are a few ways to incorporate more plant-based foods:
1. Change the way you think about meat. Use it as a side dish or a garnish rather than the main part of your meal.
2. Find foods you enjoy. Make a list of foods you already eat and incorporate the plant-based foods you enjoy more often into your meals. Also include a variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans to balance your diet. A good way to include vegetables is to add them to your favorite pasta or rice dishes. I love adding spinach and mushrooms to my mac and cheese recipes!
3. Read nutrition labels. There are many vegetarian substitutes for typical meat products like soy burgers, black bean burgers, impossible burgers, beyond meat, etc. It is important to monitor the sodium content of these foods just as you would with any other packaged or processed food. We may think these substitutes are better than animal meats because they are plant-based, but if the sodium content is high, risk for heart disease will remain high.
4. Build a meal around salad bowls. Try to add other food groups to salads instead of just the vegetables. For example, you can start with salad greens, layer it with a whole grain starch and protein like brown or wild rice, quinoa, beans, peas, then add other vegetables along with fresh herbs, and top it with a homemade vinaigrette (3,4).
Filling in the nutrient gaps
Most people get their iron, zinc, vitamin B12, calcium and vitamin D from animal products. Careful planning will help you meet the recommended intakes of these nutrients when switching over to a plant-based diet. Poorly planned diets can cause nutrient deficiencies and lead to health problems, no matter what kind of eating plan you are following. If you are strictly on a plant-based diet, make sure you are getting the following essential vitamins and minerals by reading nutrition labels and including other sources of these nutrients into your eating plan.
1. Iron: Spinach, kale, seaweed, watercress, broccoli, asparagus, parsley, nuts, seeds, lentils, beans, tofu, prunes, figs, apricots.
*It is best to eat these foods with Vitamin C to increase absorption and avoid eating them with foods that contain tannins (teas/coffee) as they may reduce iron absorption
2. Zinc: Beans, nuts, certain types of seafood (such as crab and lobster), whole grains, fortified breakfast cereals
3. Vitamin B12: Mostly in animal products. If on a strict plant-based diet, add fortified cereals and nutritional yeast to your eating plan. Otherwise, an over the counter B12 supplement can be taken daily.
4. Calcium: Chinese cabbage, kale, broccoli, and foods fortified with calcium like many fruit juices and drinks, tofu, and cereals
5. Vitamin D: Fortified in cereals, orange juice, plant milk alternatives like soy, almond, or oat milk (make sure to check the nutrition label for this), and mushrooms (not a significant source for Vitamin D). Otherwise, an over the counter Vitamin D supplement can be taken daily (5).
Plant-based eating and diabetes
One of the biggest challenges some of my clients face is incorporating a plant-based eating pattern while managing type 2 diabetes because many plant-based protein sources are also complex carbohydrates. Even though we want to eat these foods, portion control is important in order to maintain normal blood sugar levels. In order to get the most of meals while maintaining blood sugar levels, I usually suggest a plant-forward strategy versus following a strict plant-based diet. Thus, they still eat good, lean sources of protein from animal products, like fish, chicken, and eggs, and are used as side dish instead of the main course. Therefore, the main part of the meal is made up of fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
With plant-based eating, one size does not fit all. Most recently, documentaries like The Game Changers, Forks over Knives, and What the Health have driven fear into consumers about animal-based food products. Any source of information that puts a blanket statement over what you should and should not consume is a huge red flag. Everyone’s needs are different. Instead of taking information from one source and running with it, compare different sources of information to understand all sides of an argument, then make a decision that best suits you and your needs. We can use strategies in this blog post as a starting point, but you may need to seek expert advice from a Registered Dietitian to create a personalized plant-based meal plan depending on your health needs.
Bite Into Action!
One Week Plant Forward Meal Plan
The following one-week menu can help set you up for success. It includes a small number of animal products, but the degree to which you include animal foods in your diet is up to you.
Breakfast: Oatmeal made with almond milk topped with berries, peanut butter and walnuts.
Lunch: Large salad topped with fresh vegetables, chickpeas, avocado, pumpkin seeds and goat cheese.
Dinner: Butternut squash curry.
Breakfast: Low-fat plain yogurt topped with sliced strawberries, unsweetened coconut and pumpkin seeds.
Lunch: Meatless chili.
Dinner: Sweet potato and black bean tacos on whole wheat or corn tortillas.
Breakfast: A smoothie made with almond milk, mango, spinach, strawberries, and an unsweetened plant-based protein powder (Orgain or Vega are good options).
Lunch: Hummus and veggie wrap with carrots, tomatoes, cucumber, and spinach in a whole-wheat tortilla.
Dinner: Zucchini noodles tossed in pesto with chicken meatballs.
Breakfast: Savory oatmeal with avocado, salsa and black beans.
Lunch: Quinoa, veggie and feta salad.
Dinner: Grilled fish with roasted sweet potatoes and broccoli.
Breakfast: Tofu and vegetable frittata.
Lunch: Large salad topped with grilled shrimp.
Dinner: Roasted Portobello fajitas.
Breakfast: Blackberry, kale, cashew butter and coconut protein smoothie.
Lunch: Vegetable, avocado and brown rice sushi with a seaweed salad.
Dinner: Eggplant lasagna made with cheese and a large green salad.
Breakfast: Vegetable omelet made with eggs.
Lunch: Roasted vegetable and tahini quinoa bowl.
Dinner: Black bean burgers served on a large salad with sliced avocado.
*Notice this meal plan incorporates animal-based products for only one meal each day (6)