Transitioning to a plant-based diet [The facts and benefits]

Transitioning to a plant-based diet [The facts and benefits]

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Are you concerned about your health and the type of food your eating? If you’re reading this, recent events may have triggered you to reconsider what’s on your menu. You’re not alone. Eating animal-based products may be more of a headache than it’s worth.

Most physicians and health services encourage a diet of mainly plant-based food. Nutritionists suggest reducing quantities of meat, dairy products, and eggs, and trying to refrain from refined and processed as much as possible.

“Plant-based nutrition has exploded in popularity, and many advantages have been well documented over the past several decades. Not only is there a broad expansion of the research database supporting the myriad benefits of plant-based diets, but also health care practitioners are seeing awe-inspiring results with their patients across multiple unique subspecialties. Plant-based diets have been associated with lowering overall and ischemic heart disease mortality; supporting sustainable weight management; reducing medication needs; lowering the risk for most chronic diseases; decreasing the incidence and severity of high-risk conditions, including obesity, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and hyperglycemia; and even possibly reversing advanced coronary artery disease and type diabetes.”

Plant-Based Diets: A Physician’s Guide, NCBI

Having stated all that, Jordan and Mikhaila Peterson and others swear that being a carnivore has improved their health, even saving their lives. That may well be the case for individuals with unique health circumstances. There are thousands of people with allergies and health conditions that need a contextual diet.

There’s no such thing as the best way to eat. It’s your life and your choice. If someone else is a vegan, it doesn’t make them higher than mighty. It’s what they feel is right for them. The first step is to consider what’s right for you. Seek advice from an expert nutritionist that understands your medical history and circumstance.

If you’ve been a meat and dairy eater all your life, it can be a pain to start messing around with your menu. There are so many things to consider— sharing a budget, and grocery list with others, where to go when dining out, replacements for your favorite meals, the list goes on. It gets complicated. If you are considering a transition towards plant-based, whole foods, there are three ways to look at it:

A. Feeling grateful to be alive, doing what’s right for you, and exploring new culinary experiences. The outcome, a more satisfying life.

B. Looking at plant-food as a pain in the butt, and ruminating about your miserable existence. The upshot, becoming a nervous wreck, giving up with the stress, and knowing you could have done better.

C. Don’t give a crap and carry on as you are. What will be, will be.

Common concerns about plant-based diets

What are the most common concerns about making a transition to a plant-based diet?

1. Are there plant-based replacements for my favorite meat and dairy meals?

Contrary to claims, plant-based food, cannot replicate all your favorite meat and dairy. It’s simply not true. Some replacements won’t be the same taste or texture. There are brave attempts to mimic animal-based foods, but tofu and soy are not meat, and vegan cheese is not cheddar.

You can recreate the ‘total hamburger and chips’ experience with a vegan alternative. But a vegan-burger is not minced meat; it’s a new burger experience. Time is a benevolent friend, and after a while of eating your adopted vegan-burger, you may not even remember the taste of a meat burger. You’ll wonder what all the fuss was in the first place, and who knows what future food-technology will bring.

The point is to try new culinary experiences. It’s possible to approximate some meat and dairy meals. You may even come close. Other attempts at replication, won’t be in the same ballpark. Pick and choose what’s right for you.

What you do get when diving into this new universe, is a vast array of delicious veggie-based alternatives. The health benefits are startling. The creativity of plant-based recipes expands the scope of your diet. The ideas that plant-based recipe sites offer are curiously surprising.

Check out some of the scrumptious recipes at Vegan Richa!



2. Do vegetables provide enough protein?

Getting enough protein is a big concern when considering transitioning to plant-based foods. As the primary building block in growing and repairing body tissue, it also helps the functioning of the hormone and immune systems.

The building blocks of protein are amino acids. The human body needs 22 types of amino acids to function. These are the same 22 amino acids plants use to build their proteins.

The protein in all animals originates in plants or plant-like phytoplankton.

Nine of the amino acids are essential to our diet (EAAs). The rest the body can produce and are considered non-essential. Foods that contain all nine essential amino acids are complete proteins. Where do humans get their protein? In reality, humans get protein from animals and plants.

Essential Amino Acids

EssentialConditionalNon-Essential
HistidineArginineAlanine
IsoleucineCysteineAspartic Acid
LeucineGlutamineAsparagine
LysineGlycineGlutamic Acid
MethionineProlineSerine
PhenylalanineTyrosineSelenocysteine
Threonine Pyrrolysine
Tryptophan  
Valine  

Animal sources of EAA protein are red meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, poultry, and eggs.

Plants sources of EAA protein are mature soybeans, cashew nuts, quinoa, pumpkin and squash seeds, peas, wheat, and rice.

The content of EAAs in plants varies a great deal, amongst different plants. Generally, plants have a lower content of proteins than animal food, but sufficient to cover the recommended daily allowance. Soybeans have an even higher EAA content per gram than chicken.

The body recycles protein quite efficiently and uses other nutrients such as carbs for exercise. Generally, people eat roughly twice the protein they need. But athletes and people that train frequently need more protein to build and repair muscle.

Problems relating to meat and dairy consumption


As omnivores, humans can get their protein from animal-based and plant-based food. The problem with consuming a lot of red meat are the levels of high saturated fat that contribute to heart disease. Also, modern farms that produce meat, chicken, and dairy, add hormones and antibiotics to the feed to increase meat and milk production. These additives pass to humans in consumption and impact health.

There are also concerns regarding soy, relating to the high concentration of plant-estrogen (phytoestrogen), similar in function to human estrogen, but much weaker. But the research is inconclusive.

“Soy is a unique food that is widely studied for its estrogenic and anti-estrogenic effects on the body. Studies may seem to present conflicting conclusions about soy, but this is largely due to the wide variation in how soy is studied. Results of recent population studies suggest that soy has either a beneficial or neutral effect on various health conditions. Soy is a nutrient-dense source of protein that can safely be consumed several times a week and is likely to provide health benefits—especially when eaten as an alternative to red and processed meat. “

T.H.Chan, Harvard School of Public Health

But as mentioned earlier, there are several sources of plant-based proteins with essential amino acids. If you’re concerned with reaching your recommended daily allowance for EEA, proteins, soy, beans, grains, and seeds will all take care of the job in the right quantities.

Interestingly, several large animals are herbivores and not ruminants, subsist on an all-plant diet —elephants, rhinos, horses, and gorillas. All of these animals have extensive muscle tissue and live in good health.

Protein in Plant-based foods

FoodQuantityProtein
Soy Protein Powder100 Gm90.0 Gm
Seitan with Soy Sauce100 Gm75.0 Gm
Yellow Split Pea Powder20 Gm15.0 Gm
Soybeans (Cooked)100 Gm17.0 Gm
Hemp seeds (powder)30 Gm15.0 Gm
Tempeh1/2 cup15.0 Gm
Almonds (chopped)1/4 cup14.0 Gm
Mycoprotein1/2 cup13.0 Gm
Beans & Rice1 cup12.0 Gm
Tofu (soybean curds)1/2 cup10.0 Gm
Peanuts1/4 cup9.5 Gm
Lentils cooked1/2 cup8.8 Gm
Spirulina2 Tbl Spns8.0 Gm
Edamame beans1/2 cup8.0 Gm
Quinoa (cooked)1 cup8.0 Gm
Chickpeas1/2 cup7.3 Gm
Potato (Baked)1 large baked7.0 Gm
Walnuts (chopped)1/4 cup4.5 Gm
Broccolimedium stalk4.3 Gm
Hazelnuts (chopped)1/4 cup4.3 Gm
Ezekiel bread1 slice4.0 Gm
Chia seeds2 tablespoon4.0 Gm
Kale1 cup2.9 Gm
Mushrooms (sliced)1 cup2.2 Gm

 

3. Do plant-based foods have enough B12 essential minerals?

If you now rely on meat and dairy, for B12, calcium, and iron, you’ll need to learn which combination of plants offers the same balance of nutrients.
Now let’s look at some facts about essential vitamins and minerals, called into question on a plant-based diet.

B12

Bacteria produce vitamin B12 (cobalamin) in soil. For the bacteria to produce B12, the soil must be rich in cobalt. Ideally, animals and humans transfer the bacteria to their gut when they eat other meat, dairy, or plants.

The reality is modern agriculture is destructive for B12 bacteria development. Water cleansing with chlorine, pesticides, and antibiotics kill the bacteria in the soil.

Animals don’t receive enough B12 unless fed with grass from cobalt-rich soil. The vast majority of farm animals raised in the meat and dairy industry, such as cows, chickens, pigs, and lambs, receive B12 supplements.

“Young ruminants require supplemental vitamin B12 prior to full rumen development”.

DSM, The largest supplier of animal feed in the world.

The recommended daily amount of vitamin B-12 for adults is 2.4 micrograms. Although the meat and dairy industry fortifies feed with B12, up to 39% of people tested (including meat-eaters), have insufficient levels of B12 in their blood. The sure way to know you’re getting enough B12 is by taking supplements.

Note: These daily allowances assume that the body absorbs the B12 ingested. Older age groups above 60 years, face an increasing problem of absorbing B12.

The following conditions may prevent absorption of B12 as you age:

  • Low levels of stomach acid
  • Medications for diabetes (metformin)
  • Regular intake of alcohol
  • Other digestive inhibitors

Unless you are in tip-top shape, many dieticians recommend higher doses of B12.

  • 50 mcg cyanocobalamin (B12) per day
  • People over the age of 65 should take at least 1000 mcg cyanocobalamin per day.

Take into consideration that many foods are B12-fortified. You can check the amounts on the packaging.

Calcium

Nutrition experts recommend a minimum of 600 mg of calcium daily. Beyond the marketing hype of the dairy industry, dairy products are not the only way to ensure you’re getting enough calcium. Plant-based foods contain calcium. For the recommended daily intake, as long as you understand, what you’re eating, you’ll be Ok. The following might surprise you.

  • Dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, kale, and bok choy, are 15-30% more absorbable than the calcium found in cow’s milk. There are exceptions. Spinach, chard, and beet greens have high oxalate levels that prevent calcium absorption.
  • Tofu has exceptionally high amounts of calcium and contains 86% of calcium RDI in half a cup (126 grams)
  • Legumes such as winged beans have 244 mg of calcium to a cup. That’s 24% of calcium RDI. White beans are also a good source, with one cup (179 grams) of cooked white beans providing 13% of calcium RDI.
  • Amaranth grain (cooked), One cup (246 grams) provides 116 mg of calcium or 12% of the RDI.
  • Rhubarb has high levels of calcium, but the high levels of oxalates allow for 25% of calcium absorption.
  • Amaranth, one cup (246 grams) of cooked amaranth grain provides 116 mg of calcium, (12% of the RDI)
  • Almonds, Figs, and Edamame (young soybeans) contain small amounts of calcium, in differing proportions, of 5-10% per cup.
  • Fortified plant-based foods such as Soy milk contain calcium.

Iodine

Plant-based sources of iodine.

  • Sea vegetables such as nori, kombu, and wakame are excellent sources of iodine. Kombu Kelp contains 2,984 mcg per gram. That’s almost 2000% of the iodine RDI. Be careful, consuming too much kelp as it can cause thyroid problems, for those that are vulnerable.

Sprinkling small amounts of crumbled seaweed in soups, casseroles, stews, salads, and pasta, will cover the iodine you need in your diet.

  • Iodized Salt contains 71 mcg of iodine in 1/4 teaspoon, providing 47% of the iodine RDI.
  • Prunes. Five dried prunes provide 13 mgm of iodine, 9% of iodine RDI.
  •  Quality multivitamin supplements contain the daily requirements of iodine.

Iron

Many plant-based foods, such as legumes (beans), lentils, tofu, spinach, and cashews, contain iron. Menstruating women, regardless of what types of food they eat, should eat iron-rich foods with vitamin C for better absorption.

Be careful not to take too much as this can also cause health problems. Too much iron can lead to serious heart problems, liver disease, and diabetes.

“Good plant sources of iron include lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots and figs, raisins, quinoa, and fortified breakfast cereal.”

The Vegan Society

Taking multivitamins is the simplest way to ensure you’re getting enough vitamins and minerals. Many brands offer a variety of products, but not all are equal. For a comprehensive list of brands and their rankings, check the Multivitamin Guide.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

There are replacements for omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, such as salmon. But like other animal protein, fish get their omegas from sea algae.

The problem is, fish from the sea and rivers contain toxic pollutants, like mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
Testing of salmon from fish farms has shown that farmed-salmon as being one of the most toxic foods worldwide.

Regardless of these alarming facts about toxins, unless you’re eating fish every day, you aren’t getting enough Omega-3. Plants can provide the omegas you need for the necessary daily intake. Walnuts, ground flaxseeds, and ground chia seeds are omega-3 rich whole foods.

To be on the safe side, you can take 250 mg daily of pollutant-free supplements with omega-3s from yeast or algae. Nutritionists recommend Omega-3 supplements for older men, pregnant women, and those breastfeeding.

4. Is it more expensive to eat fresh fruit and vegetables?

The cost of plant-based eating is a common concern. Before succumbing to this misconception, there are some interesting facts to consider:

  • Beans, legumes, and whole grains cost less than meat or fish
  • By shopping for seasonal fruits, veggies, whole grains, and beans, a plant-based diet is more economical.
  • The long-term health benefits of eating plant-based food, far outway the financial costs. People don’t even think about future medical bills. A lifetime of eating meat-based products can lead to coronary heart disease and cancer.
  • Quality grass-fed meat and organic dairy are expensive. Processed animal-based commercial foods are unhealthy. The budget for meat and dairy can go towards healthy plant-based foods that are cheaper and more beneficial.
  • The highest cost of all. Everyone forgets the hidden cost of damage caused by animal farming on the environment and the impact on climate change.

5. Vegan and vegetarian products aren’t necessarily healthier

Going vegan or vegetarian doesn’t mean it’s healthier if you’re still eating processed foods. A significant reason people have an unhealthy menu is the reliance on fast-food.

It takes learning and effort to shop for alternative plant-based whole foods. Preparing a healthy diet deepens your appreciation of food. Expanding your knowledge and learning how to cook new recipes makes for a richer experience as you see things from a new perspective.

6.Difficulty in achieving your optimal weight, both up and down

There’s a tendency for people to be lean, on a vegan diet. Studies have shown that meat-eaters have the highest BMI and Vegans, the lowest. Vegetarians and pescetarians fall somewhere between.

But it’s not always the case; some vegans gain weight. Here are some of the reasons:

  • Portions are too large. Understanding the nutritional values of plant-based foods and planning is essential. There’s a tendency to think you can eat what you like, as long as it’s plant-based. It’s not true. Legumes, seeds, and nuts pack a high calorific amount of nutrients.
  • The balance of nutrition is wrong. You’re not eating enough protein. If you plug your daily intake into a food app, you’ll see right away how many calories your eating. You’ll also get the balance of protein and carbs. Tahini, for example, has a very high calorific count, olive oil as well, so be careful to measure how much you’re using.
  • Planning your menu also means timing when you eat. It’s better to eat early in the day, rather than before you go to bed.
  • Don’t eat vegan or vegetarian junk food. Fried chips, crisps, tortillas, and pasta are high in calories. Plant-based desserts such as coconut milk ice cream, and frozen yogurts, have high sugar content. That’ll put on the pounds.
  • Hydration is essential. Reduce high nutrition shakes and sugar-filled natural juices and drink plain water. In any case, women should be drinking 2.5L of water a day and men around 3.5L. If you’re working out for long, intense durations, you should be drinking even more.

That’s why it’s essential to understand what you’re eating before ravaging these new endeavors. It’s easy to lose or put on too much weight if you don’t plan your diet well.

Some practical advice

It requires more effort to plan your meals and discover food to your taste, but the health rewards are exponential.

Transforming your diet to plant-based foods is also very interesting. You learn more about the relationship between your body and the health benefits of different plants. You’ll discover that we’re part of a giant ecosystem that depends on one another.

Nutritionists tell you to take things slowly. Learn about food values before planning changes to your diet. You don’t have to change your entire pantry at once.

To start, identify a meal you regularly eat that you know isn’t healthy. Switch that meal for a new healthy plant-based recipe. There are tons of vegetarian and vegan recipe websites.

Gradually build a list of nutritionally healthy recipes. Do that consistently over six months, and you’ll find not only that you’ve transformed your menu, but your health as well. You’ll feel better and look better.