Now that you’ve decided to adopt a mostly vegan or plant-based lifestyle – you’ve got this! – you might feel a little unsure of how to start. It’s easy to gain confidence in this change by becoming more knowledgeable about all your food choices and how they can come together to provide the nutrients you need to be healthy.
Since cutting meat out of my diet nearly five years ago, the most popular question I’ve received is, “But if you’re not eating meat, where are you getting your protein?” This question, while at first was endlessly frustrating, made me realize how much lack of education there is around “unconventional” types of diets that stray from what people may assume is the norm.
(Note: When using the word “diet” we are referring to the kind of food consumed with these food-based lifestyles, not the regimen of eating to lose weight)
As children, we had food pyramids hanging in our classrooms, with entire sections dedicated to meat and dairy products. With charts like these to build our meals from, it left very little room for substitutions. It’s easy to assume that this diet is lacking in these essential areas and is therefore unhealthy.
This misconception can turn people away from going vegan or plant-based, based on the assumption that this way of eating is naturally restrictive.
“Protein isn’t a food, it is a nutrient and it’s found in so many easy sources,” says Stephanie Genco, an Holistic Nutrition Coach with a certification through American Fitness Professionals & Associates (AFPA). “Eating a variety of whole plant foods provides all the proteins that your body needs. Beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole grains are excellent sources.”
Everyday foods that you may eat (vegetables, peanut butter, rice, fruits, etc.) all contain protein, which will add up to your overall intake. Making sure you balance these sources out with heavier, protein-rich foods will ensure you’re maintaining a healthy plant-based diet.
“I’d recommend balancing out your plate with half vegetables, a quarter of whole grain and a quarter or more protein or healthy fat-rich foods,” says Stephanie. She goes on to explain how a simple pasta dish – an assembly of whole wheat pasta, Great Northern beans, spinach and tomatoes – is a fast, easy and affordable meal that ticks all the food group boxes. “This dish could contain at least 20 grams of protein if you only ate a single serving of each item!” she adds.
Soy-based foods are another great source of protein, though they don’t always have the best reputation. Tofu, tempeh, edamame and soy milk are products that come up a lot in vegan and plant-based diets and are all made up of soy – a legume that contains “phytoestrogens” or “plant estrogen”. Because of this, it’s a common misconception that eating these products will increase the estrogen in your own body. Luckily, research does not support this, and actually shows far more benefits than risks in adding soy to your diet.
Personally, I was overjoyed to hear this, since tofu is a staple in many dishes I make. It’s an incredibly versatile food – I’ll make a scramble with turmeric and nutritional yeast (another great protein source) for breakfast or cut it in squares with some coconut aminos for a stir-fry dish.
“It’s okay to keep it simple. You don’t need complicated recipes or specialty items to begin getting the health benefits of a plant-based diet,” Genco reminds us. Like we mentioned in part one of this plant-based series, you don’t have to change your diet overnight. Substituting beans for beef, or (if you want to go full vegan) substituting tofu for eggs in the morning, taking the little steps is the simple way to master the plant-based diet.