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Plant-based diet: a beginner's FAQ

Karolina Gnat

Plant-based diet. What a buzz word these days. I’m sure you’ve heard it a million times over. But, what does it actually mean? Personally, I’m not vegan. Heck, I’m not even vegetarian. But as someone who’s interested in the potential connections between how I eat and general issues of sustainability, I wondered: can I still be “plant-based”? I asked myself this question this morning, and after a quick search in the Cambridge dictionary, I’m pleased to report that I most certainly am considered plant-based.

plant-based

consisting or made entirely of plants, or mainly of plants: “I eat a predominantly plant-based diet” Most of my meals consist of vegetables, grains, nuts, legumes, fruit… and chocolate. I also eat meat, eggs, and even, *gasp*, dairy from time to time (cheese is an unconditional love in my life). Yet, according to the definition above, I’m still plant-based. Regardless of where I’m at with my diet on any given day, I can absolutely see the benefit in reducing my animal consumption on a physical, environmental and spiritual level. I’m always curious to know more about how my diet fits in with all that. If you’re in the same boat as me, or if you’re just beginning to shift your attention to becoming more plant-based, here are some important FAQ’s to consider:

How do I start? 

If your diet is currently high in animal products, start with 1 day a week where you avoid any kind of meat (ex: meatless monday) and work your way up to 2-3 days. Once you feel comfortable with that, take it up a notch and make those days completely animal product free. Eventually, this will become the norm and you may choose to stick to this type of diet/lifestyle indefinitely or at least more consistently. 

Will I get enough protein? What about my B12 and iron levels?

It is absolutely possible to get enough protein on a plant based diet. Protein is made up of chains of amino acids, and foods that contain all 9 amino acids are considered a complete protein. There are many plant-based foods that are complete proteins. Vitamin B12 is made by microorganisms and isn’t produced by plants. Vegans can get B12 from nutritional yeast flakes, and some fortified foods, but will likely benefit from supplementation. In terms of iron levels; dried beans and dark leafy greens are especially good sources of iron. Iron absorption is increased significantly by eating foods that contain vitamin C along with iron containing foods. 

What are some good protein sources for vegetarians and vegans?

There’s lots! Buckwheat, chickpeas, lentils, nutritional yeast, spelt, amaranth and quinoa, tofu*, tempeh*, edamame beans*, pumpkin seeds, nuts and nut butters, hemp seeds, chia seeds, spirulina, miso* are all good sources of protein. If you’re thinking of vegetables alone, the veggies with the most protein are broccoli, spinach, asparagus, artichokes, potatoes and brussels sprouts (4-5 g per cup). Fruits that have the most protein are guava, cherimoya, mulberries, blackberries, nectarines and bananas (2-4 g per cup). *Make sure any soy product you buy is organic and non GMO.

Can you list some good plant-based alternatives for staple items?

  • Dairy milk: almond, oat, cashew, coconut, soy 
  • Eggs: “flegg” flaxmeal and water, chia seeds and water, applesauce, mashed banana, arrowroot powder, tapioca starch
  • Meat texture: jackfruit, mushrooms, lentils, tofu, tempeh
  • Cheese: you can make your own “cheese” by mixing coconut milk, nutritional yeast, and a combination of certain vegetables and spices. There are tons of recipes out there!
  • Yogurt: coconut/soy/almond based yogurt. My personal favourite is a coconut yogurt called “yoso”

What’s the best milk alternative?

This is a difficult question to answer. There’s pros and cons to them all. You’ll have to pick and choose your battles when deciding on which milk alternative is best for you.

  • Almond - tastes great and it works really well as a substitute for milk. On the downside, it’s not environmentally sustainable; it requires 16 x the amount of water that oat milk does. It also does not froth very well.
  • Oat - creamy and frothy, more sustainable choice but can be highly sprayed with pesticides & glyphosate.
  • Cashew - slightly nutty taste, adds a thickness. Higher in mold content.
  • Coconut - thick, rich and creamy, has a stronger flavour that can throw off certain recipes. High in saturated fat.
  • Soy milk - very low environmental impact, but can have an effect on hormones due to the phytoestrogens.

Hemp, rice, hazelnut, macadamia and even spelt milk are also available on the market! 

You can also make your own nut/oat milk easily at home by soaking nuts/oats and blending them with water. Soaking nuts helps remove the phytic acid and neutralize enzyme inhibitors, allowing us to better absorb the vitamins, minerals and protein content.

What kind of environmental impact will my decision make?

According to this Oxford study, switching to a plant-based diet can help fight climate change. The study found that meat and other animal products are responsible for more than half of food-related greenhouse gas emissions, with beef and lamb having the most damaging effects on the environment. Cutting down on meat and dairy products could reduce an individual's carbon footprint by two-thirds, according to the study, published in the journal Science.

Try not to get bogged down by the overwhelming amount of information out there. And don’t strive for perfection; it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, but it is worth experimenting with. I hope this information helps you at least start thinking about how you can begin reducing your animal product consumption.

Image source: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46654042

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