Plant-Based Eating Is Easier Than You Think—If You Avoid These 7 Mistakes
For starters, stop obsessing about protein!
Ask any food or nutrition expert about rising culinary trends that will continue to gain traction in 2021 (and beyond), and we guarantee you'll hear the term "plant-based" within a couple of sentences. This movement is promising and favorable: an overdependence on animal products is not sustainable from both an environmental and personal health perspective. Transitioning to a more plant-based diet is one of the best things you can do for your body and for the planet.
But even plant-based eating isn't perfect. What about all those highly processed fake meats—and "alt" dairy products, desserts, protein bars, and other sodium- or sugar-packed snack foods—on the market that tout a conspicuous health halo? And how can we make sure we don't end up replacing healthy foods like fish and eggs with white bread and potato chips? To help us avoid all the common pitfalls of plant-based eating, we spoke with Reshma Shah, MD, MPH, a board certified pediatrician and adjunct faculty at Stanford University School of Medicine, and Brenda Davis, RD, co-authors of the new book, Nourish: The Definitive Plant-Based Nutrition Guide for Families. Here are the mistakes the experts see most frequently, plus how to avoid them.
Oftentimes, an alarming headline about climate change, a documentary about factory farming, or an unexpected health scare can motivate someone to go fully plant-based overnight. “While we know that a plant-based diet is a healthy, sustainable, and compassionate way to eat, making changes abruptly may not be the best course of action,” says Dr. Shah. “For starters, if you are someone who eats a low-fiber diet, increasing fiber too quickly can lead to GI upset.” Additionally, an initial burst of enthusiasm can fade if you put too much pressure on yourself and your family to make changes all at once. Instead, the experts recommend moving forward at a pace that seems reasonable. Remember, you are in it for the long haul.
Where do you get your protein? is likely the most common question posed to those following a plant-based diet. “What comes as a surprise to many people is that vegetarians and vegans almost always meet or exceed the RDA for protein,” explains Davis. “Omnivores tend to consume close to double the RDA. This applies to children as well. One of the great benefits of getting protein from plants is that it supports health and longevity better than protein from animal foods.” Many of the veggie substitutes for meat, chicken, and fish contain about the same amount of protein as the animal products they are replacing. Other protein-rich plant foods include lentils, beans, tofu, tempeh, seeds, and nuts.
Our dietary guidelines and food fortification systems are based on diets that include a significant amount of animal products. “While most major dietetic and medical organizations support the claim that well-planned plant-based diets are safe and adequate during all stages of the life cycle, this does not mean that we don’t have to consider specific nutrients such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, and iron (all of which can be nutrients of concern for those following an omnivorous diet as well) as well as other nutrients including iodine and omega-3 fatty acids,” Davis explains. With a little bit of care, but not too much fuss, a well-planned plant-based diet can cover all of our nutritional bases through a combination of plant foods, fortified foods, and supplements when indicated.
According to Dr. Shah, replacing animal products with refined carbohydrates does little to ensure nutritional adequacy of the diet or minimize the chronic disease risk. “While pasta and bagels can be a part of a healthy diet, we want to be sure to replace animal products, such as meat, poultry, and fish, with foods that provide protein, iron, and zinc,” she says. This means including legumes and products made from legumes (e.g., tofu, veggie meat alternatives) as well as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
Sometimes, in an effort to eat plant-based whole foods, we may avoid foods that have added nutrients such as fortified non-dairy milks. “It can be much easier to achieve the RDA for calcium, vitamin B12, and vitamin D when we do include these fortified products,” Davis explains. Remember that most omnivores drink vitamin D-fortified cow’s milk, eat grains that are fortified with folic acid, and consume iodized salt. Including fortified foods can help fill gaps that can occur in different dietary patterns.
“When you make a dietary shift that is different than that of the people in your circle of family and friends, it can feel quite isolating,” says Dr. Shah. Connecting with a community that shares similar values around food choices can be a source of education, inspiration, and companionship.