What do you eat on a plant based diet, anyway?

This seems to be a popular question, so I thought I’d give it a go, with the caveat that I’m new at this and I’m not a registered dietitian, so for the love of your own health, people, don’t take this as advice. Rather, it’s intended as an illustration that I’m not subsisting off of salad.

Breakfast:

Oatmeal with smartbalance (it’s like butter, but plant based), cinnamon and almond butter; banana; COFFEE.

Cereal with almond milk; blueberry smoothie; COFFEE

Tangerine, protein bar, almond milk, COFFEE (always coffee in the morning. always).

Lunch:

Sauteed kale with mushrooms and pecans; quinoa; more almond milk

Bean and corn soup with spinach and tomatoes; tea

Avocado, walnut, hummus & tomato sandwich (I’m also fond of apple and almond butter as a sandwich combo)

Roast sweet potatoes; butternut squash soup

Supper:

Pasta (it’s quinoa based) with tomato basil sauce and mushrooms

Spaghetti squash with spaghetti sauce on top! Or pesto! and yes, a salad.

Roast root veggies and a side of leafy greens

Homemade pizza with homemade pesto, portabellos and pine nuts (this is the BEST)

Quinoa with stir fried veggies, topped with soy sauce

Snacks:

I’m big on fresh fruit, dried fruit, hummus on veggies, guacamole and chips, and nuts. I have jars and jars of pecans, walnuts, pine nuts, almonds and pistachios in my kitchen, and they’re my go-to snack and favorite source of fats and proteins. They’re also kind of pricey, so pro tip: buy them in bulk at Whole Foods or another market with bulk foods. Keep them in mason jars for cheap easy storage that will keep them fresh longer.

Desserts:

It turns out that dark chocolate is often vegan, and very easy to find, in my neck of the woods. I have a stash of it hidden in our cupboard where the non-vegan husband won’t find it (he can fend for himself when it comes to dessert, for the time being). So far I’m still taking a break from refined sugar, but on the day that I just need chocolate, it will be there waiting for me.

Yesterday was my one meal out to eat this week, and I went to brunch with friends. Remember, I’m only adhering to a plants-only diet at home – out and about, I’m still eating some animal products, until I get the hang of this new way of eating. I’m easing my way into it. So I had an omelette, with brie, and I loved it – but no more than the stuff I’ve been eating at home. How weird is that? All week I waited for cheese (and eggs. and butter. The lacto-ovo trifecta!), and it turns out that if you eat enough kale, you can grow to like it better than cheese. I think it has something to do with the way I feel after the last six days – I feel really good, and happy.

Also – I think I’m keeping honey, y’all. It turns out I miss it the most (every night while I drink my tea, and don’t even talk to me about stevia as if it’s the same, because no.it.is.not), and it’s not like I consume it to excess, so…I think honey stays. Apparently, this is a huge debate among vegans. I’m interested in improving my health and the state of the planet, not hard line adherence to a set of principles outside my own. So I’m going to stick with the term “(mostly) plant based diet” and avoid labeling myself vegan for the time being, because I don’t want to mislead anyone about how far I’m taking this. For the record, on the day that I think it no longer serves my health or the planet’s, I’m going to try something else. Remember: I’ve only committed through January. When it comes to the end of the month, I’m going to reevaluate and decide whether or not to keep going.

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Plant based protein sources

There is a lot of pushback against the plant based diet. To reiterate, I’m not vegan – but I am trying a 7 day plant based diet, to see how I feel, and to get into the habit of eating more plant based meals. And the first thing absolutely everyone says in response to the word “vegan” is OHMYGOSHWHATABOUTPROTEIN?!! Because animal sources such as meat, eggs and dairy are a necessary source of protein, right? Right? Right?

No.

Animal sources are one very convenient source of whole protein. Plants are another, arguably more convenient, source of whole protein, when we eat broadly across the different plant families throughout the day.

Let us break this down a little. We need three macronutrients in our diets. Carbohydrates. Fats. Protein. We also need a lot of micronutrients – minerals like calcium and iron. A plant based diet is very rich in carbohydrates and micronutrients, but it does require a little extra thinking about protein.

What do we mean when we talk about whole protein? (Now I get to use all that anatomy and physiology coursework I took in pursuit of my masters! Huzzah!) Proteins are made up of amino acids. Our bodies need 20 specific amino acids to survive. We link these up to form peptides, and we link peptides up to form proteins. We can make (synthesize) 11 of the amino acids our bodies need, but there are 9 that we can’t synthesize. That means we have to consume those 9 amino acids from food sources. These we term “essential amino acids” – as in, essential to our diets. And our bodies need to consume these amino acids in the right proportions to build the protein we need to survive.

The 9 essential amino acids, in case you are interested, are:

  1. Histidine
  2. Isoleucine
  3. Leucine
  4. Lysine
  5. Methionine
  6. Phenylalanine
  7. Threonine
  8. Tryptophan
  9. Valine

Children also need cysteine, tyrosine, and arginine. Parents of children on a plant based diet should consult with a registered dietitian to ensure that children are getting the nutrients they need to thrive.

Whole protein is that which contains all 9 essential amino acids.  And yes, let’s get this out of the way right now – animal proteins are whole proteins, containing all 9 essential amino acids in the right proportion we need to build protein. We don’t have to eat them in any combination with other foods in order to reap the full benefits. So if you’re eating animal proteins,you don’t have to give any extra thought to amino acids. But what about eating a plant based diet?

Plants have proteins, too. But a plant based diet does require a little extra thinking about whole protein. Why? Because most plants don’t contain all 9 essential amino acids. (There are a few exceptions to this rule). Across the day (not a single meal) we need to eat all 9 amino acids – enough of each to build protein. Being deficient in even one amino acid means being deficient in protein. The easiest way to ensure that you’re getting enough of each amino acid is to eat a wide variety of plants – nuts, seeds, legumes, leafy vegetables and grains – across the color spectrum. This will ensure that you’re getting all of your amino acids.

Good plant sources of protein include;

  • quinoa (quinoa is a whole protein unto itself! try to find American grown in the US, as there are some ethical concerns surrounding the more common Bolivian grown quinoa)
  • asparagus
  • soy
  • cashews
  • pumpkin seeds
  • pistachios
  • cauliflower
  • broccoli
  • oats
  • peas
  • Buckwheat!

So. Can you survive on all fruit? Absolutely not. Should you eat only lentils for the next 30 days? No. No, don’t do that. There is no solitary food source that will keep you going for long – you need to eat a balanced diet. But does that balance have to include animal sources? Not really. With a little extra thought, you can get your fats and essential amino acids from plant sources. (Fats are a topic for another day). And that’s the truth about protein.

Good resources:

  • No meat athlete’s page on vegetarian proteins, here
  • Gentleworld’s list of 10 protein packed plants, here
  • The essential amino acid wiki, here
  • Young, V. R., & Pellet, P. L. (1994). Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 59(5). Available here.

7 Day Vegan: trying a plant based diet on for size

Last week, I ran across the 7 Day Vegan website, which challenges participants to try a plant based diet out for 7 consecutive days. This is serendipitous, because it’s something I’ve been trying out lately, for many of the same reasons listed on the 7 Day Vegan website – for the sake of the planet, for my own health, and because I’m deeply skeptical of the state of conventional agriculture in my country. I have concerns about what farming-as-usual is doing to the water supply, soil quality, and to animals – and to our bodies.

Additionally, I live with a lot of joint pain – enough that I take a fair bit of ibuprofen and request frequent rides to school because my knees hurt too much to walk up our hill to the bus stop. There are many, many anecdotal accounts of people whose joint pain resolved with a vegan diet, so I thought that I’d try it for 7 days and see if it works. (Spoiler alert: it totally does). So…I’ve done one 7 day stretch eating a vegan diet, and am about to start another. I’m going to write a few posts about plant based meals, whole protein, and the experience of it, with some links to resources that I’ve found helpful.

I don’t know that I’ll ever commit to a fully vegan diet, but I am very ready to commit to eating more plant based meals, without animal protein, because I have never felt better in my adult life. Try it with me and see for yourself!

Side note: I also cut out all refined sugar, artificial sweeteners and preservatives – I was eating a whole foods based diet, with all of my meals cooked from scratch. I think that’s what made the difference with my joint pain! It did take a fair bit of effort for the first few days, both in resisting cravings for things like cheese pizza, and in planning and preparing meals, but it got easier very quickly. I liked it so much that I’m going to try it again, starting right now!