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Plant-based diet for beginners

Vegan and plant-based diets are on the rise as the problems with the current food systems and standard Western diets become increasingly hard to ignore. As a plant-based dietitian, I feel qualified to share some tips on starting a plant-based or vegan diet for beginners.

I’ve helped many people with this over the years and have learned a thing a two along the way. So here are some of my best tips for plant-based beginners.

1. Start slowly

Removing all animal products from your diet at once increases the risk of issues (such as low energy, brain fog, fatigue, digestive discomfort, and even deficiencies). Your body needs time to adapt to the new foods. Your digestive enzymes and microbiome need changes.

Consider making one or two meals per day plant-based to start with. Or by switching to plant-based snacks. Whatever works best for your lifestyle.

Some important things to remember are….

  • Include all core food groups to cover your nutritional requirements
  • Vitamin B12 supplements are essential as you can’t reliably get enough from fortified foods and milks
  • You’ll need at least as much protein from protein-rich plant foods – aim for 3 serves or more per day

Replacing just one meat-based meal with one vegan meal per day, over a year will save 122 animals, 2478 pounds of CO2, 1113 square meters of forest, and 50695 liters of water. Small, incremental changes have a significant compound effect – like compound interest!

2. Replace the protein first

The easiest way to do this is by “veganising” your favourite meals or recipes. Experiment by substituting animal protein directly with protein rich plants. For example, try using lentils and/or plant-based mince in your normal lasagna recipe. Or if you love scrambled eggs, try making a tofu scramble instead. I also have a recipe for high protein eggless quiche which is pretty fantastic!

If you love a chicken salad sandwich for lunch, try a chickpea “chicken” salad sandwich instead. You get the idea. The possibilities are endless, and the internet is an endless source of ideas and inspiration.

Key takeaway: replace animal protein with at least the same amount of plant protein. Check out my resource on plant-based protein to get an idea about how much protein is in commonly eaten plant foods.

plant-based-protein-sources
These are just a few good protein sources of plant protein.

3. Include enough carbs

The idea that we should try to avoid carbs is deeply ingrained (no pun intended). But depending on our lifestyle, research shows that 45-65% of a calories should come from high quality carbohydrate foods. These include wholegrain breads, pasta, cereals, legumes, starchy vegetables, and fruit. We need these for energy, brain function, mood, metabolism, and many other processes. Avoiding carbs may leave you fatigued and hungry, and potentially missing important nutrients like fiber, zinc, iron, and magnesium.

To cover your bases, include a high-quality carbohydrate plus a good source of plant-based protein with half a plate of non-starchy vegetables or a piece of fruit at each meal.

4.Aim for 30 plants a week

A good tip to make sure you’re ticking all the nutritional boxes on a plant-based diet is to eat a wide a variety of foods. If you have limited variety in your diet you could be missing nutrients which will lead to a deficiency over time.

It can be fun to come up with new ways to add more plants to your plate. For instance if you’re having a tofu scramble on wholewheat toast, add some cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, and fresh basil. That’s five different plant foods on the one plate!

You could also make yourself a goal to try one new plant food every week.

5. Keep tweaking

You don’t need to be perfect, and there’s no rush.

Check-in with yourself and listen to your body. If you feel less energetic, check in with a good food database app such as My Fitness Pal to make sure you are getting enough energy and protein, calcium, iron, zinc, and omega 3. It’s also a good idea to get six-monthly or yearly blood tests to check your B12. If there are any issues you can easily tweak your diet.

You will learn from experience what works best for your body. Some vegan beginners like to take a daily multivitamin to ensure the bases are covered.

For most of us, going plant-based or vegan is not a linear process. You’ll slip up and fall off the wagon…probably many times! But that’s good because it’s all about learning what works for you. Just remember why you decided to go vegan, and be kind to yourself.

6. Speak to an experienced plant-based dietitian

This article is not intended to replace personalised dietetic or medical advice. It’s important to speak to your healthcare team before making any significant dietary changes.

An experience plant-based dietitian can help you make sure you’re getting everything you need to be nourished and healthy.

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