A How-to Guide for Going Plant-Based
Thinking about making the plant-based transition, but worried it’s not for you? Or maybe you’ve already made the switch, but have questions about sticking with it.
Common concerns include meeting nutritional requirements, feeling full enough, and experiencing digestive distress, among other things. These most often come up in the adjustment period and you can rest assured that when choosing to eat wholefood plant-based, you have quite likely chosen the healthiest diet out there.
Whether you're motivated by health, ethics, or the environment, this guide will be your compass on the path to a fulfilling and sustainable plant-based lifestyle. Get ready to embrace a diet that's not just about what you're leaving behind but all the vibrant, flavorful possibilities that lie ahead!
Meeting all your nutritional needs
While some people worry about how they’ll meet their nutritional needs when going plant-based, a varied wholefood plant-based diet provides all the necessary ingredients for optimal health.
In fact, plants are some of the most nutrient-dense foods available. Dark leafy greens and legumes are rich in iron, zinc, and calcium. Wholegrains, fruits, and vegetables provide a range of essential vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. While beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds are high in protein and dietary fibre.
As with any way of eating, it’s important to ensure your diet is well-balanced. Changes in the way we farm and process foods, and a shift in the way we live and spend our time, means some vitamins and minerals may require a little extra attention. Here’s a few to be aware of.
This is an essential vitamin that is important for the maintenance of the nervous system and formation of healthy red blood cells. Plants, fungi, and animals are unable to make this vitamin. Luckily, B12 is made by bacteria so you don’t need animal products to obtain it; it’s easy to meet your needs through supplements and fortified foods.
This fat-soluble vitamin is produced by our bodies in response to sun exposure. With greater efforts to avoid the damaging effects of UV rays, and more time spent on indoor activities, many people are at risk of vitamin D deficiency. Although some vitamin D can be obtained through your diet, without adequate sun exposure or supplementation, you may be at risk of low levels. Speak to your GP about a blood test to check your levels..
There is a common misconception that eating a plant-based diet places you at greater risk of low iron levels. This simply isn’t the case – even for non-vegetarians, most iron in the Australian diet comes from plant foods while less than 20 percent of iron intake comes from meat and meat products. Including plenty of wholegrains, legumes, and green leafy vegetables ensures adequate iron intake. Eating these foods with those high in vitamin C enhances absorption, a process that is carefully regulated by our gut. Another benefit of choosing a whole food plant-based diet is that it contains no heme iron – the type of iron found in animal foods – which has been linked to multiple sclerosis and heart disease.
By eating a varied plant-based diet, you’ll get all the calcium you need without the added health risks that come with consuming dairy products. Leafy green vegetables, like kale, bok choy, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts, are particularly good sources. Beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, fortified plant milks, almonds, blackberries, and oranges are also rich in this mineral.
Fuelling your body and brain
Some people think they may not feel full enough when following a plant-based diet. Rest assured, carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for our body and are preferred by our brain. Including plenty of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, and beans – naturally rich sources of complex carbohydrates – will ensure you easily meet your daily energy needs. The higher levels of fibre also slow down the digestive process, providing sustained energy throughout the day and keeping you feeling fuller for longer.
Focus on whole plant foods because these retain more of the vitamins and minerals that may be lost with processing. An adequate intake of iron-rich foods will also ensure your energy levels remain high. Remember, good sources include beans, lentils, chickpeas, dark green leafy vegetables, tofu, tempeh, wholegrains, nuts, and seeds.
If your daily routine is demanding, eat regularly throughout the day to stay fuelled up, including carbohydrate-rich foods like oats, potatoes, brown rice, wholemeal pasta, legumes, and fruit. If you are particularly active, it may also be helpful to add an energy-dense snack or two, such as hummus, dried fruit, nuts, or seeds.
When starting to include more plants, some people can experience a little digestive distress. This doesn't mean a plant-based diets isn't for you. The time it takes to adjust to a new way of eating is very individual. It may be helpful to start out slowly, introducing a wider variety and larger quantities of certain foods, with a phased approach.
In fact, a whole food plant-based diet has been shown to improve the health and diversity of our gut microbiota, increasing the number of beneficial bacteria that feed on the abundance of dietary fibres that are naturally present in plant foods. A healthy microbiota, in turn, plays an important role in preventing and treating conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and inflammation associated with autoimmune diseases.
To limit digestive discomfort, enjoy your meals in a relaxed environment, chew food well, and drink plenty of water. Limit caffeinated and carbonated beverages as they may exacerbate bloating and stomach pain. Soak, cook, and rinse legumes well before eating and, finally, consider a gentle exercise regime. Increased blood flow can promote gut motility, and body movement may help you naturally release gas to alleviate bloating.
Getting started, and at your own speed
When making changes, some people like to go all-in from the start, while others find a gradual approach more sustainable. Think about other lifestyle changes you have made and what worked best for you then.
If slow and steady is your style, start by adding more legumes, vegetables, and wholegrains to your meals. These foods keep you full and feeling satisfied for longer, so you’ll naturally eat less animal products and processed foods. When items in your fridge or pantry run out, replace them with wholefood plant-based alternatives, like wholemeal pasta in place of white. You can also leave some items off your shopping list entirely, such as refined oils and processed foods with added salt or sugar in their many forms.
Be mindful that a successful dietary change is often a matter of trial and error. Test a variety of products to find the ones you like best and for which application. For example, one plant milk may be great in coffee, but another is better for cooking. Investing in a few key appliances can also make clean eating easier. A pressure cooker, or multi-cooker, significantly cuts cooking time for beans and wholegrains, while a high-speed blender or food processor can be used for making oil-free dressings, sauces, and hummus, as well as raw desserts.
There are many great reasons to adopt a wholefood plant-based diet; but it’s important to identify your ‘why’. Being clear on what spurred your decision will help you navigate any challenges as you make the change. Any big life change can seem overwhelming at first, but allowing time for learning and adjustment each step of the way will help you stick to your goals. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Consider consulting an Accredited Dietitian to ensure your new diet meets your individual needs.
The information provided in this article is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with a qualified healthcare provider, such as an Accredited Practicing Dietitian, before making significant changes to your diet, especially if you have underlying medical conditions or specific dietary requirements. Nutritional needs can vary greatly from person to person, and individual health circumstances may require personalised dietary recommendations.