How to get started on a plant-based diet


A plant-based diet is based on foods derived mainly from fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds. — MCT

Plant-based diets are trending these days.

The good news is that not only is it a popular diet, the science actually supports a plant-based diet, which is based on foods derived from mainly fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds, with little or few animal products.

You would have probably heard of such terms as flexitarian, vegetarian (lacto-, ovo-, lacto-ovo-) and vegan which are all permutations of plant-based diets.

  • Flexitarianism is the most liberal form of plant-based diet. Flexitarians follow a predominantly plant-based diet but occasionally still allow meat in their diet in moderation.
  • Lacto-vegetarian diets are centered on plant foods but include dairy products.
  • Ovo-vegetarians consume plant foods and eggs.
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians are vegetarians who include eggs and dairy products.
  • Vegans are the strictest of the lot in which they only consume plant foods. Being on the most restrictive type of plant-based diet means vegans run the highest risk of nutrient deficiencies if the diet is not well-balanced.

Plant-based diets are beneficial to health because they are high in fibre, vitamins and minerals and low in saturated fat, which help you manage your weight, and may reduce your risk of getting type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.

Some high-fibre foods also have a lower glycaemic index (GI) which means they provide a slow release of carbohydrate into the blood and help with type 2 diabetes management.

The combined effect of fibre and low GI may help keep you feeling full for longer. Indirectly, this helps you snack less and consume a less calorific meal which is what you would want to do to control your weight.

A plant-based diet tends to have less fat and saturated fat. Cutting down on saturated fat intake (by substituting with polyunsaturated fats or complex carbohydrates) reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Plant-based diets also get brownie points for cancer prevention especially colon cancer. Dietary fibre in plant-based foods prevents constipation and provides energy for good bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract.

However, plant-based diets which are not well-planned are often questioned on sufficiency of energy and protein.

Here are some nutrients you should pay attention to when considering a plant-based diet.

Protein

Protein is essential for building muscle tissue and repairing cells. Plant-based protein does not provide a complete source of essential amino acids unlike meat-based protein.

In order to provide all the different essential amino acids, it is important to have a variety of plant-based sources of protein including lentils, beans, chickpeas, seeds, nuts and nut butters (e.g. peanut butter), and tofu.

There is a multitude of plant-based meat alternatives such as those based on fungal protein (e.g. mushroom), wheat gluten, soy and pea/mung bean which is useful when adapting to a meat-less diet.

Calcium

Calcium is important for bone health. An adult requires 1,000 mg calcium/day. This is easily achieved by consuming dairy products (2-3 cups of milk/day).

However, if you do not consume dairy products, you would need to substitute with foods such as calcium-set tofu, green vegetables (e.g. broccoli, cabbage, okra), dried fruits (e.g. raisins, prunes, dried apricot) and fortified plant-based milk alternatives.

These plant-based milks are also used to make vegan cheese, vegan yoghurt and dairy-free beverages.

Pairing your meals with dairy-free beverages is a small but impactful way to start a plant-based diet.

Popular brands have begun to introduce dairy-free alternatives in their ready-to-drink range. It's worth checking them out in your next grocery run.

Iron

Low intake of iron leads to anaemia.

Plant-based iron sources are of the non-heme variety. This means the type of iron found in plant-based foods (e.g. beans, lentils, nuts, leafy greens) are less readily absorbed compared to the heme variety found in animal-based foods.

To overcome this, it is best to consume the plant-based iron source together with a vitamin-C-rich source to help with absorption of iron.

A good example of how to put this into practice is to have a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice the next time you have a meal with lentils, tofu, nuts or seeds.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause anaemia, fatigue and numbness of extremities. This nutrient is found mainly in animal sources.

If you follow a strict plant-based diet, you will need to consume foods such as fortified cereals, tempeh, nutritional yeast, fortified plant-milk, mushrooms or vitamin B12 supplements to avoid this nutrient deficiency.

Omega-3 fatty acid

Omega-3 fatty acid is beneficial to heart health. Plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseed, walnuts and rapeseed.

Choose cooking oils made with these and sprinkle some of these nuts or seeds in your breakfast cereal/smoothie.

Thosai with dhal curry is a good choice for a plant-based breakfast. — FilepicThosai with dhal curry is a good choice for a plant-based breakfast. — Filepic

Choosing to follow a plant-based diet is not difficult. You have vegan options for everything, from vegan mayonnaise to vegan bak kwa (meat jerky)! Here are some ideas for a plant-based meal plan:

Breakfast:

  • Thosai with dhal curry
  • Or wholemeal bread with nut butter or avocado slices
  • Or a drink/smoothie with plant-based milk alternative

Lunch:

  • Gado-gado salad with tempeh
  • Or soupy noodles with pak choy, seaweed, mushrooms and fried fuchok skin
  • Or turmeric fried rice with tofu, beans, carrots

Mid-afternoon snack

  • Banana smoothie made with plant-based milk alternative
  • Or a handful of mixed nuts and dried fruits

Dinner:

  • Chapati with chickpea curry, stir-fried okra
  • Or multigrain rice with steamed tofu with chopped French beans, stir-fried mixed vegetables with macadamia nuts
  • Or multigrain rice with okra, brinjal and long bean curry, stir-fried cabbage

Goo Chui Hoong is a dietitian, culinary instructor and author.

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