You may have committed to – or are on the journey towards – a plant exclusive diet but are not sure about which foods to choose to give your body the nutrition it needs to thrive. As demand grows for plant-based alternatives, more products are hitting the supermarket shelves. However it’s often difficult to decide which of these are beneficial for our health. Below are some simple tips to help you make informed decisions about which foods to eat and which to avoid.
1. The Plant-based label
The plant-based product market is worth billions of dollars and is increasing with growing demand. A previous article [Read: Plant-based meats: are they healthy alternatives?] highlighted how vegan meat substitutes are beneficial for helping people transition to a plant-based diet but are not necessarily good for our health. Similarly, there are many “accidentally vegan” products on the shelves, and websites and Facebook groups are dedicated to listing them.
Manufactures are starting to label their products with the word “vegan” – not that it’s a new thing, but mainly for the fact that it sells an existing product in this growing market. Unfortunately, the plant-based label doesn’t mean it’s health-promoting. Being aware of what you are consuming is the first step to living a life full of health and vitality.
2. Be smart about reading labels
Food manufacturers have known for decades how to hook us into buying and consuming their products. They use our innate drive to seek out high calorie foods by offering us food-like products that are high in sugar, fats and salt – that is, they are ‘hyperpalatable’. It’s the combination of these things that keeps us going back for more. Removing processed foods from our diets means we give our taste buds a chance to enjoy the flavour of real, whole-plant foods. If you no longer eat sweets, a fresh raspberry tastes amazing!
If you need to buy a processed packaged food, look at the ingredients label. If it contains chemicals that prolong shelf life, then it’s probably not worth eating. Examine the sugar, fat (particularly saturated) and salt content. All of these things are not health-promoting. In fact, they create an inflammatory response in our bodies which leads to chronic illness. Fortunately, they are easily avoided on a whole food, plant-based diet [Read: The Plant-based Diet: is it really that good for you?].
3. Shop fresh and locally
Concentrate your shopping in the produce aisles instead of trawling the rest of the supermarket for plant-based packaged goods. Even better, shop at a farmers market where produce is usually fresher, contains more nutrients, is locally sourced and less expensive. You will save time reading labels, spend less money and be healthier for it! The only other aisles you might want to visit in a supermarket contain rice, dried or canned beans, and spices.
4. Get your protein naturally, from plants
These days, everyone seems worried about their protein intake when in fact, on average, we get too much protein from our Western diets. Adult males only require about 0.84g protein per kilogram of body weight and females less with around 0.75g/kg. Eating more than this can lead to premature aging and promotion of cancer growth. To reach the recommended daily intake of protein, it’s as easy as having tofu scramble for breakfast, a chickpea salad with leafy greens and hemp seeds at lunch, and a black bean burrito for dinner. Avoid plant-based protein powders as they are usually highly processed and unnecessary when eating whole plant foods.
5. Buy organic, or not!
When it comes to organic produce, many people are put off by the high prices and sometimes poor quality product. Buying organic may reduce your exposure to heavy metals and pesticides but it doesn’t eliminate them completely from your diet. In general, organic farming has less
environmental impact and relies on fewer residual pesticides than conventional agriculture. The ‘dirty dozen’ has been formulated to indicate which fruits or vegetables potentially contain the most chemical residues, but this list varies depending which country you live in. If you can afford to buy organic, then go for it. But if your budget doesn’t allow for this, then eating copious amounts of conventional produce is still going to be beneficial to your health. Washing your produce before eating it helps reduce the chemical load, and making your own fruit and vegetable wash is simple and effective.
Avoiding animal products is beneficial for many reasons, but one of them is that it further reduces your exposure to environmental toxins. These harmful chemicals are found in animal products at levels that are much higher than in fresh produce as they “bioaccumulate” in the fat of animals. When we eat the flesh or milk of an animal, the toxins are passed into our bodies. So at the end of the day, avoid animal products, wash your fruit and vegetables, and just eat lots of plants.
6. Make informed choices
However, if you need to choose a packaged or processed food, here are some tips that may help:
- Tofu: find one with a low saturated fat content and buy organic. Or try tempeh! It’s far less processed.
- Plant-based milks: avoid added oils, stabilisers and preservatives. These milk alternatives are super easy to make and usually contain only one or two ingredients.
- Bread: find an artisan baker who bakes whole grain sourdough loaves rather than choosing fluffy white sandwich breads.
- Meat alternatives: avoid these if you can, and cook with lentils and chickpeas instead.
- Icecream: heavy in fat and sugar, even the plant-based versions are not health promoting. Make your own using frozen ripe bananas and add some cocoa to make a soft-serve ‘nicecream’!
The bottom line
At the end of the day, you will thrive on a plant-based diet if you eat whole plant foods that are as close to their natural form as possible. This way, you will be consuming nutrient-dense foods that are lower in calories. So, you may need to eat far greater quantities than if you eat a diet of processed and packaged foods. A diet full of health promoting foods eaten in abundance – who could want more?