what to eat on a plat-based diet

What to Eat on a Plant-Based Diet

This article is for all of you who have committed to stop eating meat, or want to learn more about vegetarianism or veganism before jumping right in.

On a meat-free (vegetarian) diet, the only thing you can’t eat is meat. It’s not that simple, though. Did you know most gelatin, bubblegum and other jelly candies are made with cartilage, extracted from skin, bones, and connective tissues of animals? Did you know some cheese producers still use enzymes found in the stomach of ruminants in the coagulation process?

Likewise, there’s more to veganism than ditching eggs, milk, yoghurt and cheese. A number of food additives are derived from animals and used in more store-bought food items than you can imagine. Most non-dark chocolate isn’t vegan, and most cookies as well, for example.

Click here for a comprehensive list on what to look out for when shopping. The list contains also information regarding clothing, because more than a diet, being vegetarian or vegan should be a conscious, ethical lifestyle, that encompasses compassion for animals, healthy eating, and environmental sustainability.

Notes about what “healthy” means

Oreo cookies are vegan. But should you eat them? No, they are full of crap. Potato chips are vegan. Should you accompany every meal with them? No, they have too much fat and salt. Starbucks now has vegan drinks. Are they good for you? No, they have enormous amounts of sugar. Getting drunk every weekend is a “vegan activity”. Should you do it? No.

You may know where I’m going with this, and I dare say it –  to be “officially” called vegetarian or vegan, you don’t need to eat healthy or have a healthy lifestyle, but you should.

I can’t praise someone who doesn’t eat meat “for the animals” but is a smoker, for example. Millions of discarded cigarette butts end up in the oceans, killing the very same animals that person swore to protect. It’s hypocritical.

If you are committed to make a change in your diet for the better, use that momentum to improve in all areas of your lifestyle. This blog is called Critical Eating, the emphasis being on the “critical” part. Every choice you make in your life has an impact on you, on others, and on the planet as a whole. Choose to be a conscious, healthy person. I’m here to help you with that.

fruits and veggies

A Meat-free Shopping List

To cook healthy meals, you need to have the right selection of ingredients. And you need to be able to buy them without breaking your budget.

Acquiring natural ingredients – vegetable staples such as leafy greens, grains and seeds – isn’t costly. You should base your diet around these foods. However, buying “fake meat”, “fake dairy” and ready-made meals is way more expensive (and artificial). Buy them sparingly, or avoid them altogether.

Bottom line – this is more expensive than a meat-based diet:

fake meat and dairy - critical eating

While this is cheaper:

plant-based diet

But what to buy? Should you just go to a store, fill your cart with random veggies and call it a day? Well, it’s not that simple. We need a whole array of macro and micronutrients, and different foods have different nutritional composition. To help you, I’ve divided what I usually buy in several categories, according to its place in my diet.

Protein Sources

Let’s say you usually eat a steak with potatoes and a simple tomato and lettuce salad. The “vegetarian version” of that dish cannot be just potatoes and salad – it lacks protein and other key nutrients you would find on meat.

But fear not, as there are hundreds of plant-based protein sources. Most of them are members of the Fabaceae family, such as lentils or chickpeas. But there’s also nuts and cereals.

Here’s the ones you’re likely to find on the majority of stores or markets:

  • Chickpeas
  • Lentils
  • Quinoa
  • Kidney, pinto, black and black-eyed beans
  • Fava beans
  • Soybeans, tofu and tempeh
  • Wheat and seitan
  • Walnuts and pecans
  • Cashews
  • Peanuts
  • Chia, flax and hemp seeds
  • Sesame and pumpkin seeds
  • Oats and barley

Now, there’s a catch. Our body breaks down the protein it eats into its smaller components, amino acids. There are 22 of them, of which 9 are classified as essential to humans as our body cannot synthesize them “from scratch”.

If you eat only one or two elements of the above bullet list each week, your body won’t get all of the essential amino acids it needs. A well-balanced plant-based diet requires the combination of various protein sources. So, I recommend you buy at least 6 items from the list each week. Also, buy different ones every time you go shopping – variety is key!

For a vegetarian diet, you can also count on eggs (always buy free-range) and cheese.

Healthy Fats

Since ancient times, humans have used both animal and plant-based fats. Up to today, there’s been much debate about the pros and cons of each type of fat. The scientific community agrees that trans fats, present in hydrogenated products such as margarine, and used in many heavily processed sweets, are highly harmful. There’s also a consensus that animal fats raise our cholesterol levels, leading to heart disease.

So, my recommendation goes into eating a variety of nonhydrogenated plant-based fats, such as:

  • Olive oil (preferably extra-virgin)
  • Coconut oil (preferably extra-virgin)
  • Peanut butter
  • Sunflower oil (preferably “high-oleic”)
  • Avocados

These are the ones you’re likely to find everywhere. The less refined an oil is, the better it is for your health, as it is extracted using no heat (high temperatures change the chemical structure of fats) or solvents. These kinds of oils are known as “extra-virgin”, so always pay attention to the package.

As I’ve said before regarding peanut butter, go for varieties without added palm oil.

It’s important to say that the nuts I’ve mentioned in the “protein sources” section are also full of healthy fats. Keep that in mind to avoid eating fat in excess!

Veggies of All Shapes and Sizes

Composed of more than 90% water, don’t expect your preferred veggies to be a significant source of carbs, protein or fat. Instead, they are full of vitamins and minerals, which you need in different amounts for your body to work properly. Here’s a selection of my favourites:

  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Tomatoes
  • Bell peppers
  • Onion
  • Cabbages
  • Garlic
  • Eggplant
  • Zucchini
  • Leeks
  • Carrots
  • Asparagus
  • Mushrooms*

There are many more, and all are welcome in your diet. Specialists recommend that you eat at least 2 1/2 cups of vegetables daily, which you can surely achieve by having half of the space in your lunch and dinner plates filled with food from this group.

Here, just like in the protein section, variety is key. If you eat only dark leafy greens, you are getting a lot of Vitamin C but not enough lycopene, only found in red and orange vegetables and fruits. So, make sure to buy at least 6 elements of the list each week. Mix and match different kinds of veggies frequently!

*Mushrooms are fungi, not plants. But I had nowhere else to put them – and they taste great!

Fruits… again, of all shapes and sizes

Like veggies, fruits are also full of micronutrients. Depending on where you live, you’ll have a different selection available, that also varies with the seasons. Here are the ones I find regularly in Portugal:

  • Bananas
  • Oranges, lemons and limes
  • Apples and pears
  • Strawberries and raspberries
  • Blackberries and blueberries
  • Pineapples
  • Mango and papaya
  • Plums and figs
  • Kiwifruit
  • Peaches and apricots
  • Grapes

The same rule for the rest of the plant world applies here – you should always vary the fruits you eat, and you’ll get all the nutrients you need. In terms of quantity, you should have a minimum of 2 cups of fruit a day. If you eat fruit after lunch and dinner, that should be enough, but feel free to mix fruits with your breakfast or in desserts!

Keep in mind that fruits have lots of sugar, so don’t go overboard with them. However, it’s always preferable to eat them instead of refined sugars.

I generally buy 3 or 4 different kinds of fruit each week.

Other Carbohydrate Sources

Many items on the “protein sources” list have a fine amount of carbs. Also, fruits have carbs as well, specifically sugars. However, there are other plant-based carbohydrate sources that I commonly eat and have yet to mention.

  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Bread
  • Potatoes and sweet potatoes
  • Wheat flour – all-purpose, self-raising and whole wheat

Sure, most pasta and bread are made of flour, most flour is made of wheat, and I’ve mentioned wheat before. However, most commercially-available flour has had the germ and bran of the wheat plant removed, and as such is lower in protein than the plant itself. Whole wheat flour, like the name says, uses the whole wheat, so it has more fibres and protein.

I prefer making my own bread rather than buying it, as store-bought bread may contain a huge amount of additives and excess salt. Always read the ingredient labels to be sure.

Culinary Herbs and Spices

Harnessing the true power of herbs and spices is something not all cooks master. There’s many who leave them out of their diet altogether. While I do promise to write an article about the subject, for the time being, here is what you can find on my pantry (and fridge):

  • Cinnamon
  • Paprika
  • Garlic powder
  • Garam Masala powder
  • Cummin
  • Pepper
  • Nutmeg
  • Mustard
  • Thyme
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Basil
  • Spring onions

One day I hope to have my own “indoor garden” of plants. For now, I mostly turn to dried herbs, as they last way longer. However, I always use fresh basil – the dried one tastes and smells like tea.

Sweet Bonuses

We’re almost done, but before we finish I would like to leave you with a few other plant-based ingredients that belong in my diet:

  • Dark chocolate
  • Brown sugar
  • Agar powder
  • Maple syrup
  • Coconut milk and yoghurt

Like I said before, gelatin isn’t even vegetarian. The widely used plant-based alternative is agar powder, or “agar-agar”, a substance extracted from red algae that behaves just like jelly.

Now for the maple syrup – it’s an alternative to white cane sugar, certainly less processed. The same goes for brown sugar.

And what’s not to love about dark chocolate? My favorite kind, and the healthier, and the most likely to contain no added milk, making it suitable for vegans.

I finish with a few words about plant milk. The most common alternative to animal milk is soy milk, however, all the ones I’ve tasted so far were too sweet, full of additives and with no distinctive, pleasant flavour. So, my choice goes to coconut milk and yoghurt. It’s not “100% coconut”, of course, but the Alpro ones are not too sweet, making them perfect to add your favourite granola or berries.


A Plant-Based Goodbye

That’s it for today, and I really hope you’ve enjoyed this “lecture” on what to buy. I’ve not delved into what makes a good product – whether it’s organic or biological, fair-trade or locally sourced, for example. I also didn’t talk about supplementation – vegans don’t get B12 from their diet. Those will be subjects of future articles.

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