| By Julianna Merotto
At some point in our lives, we have all craved the classic American meal of a juicy cheeseburger like the one above, accompanied by crispy, golden french fries and a cold, sweet milkshake. However, the ‘burger’ pictured above does not come from a cow, but from a pea! In an age where industrial cattle farming produces over 37% of global methane emissions, a gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide, many are seeking to reduce their impact on our planet. (1) But, as a plant-based diet becomes increasingly popular, more and more of our favorite meals are skipping the animal products. So you can look forward to not just a ‘burger’ but ‘milkshake’ and fries too.
Growing up, it is likely that meat was a cornerstone in all of our diets. After all, only 5% of all Americans claim to have a vegetarian diet. (2) Removing this pillar from one’s diet can be daunting. But, here to help are Kristin Long and Emily Ferencik, registered dieticians. They understand first-hand why one would want to make the plant based switch. They break down, step by step, what your body needs, not just without meat, but for a healthy life.
Today, health and wellness can seem more confusing than ever. With over 127 million Instagram posts alone under the health hashtag, knowing what is best for our bodies can be downright confusing. (3) However, Kristin Long and Emily Ferencik bring it all back to the basics. Ultimately, the three essentials of a healthy diet are carbohydrates, protein, and fats. Carbohydrates should be the biggest part of our diets, with protein and then fats at the smallest part.
These essentials are no different in a plant-based diet. But, where a vegetarian or vegan may get these big three nutrients from may look a little different!
Good news! Carbohydrates, which according to Long and Ferencik, should be 40-60% of your diet, are very abundant in plant based sources. Grains, legumes, beans, fruits, and veggies are all examples of carbohydrates.
However, all carbs are not created equal. There are both simple and complex carbohydrates. The main difference? Fiber! In simple carbohydrates such as white bread, the lack of fiber causes a spike in blood sugar which can lead to a violent energy crash. However, in complex carbs such as oats, whole wheat, whole fruits, and vegetables, there is a significantly greater amount of fiber which allows for the body to use sugar at a sustained pace, avoiding an energy crash.
Does this mean you have to say goodbye to comfort foods such as pastas, breads, and baked goods? No! Long and Ferencik make it clear that everything can be enjoyed in a healthy diet. The key is to find the balance that your body and mind benefit most from.
The infamous protein. For plant-based eaters, this is a main argument others have against going without meat. From worries about insufficient protein intake to being perpetually hungry, it is time to finally break down the mystery behind one of the three key nutrients. Protein’s main job in the body is to regulate structure and function of our systems. Long and Fredcik assure that while the ‘conventional’ forms of protein may come from animal products, plants are also able to provide the protein we need to stay up and running at our fullest.
Just like carbohydrates, there are two types of protein : incomplete and complete. Complete proteins contain all 9 amino acids that proteins can be composed of. Incomplete proteins still have the same amino acids, but lacking one or more in the same food.
For plant based eaters, complete proteins come from soy, hemp and quinoa, ingredients that have proven quite versatile, especially with growing innovation in vegetarian cooking. But, if those ingredients don’t sound appetizing, plant-based incomplete proteins are much more common. They can be found in beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and oats to name a few.
However, Long and Fredcik make one fact quite clear. While complete proteins will satisfy a body with all nine essential amino acids in from one source, incomplete proteins are just as important. When a wide variety of these incomplete sources are consumed, one does not just have the potential to satisfy their complete protein needs, but will also have a wide range of vitamins, minerals and increased fiber as well.
Fats may only be a recommended 25-35% of a well-balanced diet, but this ‘tiny’ essential nutrient certainly is mighty. After all, fats are not just essential for aiding in the absorption of essential vitamins such as A, D, E and K, but they also make up the cell membranes in our bodies. Fats also help regulate our hormones when we eat, helping us to know when we are full. Plant-based fats can come from a range of foods such as oils, nut-butters, and coconut meat.
However, essential fatty acids (omega-3’s), such as EPA and DHA, are not widely found in plant-based foods. The largest natural source of omega-3’s is fish. Long and Ferencik claim that this can lead to many vegetarians and vegans suffering from issues ranging from heart to joint health.
In order to combat deficiencies, those who choose to have a plant-based diet can add flax, chia, and hemp seeds to their diet. While these additions are beneficial, it is possible that external supplements such as concentrated algae like these might be needed.
Don’t sweat the small stuff … right? Long and Ferencik think that might not be the case when going plant-based. In the case of a healthy diet, it is important to make sure that your diet is both balanced and rich. This richness is accomplished through micronutrients. Micronutrients include various essential vitamins and minerals. These are just as important as making sure we get adequate protein, carbohydrates, and fats!
There are many vitamins that the human body requires on a daily basis. When going plant based, it is common to have a higher fruit and vegetable intake as well as a higher vitamin intake as a result. But, some vitamins can be harder to find when one eliminates meat from their diet. Long and Frencik highlight vitamins D and B12 as being two of the most elusive for herbivores. However, as more and more choose a plant-based lifestyle, you won’t have to look far beyond your supermarket shelves.
Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, can be met by anyone who has an extra ten minutes to take some rays. But, if you’re short on time or it’s a cloudy day, various foods are fortified with vitamin D, ranging from plant milks to cereals to orange juice.
As for Vitamin B12, usually found in meat products, ingredients such as nutritional yeast, seaweed, and fortified plant milks can hold the key.
Iron, calcium, and zinc: These are the three main minerals our bodies need to thrive. Thankfully, they are plentiful in plant-based sources. Sometimes, our bodies can have a hard time absorbing all of the minerals we eat. According to Long and Ferencik, a good way to cope with this struggle is to eat a wide variety of the foods containing the minerals we need.
Now, where to find these three necessary minerals? Well, iron is abundant in foods such as dry beans, peanuts, and soy. Calcium can be found anywhere from collard greens to broccoli or kale. And, finally, zinc is abundant in baked beans, fortified cereals, and pumpkin seeds!
While the road to beginning a plant-based lifestyle may have many moving parts, it all comes down to loving the food you fuel your body with. Whether you love burgers to bibimbap, or tortellini to tamales, there is a plant-based version out there for you! Listed below are a few great plant-based blogs run by cooks who make food that feeds body and soul.