Hey everyone. It’s Natalia here, one of HEAL's Holistic Nutritionists.
Let me start this post by saying there is no “right” or “wrong” way to eat. Each one of us is unique. Our dietary needs, caloric requirements, lifestyle, etc. are all highly individual and can change depending on what you're dealing with at the time. I’m also acutely aware that motivations behind eating a certain way can be very polarising.
That being said, I won’t get into the research here but it’s pretty clear that we would all benefit from eating more of plants (unless you’re on that new Carnivore Diet trend...yes, that’s a thing). For some people that means eating 100% plant based or vegan and for others that just means trying to get to your 5-10 servings a day. Whatever the degree, there are a few issues that I see come up with some people when they transition to a more plant-based diet and that I’d like to address. My goal is to help make it as easy as possible for you to incorporate more plants into your diet and find a balance that is sustainable for YOU and makes YOU feel amazing. Note that these recommendations are also relevant if you aren't plant-based but struggle with low energy, cravings and healthy eating.
You can get enough protein on a plant based diet - that’s not the question. What is important though is the ratio of protein to carbs, which does make a difference. Why? If your diet is very high in carbohydrates like grains, starches or sugar and very low in protein by comparison, it can lead to rises in your blood sugar levels which can really influence your cravings, waistline and energy levels. Protein helps to balance your blood sugar levels and triggers hormones which suppress hunger, which leads to more stable energy and reduced cravings. While you don’t need to be eating boatloads of protein, you do need to make sure you’re getting enough, especially for your hormone health.
How do you know if your ratio of protein to carbs is off without counting calories or macronutrients?
While these foods can come in handy when you have a craving for a specific food, they’re often highly processed and should be thought of as junk food. For example, a look at the label of a popular meatless meatball shows the following ingredients at the top:
‘Water, Textured Vegetable Protein (Soy Protein Concentrate, Barley Malt Extract), Canola Oil, Vital Wheat Gluten, Soy Protein Isolate, Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Methylcellulose…’
I wouldn’t eat something with an ingredient list like that regardless of whether there was meat or not. Just remember that just because something is vegan, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. While it is completely your prerogative to eat as much or as little processed food as you’d like, chances are you won’t feel very good in the long-term and this won’t be sustainable. Instead of using these processed substitutes, try jackfruit, which is a fruit that can be shredded and seasoned like pulled pork, tempeh, which is whole fermented soybeans that can be sliced and seasoned like bacon or broken up into small pieces like ground meat, or nutritional yeast and cashews which can substitute cheesy textures and tastes.
Grains and beans become major staples when you start eating more plant based foods but not everyone has the digestive capacity to handle them in large amounts. Legumes and beans, and many plants for that matter, contain something called phytic acid which may be one of the properties that makes them so healthful, but also reduces their digestibility. Phytic acid can also bind to minerals in the digestive tract, such as iron, copper, zinc and manganese, reducing absorption. This can be problematic if you’re anemic or aren’t already getting enough iron.
These foods also have complex sugars and starches (like oligosaccharides) that the body cannot digest without help. Because they don’t break down, they ferment and produce gases and discomfort (hello embarrassing smelling gas!). Over time this can lead to a lot of inflammation in the gut that can lead to more serious digestive issues and bacterial imbalances.
You can learn some valuable lessons from cultures that have thrived on these foods for a very long time. In order to increase their digestibility they rinsed them, soaked them for days, slowly cooked them and/or sprouted and fermented them. My recommendation is to start small with these foods if you’re not used to eating a lot of legumes or even whole grains, and work your way up as your digestive system adapts. Don’t eat the same protein sources every day or at every meal. Always rinse them, soak them for 12-48 hours (if they’re dry) and cook them fully. If you’re buying plant-based protein powders especially, try to look for ones where the ingredients have been sprouted or fermented like Genuine Health Fermented Organic Vegan Proteins+.
We love Eden Organics beans because they are pre-soaked and pressure cooked, for better digestibility. They are also BPA free, which is important for canned food.
I know that it can seem like there’s so much to pay attention to, but what it ultimately comes down to is getting the majority of your nutrition from real, whole foods, whether for you that includes animal products or not. Trust that your body will guide you towards a diet in which you thrive, and just know that if you haven’t been eating a very whole foods diet to date, it may take a little longer for you to learn to recognize the cues.
If you'd like guidance transitioning to more plant-based foods, in a way that is sustainable for you, click here to book a complimentary 15 minute info session to learn about our custom meal plans and 1:1 Nutrition Coaching.
Written by: Natalia Bragagnolo, RHN