Going plant based

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When I was a kid, I grew up in a family that was vegetarian, mainly vegan but not excessively strict. My favourite food was avocado on toast (and still is today). I went through my teen years introducing dairy and some meats, but in my early twenties I decided to return to my roots. It wasn’t until the past 10 or so years, however, that I had even heard the term “plant-based”. Now I know that’s how I was brought up and what I am today.

You’ve also probably heard the term “plant-based” by now—and you may too be wondering, Is it just another diet trend or is there more to it?

Like most things, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around about what plant-based eating involves, so let’s start by demystifying some of those false beliefs:

Myth 1: Plant-based nutrition is unnatural

Plant-based nutrition is in fact the original Paleo diet. We once believed that early humans consumed a large proportion of animal protein in their diet. It is from that belief that, in the 2000s, the Paleo diet (mainly consisting of animal protein) became popular in the world of nutrition and diet. We now know that the nutrition of bipedal primates and Homo sapiens was primarily composed of nuts, fruits, leaves, roots, seeds and water. Therefore, the “original” Paleo diet was in reality plant-based eating. We also see this affirmed in the Bible. The book of Genesis tells us that the original diet given to humans was “every seed-bearing plant . . . and all the fruit trees for your food” (Genesis 1:29).

Myth 2: Plant-based nutrition is just a fancy term for a vegan diet

In the world of nutrition, plant-based eating is having a large portion of one’s nutrition coming from vegetables, fruits, herbs, nuts, wholegrains and also includes legumes or other plants. A spectrum of plant-based nutrition options is available. Some are very strict (vegan), others still add animal products like dairy (vegetarian), while at the other end of the spectrum are those who still eat meat, poultry and fish on an occasional basis (flexitarian). Plant-based eating can be for everyone, as the main idea is to add more vegetables, fruits, nuts, wholegrains and legumes.

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Myth 3: Plant-based nutrition is not for athletes

It was once believed that you needed to add animal protein in your meals to increase muscle mass. Consider, however, that the strongest mammal is the gorilla. It has the ability to lift around 10 times its body weight. That’s equivalent to a 90kg human lifting 900kg! If other mammals can live a healthy and strong life on plant-based nutrition, we probably can too. Some studies on athletes have demonstrated that it is possible to increase muscle and be extremely fit on a plant-based diet. For example, one of the best runners of all time—American ultramarathoner Scott Jurek—eats a plant-based diet.

So what are some of the reasons to consider eating more plant-based? There are many, but here are the main reasons I chose to:

Reason 1: Improve your health

Most of us in Western countries consume double the recommended daily intake of protein which can cause issues with digestion. By reducing your intake of animal food, you will most likely reach the recommended daily intake of protein without surpassing it.

In addition, an increased consumption of vegetables, grains and beans will bring more fibre into your nutrition. Most Westerners don’t consume enough fibre, which can lead to inflammation of the digestive tract, constipation and haemorrhoids.

Reason 2: Less impact on the environment

The statistics on the huge environmental cost of industrialised animal farming are quite extraordinary. According to the UN, meat and dairy (farmed livestock) accounts for 14.5 per cent of all manmade greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, animal agriculture uses nearly one-third of drinking water available. Worldwide, meat and dairy production uses 83 per cent of farmland but provides just 18 per cent of calories and 37 per cent of protein. And that’s not to mention the often suboptimal conditions and treatment of animals in the agricultural industry.

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Reason 3: Succeed in weight loss and/or management

In general, individuals who are on a plant-based diet tend to consume fewer calories than other types of diets. That is because most of their calories are coming from healthier options and fewer calories per weight. Some studies indicate that individuals who had a plant-based diet with reduced sodium consumption (1500–2300 mg a day) showed a reduction in blood pressure and increased weight loss. When you think about it, most plant-based whole foods are lower in calories and have a higher nutritional density than non-plant-based foods.

Reason 4: Prevent or manage chronic disease

Research demonstrates that individuals on a plant-based diet can prevent or manage chronic disease. A report published by the World Health Organization recommended that a daily intake of 400g of fruits and vegetables would contribute to preventing chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease, cancer and obesity. For more research on this, The China Study is a great place to start, as well as How Not To Die by Dr Michael Greger, a podcast by Simon Hill called The Proof and last but not least, the National Geographic study into the Blue Zones. There are also some insightful documentaries you can watch, such as Game Changers and Forks Over Knives that will also provide tons of information if you’d like to learn more.

If you’re interested in giving plant-based a go, here’s a couple of suggestions to get you started.

Tip 1: Focus on adding, not eliminating foods

Plant-based eating can be for everyone. The main idea is not to “diet” or remove something from your nutrition but to focus on adding more vegetables, fruits, nuts, wholegrains and legumes.

If you love your steak or burgers, you don’t have to completely eliminate animal-based food. Just start with reducing it by slowly adding more foods that are plant-based.

Tip 2: Plan your meals in advance

I personally love having a few inspirational plant-based cookbooks on hand, like Food As Medicine or any of the Revive Cookbook series, to help me choose new recipes to try. Start by just adding one plant-based meal a week and go from there.

Tip 3: Use a shopping list

If plant-based eating is new to you, knowing what you’re looking for when shopping can really help. A few go-tos in our family include tofu/tempeh, nut-based milks, nutritional savoury yeast flakes (give a cheesy flavour to recipes) and beans/legumes such as black beans or chickpeas. These foods are incredibly versatile and can be used in so many ways.

Whether you don’t like the thought of animals being killed, you want to get in shape or simply feel better, the plant-based approach is a great option for anyone who wants to be a healthier person. Choosing a plant-based approach to eating doesn’t have to be a complex commitment.

Here’s the simplest way to do it: Increase the amount of plant-based food on your grocery list and plant-based meals in your week. It’s as simple as that.

It’s not a diet but a way of living—so have fun with it!

Alisha Christie is a women’s wellbeing, mindset and pre-pregnancy coach. She writes from Toowoomba, Queensland where she lives with her two little boys and husband.

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