We hear it time and time again. Eating more plant-based foods is associated with a heap of health benefits. Well, it’s true, and this is why…
Plants are naturally rich sources of many nutrients that are vital for good health and wellbeing, including vitamins (such as folate), unsaturated fats, minerals (such as potassium), fibre and protein. Eating a plant-based diet has been linked to lowered risk of several chronic diseases, such as heart disease, obesity, inflammation, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
Eating a plant-based diet is even associated with beneficial effects on mental health, digestive health, and, the real kicker, increases the likelihood of living a longer life! We know these health benefits to be true (there seems to be a new study coming out each day to confirm it!), yet fewer than 4% of Aussies are actually meeting the national guidelines for vegetable intake, and only slightly more for fruit. How can this be?
The answer tends to be multifaceted and different for everyone. Some of us still view veggies as a punishment from our childhood, scarred by memories of rabbit-food fennel, soggy, over-boiled green beans and smelly veggies like cauliflower and Brussel sprouts. For some of us, a busy lifestyle means takeaway and (often nutritionally poor) easier options are much more enticing. For others, it’s a lack of knowledge – we just don’t know how to incorporate more plant-based foods into our current diet without being condemned to the same tasteless salad each day.
Listed below are some handy (and most importantly realistic!) ways you can incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet. You’re not restricted to just one method, so try them all and see which ones work best for you.
1) Be kind to yourself and make small changes gradually
We’ve all been there. Failed new year’s resolutions. Make you feel like … well, you know. Don’t aim for 10 serves of veggies if you’re currently sitting on 1-2. The key to dietary change is to start small. Five serves of vegetables can seem like a lot to someone who is used to a meat and processed foods-heavy diet. Try changing one meal, or even one ingredient, at a time. For example, instead of smearing your morning toast with butter, vegemite, jam, or honey, opt for avocado with a squeeze of lemon juice. Instead of a muesli bar for morning tea, opt for some nuts with either fresh or dried fruit. Fresh is best when it comes to produce but no one likes hot soggy fruit so make your choice based on what facilities (e.g., refrigeration) are available to you. You still get plenty of benefit from dried fruit and vegetables, and some studies show that frozen veggies may even be superior for veggies with high amounts of fat-soluble nutrients like vitamin A, carotenoids, and vitamin E!!!
2) Spread your intake out over the day
Don’t eat nothing but processed crap until dinnertime and then try and jam in your 5 serves of veggies and 2-3 servings of fruit right before bed? That is a recipe for a digestive nightmare, as these foods tend to be high in fibre, and so you’re almost guaranteed a one-way ticket to the loo and a potential sleepless night. A good idea is to have some fruit at breakfast and morning tea, and your veggies at lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. Having several small meals spread throughout the day has also been shown to be more effective for weight maintenance (an added bonus).
3) Know your serving sizes (they’re not as big as you’d think!)
Instead of being intimidated by what you view as a daily mountain of fruit and vegetables, when you educate yourself on what constitutes a serving size you’ll be pleasantly surprised, and feel it is much more manageable. One apple, two small apricots/plums/kiwifruit, 1 cup of berries or fruit salad = 1 serving size of fruit. Similarly, 1 cup of salad/fresh veggies or ½ cup steamed/cooked = 1 serve of vegetables. Totally doable, right? For nuts and seeds, only 30g (a small handful) is required. Try to eat legumes (1/2 cup of cooked lentils, chickpeas, beans etc.) two to three times each week. Mix these up so you don’t get bored and get the most nutrient bang for your buck. The more variety you have in your diet, the better it is for your overall health and wellbeing, as each food has a unique nutritional profile and will offer a distinct health benefit. The more colourful your fruit/veg intake the better! #eattherainbow is a popular hashtag on many health bloggers’ social media pages for a reason!
4) Swap meat in recipes for legumes and pulses
This doesn’t necessarily mean completely removing meat from your diet. However, as multiple studies have now demonstrated a strong link between excess meat consumption and undesirable health outcomes, replacing some of your favourite meat-based dishes with fibre and nutrient dense legumes and pulses is a great idea … and cheaper too! How to do this? Easy! There are heaps of lentil bolognaise, walnut and lentil lasagne, chickpea curry, vegetable burger, and other plant-based recipes the whole family will enjoy available in print and online. Tofu and tempeh (100-150g = one serving size) are great substitutes for poultry too. Nut, soy and oat milks make great alternatives to dairy too, just don’t go too crazy on the coconut fad as coconut is still high in saturated fat.
5) Get creative in the kitchen and becomes friends with food prep
The good thing about plant-based foods is that they tend to keep for longer than animal-based dishes. Use Sunday night or some of your downtime to make large servings that can be frozen and reheated during the busy work week. Pre-chop veggies and pre-wash salads etc. to make life easier come the early morning rush. Pin a weekly meal plan to your fridge so you don’t forget what to take to work/school/uni.
6) Add veggies to your barbeque
Not only will this make your barbeque MUCH more colourful, it will reduce the likelihood of binging on large quantities of meat (not ideal). Capsicum, zucchini, whole cherry tomatoes, eggplant, Portobello mushrooms, pumpkin and corn cobs are just some of the many vegetables that barbeque really well. Thread some chopped veggies onto your meat kebabs and prepare a roast on a bed of grilled veggies … yum!
7) Drink your intake
Smoothies, juices, and natural fruit enhanced probiotic drinks like PERKii are a great way to get your dose of fresh produce, and can oftentimes be easier on a digestive system that is not trained to consume high fibre foods. Just try not to overdo juices in particular, as they are not as fibre-rich as the real deal and as humans we need to frequently chew our food for jaw and teeth health, not to mention to increase satiety signals to the brain!
8) When all else fails, get sneaky
Grate veggies into your favourite dishes (a good trick to increase intake in the young … and older children in the family!): grate sweet veggies like carrot, beetroot, sweet potato and zucchini in your stews, pasta sauces, soups, curries etc. – no one will ever know (*insert evil grin*). You can even add veggies to your smoothies and sweet dishes! A dollop of pumpkin purree or sweet potato mash will actually enhance the flavour of your sweet smoothies and desserts while giving them a major nutrient boost!