What do tennis megastar Venus Williams, ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek and American quarterback Tom Brady have in common? The answer is a plant-based diet. The latest research shows that a mostly (or totally) plant-based diet helps improve microbiome function by increasing the diversity of gut flora.
This, in turn, leads to a whole range of neurochemical and hormonal changes in the adult body that affect mental, psychological and physical health and wellbeing. We now also know that plant-based protein is digested more efficiently than animal-based protein because its breakdown in the body and absorption happens at a much more even pace.
A plant-based diet is not necessarily one that excludes everything else. Here are the four most popular types of plant-based diets:
1. A Vegetarian Diet
A vegetarian diet usually includes no meat. Cheese, eggs and other dairy products are part of it. Famous vegetarians include Football legend Joe Namath, football player Ricky Williams and world famous track star Carl Lewis.
2. A Vegan Diet
A vegan diet is a type of vegetarian diet that excludes not just meat but also animal products, such as milk or eggs. Famous vegans include tennis superstar Martina Navratilova, ultra-marathon runner Scott Jurek and former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson.
3. A Pescatarian Diet
A pescatarian diet is a diet that is largely vegetarian but also includes seafood. Famous pescatarian athletes include former NFL superstar Tony Gonzalez, MMA star Kron Gracie and ultra-marathoner Reylynne Dela Paz.
4. A Flexitarian Diet
A flexitarian diet is a diet that encourages mostly plant-based foods while allowing meat and other animal products in moderation. Famous flexitarian athletes include American football quarterback for the New England Patriots, Tom Brady, UFC fighter John Cholish and British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.
How to Start
Famous fashion designer Stella McCartney was behind “Meat-free Mondays”, the idea that on one day of the week you can change your diet and go completely meat free. This is both good for the environment as it reduces the carbon footprint of food production (typically animal-based food products are a lot more energy intensive to produce which means their carbon footprint is correspondingly higher) and it is better, overall, for your health. And the idea was extended further with the Veganuary initiative that encourages people to go vegan for a month in order to try the change in diet and lifestyle.
Going from a western-style diet that is high in processed meat, high in salt and high in sugar to a whole food, plant based diet however requires some planning. Unless there is a pressing health reason for the change, the best way to create a sustainable, lasting change to your diet is to take it step by step, introducing small changes that allow time for your microbiome to change. That way you can best monitor how you feel on your new diet, as well.
So, start small. If you’re in the habit of having plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit, for instance, try our salad-a-day challenge where you need to add a salad a day to your diet. Depending on the kind of diet you have been on usually you may want to add the no-salt challenge. If you find yourself binging on junk food too much, it may well be that your first step to better nutritional habits will be our no-junk foo challenge.
The plan is to start by making small changes first because each change has its own effects. Having a salad each day, for example, requires you to know where you can easily buy fresh vegetables and you will also need to get used to prepping them before a meal. Going without junk food for a month, means that you have to think what you will substitute it with, where will you buy healthier food, how much will you spend and how will you prepare it.
All of these are small problems that can quickly accumulate when the change in dietary lifestyle is too much and present themselves as an insurmountable obstacle that can defeat even our best-intentioned efforts.
Plan To Succeed In Your New Dietary Lifestyle Change
Psychologists have shown that when our actions differ from our intentions we experience mental and psychological discomfort. They call this cognitive dissonance. As it builds up in our mind it make sit harder and harder for us to continue doing what we’ve planned.
To overcome it and succeed in the change we are applying, we need to make the change as easy to happen as possible. And that takes a little planning beforehand.
So here’s what you need to do in order to maintain your commitment to a more plant-based diet:
- Decide when you are going to start your new dietary lifestyle.
- Determine the range of the change you’re going to make (remember too big a change is hard to sustain as there will be many unforeseen details to work out every day).
- Plan how you will source your new dietary requirements (accessibility and budget play a big role here).
- See if there are new skills you need to pick up (cooking or preparing some food item you don’t normally use requires new knowledge).
- Monitor how you feel. Every dietary change produces physical change in the body. Our taste buds adjust, for instance, and we discover new flavors. The way our body processes food changes and we find we may need to change the quantities or the frequency of our meals. Plus, the way we feel changes.
- Keep every adjustment you make small and do not make too many changes at once.
- Do not ignore the mental angle. Food doesn’t just fill your stomach. It affects how you feel. Make changes that will make you feel better physically and mentally.
- Do not ignore peer group pressure and social factors. None of us eat alone all the time. Decide how you will handle the pressure of eating with the rest of your family (if they haven’t also decided to make the change). Think through the moment you go out with friends, or eat with colleagues at work, where you will go and what you will order?
- Be more organized. Plant-based products in food require more prep time, plus you really shouldn’t hurry when you’re having your meal as this affects your digestion and the way your body processes food.
- Keep an eye on the budget. Nothing breaks the resolution to switch to more plant-based items in your diet than running out of food money. Plant-based food is generally not more expensive than good quality animal-based food but it has no preservatives so you need to make sure you use it up when you should. Plus, it’s seasonal which means that prices and costs fluctuate throughout the year.
Beginner’s Starter Plan
If you’re completely new to a plant-based diet making the switch or even trying out a few changes can be really daunting. We’ve made it easy for you to get started with our four-step guide to making the switch.
1Start with what you already know. Build a meal around a salad. Fill a bowl with salad greens such as romaine, spinach, Bibb, or red leafy greens. Add tomatoes, cucumbers and spring onions or finely sliced red onions. Then add some grain to your table (whole wheat bread, whole grain pasta, oatmeal or quinoa).
2Replace meat. Just because you’re going plant-based, you still need protein in your diet. If you replace meat then you need to add grains, seeds, legumes and beans high in protein such as black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, split peas, cornmeal, kamut (wheat berries), teff, quinoa, whole wheat pasta, wild rice, millet, couscous, oats, and buckwheat. Buy some firm tofu you can cut into slices and serve and you have an instant source of easy-access protein. Also think of adding barley, soybeans or chia seeds that are high in protein and check out our piece on protein and muscle building for non-meat sources of high quality protein.
3Cook in bulk. Time is always a problem. Be smart and cook some things in advance to give you an easy, modular approach to building any non-meat based plate quickly. Store in separate tupperwares in your fridge cooked beans, chickpeas, brown and wild rice, russet and sweet potatoes, amaranth, millet or lentils. Build the perfectly balanced plant-based diet plate by adding a little of each alongside fresh vegetables, some herbs and some grain. You can serve it hot or cold according to mood and taste.
4Finish with fruit. Replace dessert with some fruit. Go for a small bowl of what’s seasonal: bananas, apples, pears, strawberries or berries. Add some dates or figs (if in season) for that extra-sweet bite.
Going plant-based in your diet will only succeed if you plan for it. Your current diet, for example, didn’t happen overnight. It only became a thing the moment you knew where to get what you needed, how much it would cost and what you should do if you also had to prepare it. Similarly, you now need to pick up new skills and develop new personal strategies. Provided you do this incrementally, you will find that switching to more plant-based products will be a lot easier than you think.
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- Abbasalizad Farhangi M, Dehghan P, Jahangiry L. Mental health problems in relation to eating behavior patterns, nutrient intakes and health related quality of life among Iranian female adolescents. PLoS One. 2018;13(4):e0195669. Published 2018 Apr 27. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0195669
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