What I REALLY Learned From My ‘7 Day Plant Based Food Journey
With the aim of being able to better support my clients who follow a vegan or plant based diet with their nutrition, health and performance I decided to experience for myself a week of plant based eating.
I wanted to experience for myself the challenges in creating a nutritionally complete and balanced diet, feeling satisfied and enjoying food, how my body feels in terms of energy, cognition and physical performance and also digestion, to become more creative with meat and dairy alternatives, more familiar with vegan food products and to understand what this way of eating is like socially.
I called it a “journey” rather than a “diet” to make it clear I was on a mission to learn, to be open and to experience. With a past history of restrictive eating and knowing all too well the negative consequences, I made a promise to myself that if I felt that this ‘journey’ was causing me any harm or stress, including a negative impact on my social health or I found I was becoming preoccupied with food or my body was ‘craving’ food from animal origin I would stop immediately. ‘Dieting’ is the number one risk factor for developing an eating disorder, so I certainly wanted to protect my now peaceful, loving and grateful relationship with food. I was only in this ‘journey’ to learn and ‘experience’, not a way to control or change my body or lose its trust and intuition.
This blog post it not about what is right or wrong when it comes to eating foods from animal origin and the practices around it. I have and do not intent to change peoples beliefs and instead support their decision and will do what I can to support their health and performance with nutrition guidance and education.
Here are my top 7 + 1 lessons learned:
1. Protein requirements are easy to achieve on a plant based diet.
Wholegrains, tofu and tempeh, beans and legumes, soy milk, nuts and seeds are all excellent sources of protein. I was well aware that our society over estimates their protein requirements and this is mostly due to the supplement markets. Taking out lean meat, poultry, fish and eggs and dairy which were my major sources of protein and swapping them with some of the foods listed above were very simple and enjoyable. Soy milk has more protein than most of the other plant based milks. To attain all of the nine essential amino acids variety in the diet is key. Some plant based foods such as soy, quinoa and amaranth contain all essential amino acids. Alternatively, combining wholegrains and legumes are a simple way to provide all essential amino acids typically found in a meat dish.
2. You can feel satisfied on a plant based diet if you include sufficient fruit, vegetables and wholegrains.
Protein and fibre are particularly effective at generating satiety. So as long as you include wholegrains, fruit and vegetables with their high fibre content and plant based high protein foods listed earlier then you can definitely feel very satisfied! It is when you choose more refined foods that lack the nutrient density that your body may not feel satisfied or ‘full’.
3. Herbs are king when it comes to variety.
The star of my and many others main dishes is quite often the protein, so removing animal proteins does leave less variety. I was surprised how different I could make tofu, tempeh and beans and legumes taste each meal simply by using different fresh or dried herbs. Garlic and chilli in a no brainer but experimenting with a new range of Indian and Thai cuisine herbs was very enjoyable and cheap!
4. Tempeh is so much more flavoursome and satiating than tofu.
Tempeh is also less refined and more energy, protein and iron rich due to it being a less processed product of soybean. Tempeh also has a nutty taste and hearty texture compared to Tofu which I feel is less reliant on herbs and spices to be enjoyable.
5. Animal products are in many more foods than you realise.
Honey, milk solids and shrimp paste were tiny ingredients found in condiments that I was not aware of. To 100% avoid any foods from animal origin can take some time in the beginning to establish your regular ‘go to’ meals and snacks. Sticking to foods closest its most natural state was often required such a using fresh or fried herbs and spices rather than using condiments or curry pastes for bottles and jars. I struggled to learn that my fresh chai mix contains honey, without it even being added when they make the ‘chai latte’. On my first realisation I did sort out to find a vegan chai but it did take me to the next suburb, by foot with my dog to Richmond, just to find this vegan prana chai blend from Oh My Espresso. In all honesty though and referring back to my aims of this journey I didn’t go to Richmond every day. I continued to head just across the road for my chai. I didn’t get honey added but there was some in the fresh chai mix it was brewed with. I also had soy or almond milk instead. This was the only non-vegan food/drink I suppose you could say I had all week. I had a craving for chai. I have been having them for years, every day. Vegan fresh chai is not so common in the cafes in Melbourne.
My evening ritual with jarrah hot cholate also was effected as it also contained ‘milk solids’. Swapping to a vegan Loving Earth Drinking Chocolate was an easy substitution for me.
6. A plant based diet is difficult to deliver all of your essential nutrients, some nutrients will need to be supplemented.
Out of curiosity I did a nutrition analysis on a few days my food intake to see how it stacked up. As suspected Vitamins b12 was insufficient and also omega 3. Although I had ground flaxseed on my breakfast, nuts and avocado for my essential fats, higher amounts of omega 3 were needed to meet my requirements.
If this was a long term way of eating I would take a regular Vitamin B12 and Vegan Omega supplement. There is a ‘Flaxseed Oil’ supplement from Blackmores that provides vegetarian organic Omega 3, 6 and 9. For the week I took a B multivitamin, which I also could have just taken a B12 supplement. If I was highly active and found through blood tests that my iron stores (ferritin) was low I would also take an Iron supplement to support the increased needs (greater losses from sweat, urine, gut trauma/gastrointestinal bleeding and damage to red blood cells on the “foot strike” haemolysis in runners).
Females already have higher iron requirements compared to males due to the loss of blood in their mensural cycle (8mg versus 18mg).
Iron is more challenging to meet in a plant based diet as the ‘non haem’ iron sources found in plants is absorbed far less than ‘haem iron’ (absorbed 3 x more) found in animal products. Maximising absorption of non-haem iron by eating or paring them with ‘iron enhancers’, (vitamin C rich food) and avoiding them with ‘iron inhibitors’ (such as tannins found in tea and coffee, phytates found in nuts, seeds and wholegrains and calcium rich foods) would also have to be planned or be more aware of.
Calcium is another nutrient that is more challenging to meet requirements of after removing dairy, a very rich source. Calcium is important for building and maintain strong bones. Adequate Vitamin D and weight bearing exercise also plays an important role in supporting strong bones.
Including at least 2.5 serves (e.g. 1 cup milk, 200g yoghurt, 40g cheese) of calcium fortified milk ‘alternatives’ is a simple way to achieve our recommended 1000mg of calcium each day (females, 19- 50 and males 19-70). A dairy alternative will be fortified with calcium and provide at least 100mg of calcium per 100ml or grams. Milk is easy with many options available such as Vitasoy and Sanitarium’s ‘So Good’ range offering calcium fortified soy, almond, rice, oat and coconut milk. Cheese and yoghurt is much more difficult to find true ‘dairy alternatives’. Cheese is very scarce and the most available one currently on the market is the Soy Life Yoghurt. It provides 252mg of calcium per 175g serve.
If you are looking for a gap in the market this is one that has been here for a while!
Calcium is found in soy based products, vegetables, dried fruit, almonds and some fortified breakfast cereals which can also play an important role. Those who avoid soy will likely need to supplement with calcium.
7. Eating out can be a challenge.
Although on the menu at most restaurants you will be able to find at least one vegan meal, most often it is not what I would call nutritionally complete or provide all of your essential amino acids. For a lunch/dinner meal I am usually looking for a protein rich source such as tofu, tempeh, beans or legumes acting as your ‘meat alternative’, a grain source e.g. brown rice acting a your Low GI carbohydrate and also providing all the benefits of wholegrains such as fibre and of course vegetables. A source of healthy fats is also appreciated, foods such as nuts, avocado or extra virgin olive oil provide beneficial healthy fats that are protective for heart health. Most restaurants however in my experience only tend to provide part of this plate.
8. The biggest lesson I learned, aside from plant based food is that I have become much more relaxed, intuitive and flexible around food.
On day 4 I was invited out for dinner by my sister and my dad was coming down to visit. I love catching up with them. The pub they planned on going to, after searching on the internet seemed to not offer a vegan friendly meal, apart from of course a side of vegetables and chips. I had had a stressful and challenging day at work this day and with the addional challenge of meeting my ‘food challenge’ I found myself thinking it was all too hard and that I will just stay home and eat my tofu and vegetables I had already purchased. My husband was also out that night so I was going to be by myself.
I then remembered how familiar this felt. For a huge chunk of my life my ‘diet’ and ‘food rules’ had sucked the life and enjoyment out of eating socially and my quality of life! It also brought with it great anxiety when my food rules and familiar and ‘safe’ routines were challenged. It meant that I withdrew from social situations to avoid this unease. I told myself it was because I was ‘Healthy” but it took years to realise that behaviour doesn’t mirror my definition of healthy. I would say no to so many opportunities and events so I could eat my familiar and ‘safe’ food and also so my training routine was not challenged. This way of life is never ending, unfulfilling and so limiting! It is such a trap that can be hard to pull yourself out of or realise the consequences of your behaviours.
I was so proud of myself to realise what was happening. I rang my sister right back and said I am coming! She asked about my “vegan diet” and I told her, it’s not a diet, it is a way to learn and I have learned a lot already! Catching up with you and dad is more important and I will just have what I feel like tonight, without any guilt. When I got there, in the back of my mind thinking I would order salmon, steak or a ragu, my usual favourites, I actually spotted the ‘Buddah Bowl’, which was a vegan meal containing brown rice, a variety of roasted and spiced vegetables, topped with cashew dressing. It actually sounded delicious and I consciously made the decision that best served me in that moment. So, my journey continued and I was not envious, al all, of dads steak or my sister and her husband’s parma.
I am back eating all foods but I have a greater appreciation, insight and practice in plant based foods. I feel I am more equipped to support others which has given me great confidence. I also no longer feel the need to have an animal protein in every main meal and will happily enjoy some vegan meals with my husband throughout the week!
If you are thinking about moving towards a more plant based lifestyle, ask yourself, wholeheartedly, will this way of living best serve me?