When you hear the term plant-based diet, you might think this means becoming a strict vegetarian or vegan. But does following a plant-based diet translate to becoming a super healthy vegetarian or vegan? No, not necessarily. A vegetarian eating no meat or fish could still have an unhealthy diet full of mac and cheese, candy, doughnuts, and potato chips. 

Though many cardiologists recommend a strictly vegan plant-based diet–with absolutely no meat, poultry, fish, dairy or eggs–when treating severe coronary artery disease, most nutritionists believe a vegan diet is unnecessarily strict and can lead to many vitamin deficiencies, while leaving people feeling tired. A plant-based diet is similar to the tried and true Mediterranean diet. It means that the diet is based around plants and is one that consists mainly of minimally processed fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, herbs, and spices with small amounts of fish, lean meat and low-fat dairy. 

A word about the word “diet.” Often “going on a diet” means two weeks or a month of grueling deprivation where you are always crabby and hungry and weighing yourself twice a day. This is not the way to go. The idea of moving to a plant-based diet is to slowly incorporate the healthy plant-based foods more and more every day and reduce the less healthy ones. The goal is to change the way you eat and make it satisfying enough to last a lifetime.

But Where’s the Protein?

For most of us when we think protein, we think meat, poultry or fish. But some plants, such as soybeans and quinoa, are complete proteins, which means that they contain all nine essential amino acids that humans need. Eating with variety is essential, as other plant foods are missing some of these amino acids, so are not complete proteins. 

The human body creates 11 amino acids but must get another nine from food. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends a minimum daily protein intake of 0.8 grams (g) of protein per kilogram of body weight, or about 60 g for a person who weighs 165 pounds.

Here are some of the top plant-based proteins: 

  • tofu (10 g per ½ cup) along with tempeh, and edamame
  • lentils (8.84 g of protein per ½ cup) 
  • chickpeas (7.25 g protein per ½ cup)
  • peanuts (20.5 g of protein per ½ cup)
  • almonds (16.5 g of protein per ½ cup) 
  • spirulina – (8 g of protein per 2 tablespoons) Spirulina is blue or green algae rich in iron, some B vitamins, and manganese.
  • quinoa (8g of protein per cup) A complete protein.  
  • chia seeds – (2 g of protein per tablespoon) High fiber and heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, and a complete source of protein.
  • hemp seeds – (5 g of protein per tablespoon) Yes, hemp seeds are a complete protein. 
  • beans with rice (7 g of protein per cup) The classic combo is a complete protein.
  • large potato (8 g of protein) Top with hummus rather than butter and sour cream!
  • seitan (21 g of protein in 1/3 cup) Seitan is a complete protein made from mixing wheat gluten with various spices. The high-wheat content means that it should be avoided by people with celiac or gluten intolerance. 

And don’t forget that many dark-colored, leafy greens and vegetables also contain protein.  Servings of broccoli, kale, and even mushrooms all offer a few grams. 

Explore New Foods + Recipes

There are lots of veggies, greens, beans and grains we just haven’t tried as we stay in our familiar recipe lane. Mustard and collard greens, bok choy, rutabaga, squash blossoms, celeriac, kohlrabi, and broccolini are some veggies you may have not tried. And what about adding watercress,

Chinese cabbage, swiss chard, beet greens, and a new mushroom to the mix? I sauté shitake mushrooms and then add in crushed garlic and swiss chard, then serve it with a few slices of avocado. It’s yummy, filling, and tasty.

Adding more veggies and greens means more interest and variety but also more vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber in your overall diet. There are easy ways to start adding plants to your meals; throw some sautéed spinach and cherry tomatoes into your scrambled eggs. Leave the meat out of your sandwich and use roasted peppers and zucchini instead. Try the veggie/bean burrito instead of the meat heavy one. There are lots of cookbooks and websites that will provide ideas from cuisines around the world that use more plants and less or no meat. 

And no, this does not mean you can never ever have a cheeseburger or, doughnut, or Halloween candy, (I know you are still finishing that off) just not very often. Change is not easy, but there is a lot of delicious food out there that is also good for you.

The Harvard Health Letter tips for getting started:

  1. Eat lots of vegetables. Fill half your plate with vegetables at lunch and dinner. Make sure you include plenty of colors in choosing your vegetables. Enjoy vegetables as a snack with hummus, salsa, or guacamole.
  2. Change the way you think about meat. Have smaller amounts. Use it as a garnish instead of a centerpiece.
  3. Choose good fats. Fats in olive oil, olives, nuts, and nut butter, seeds, and avocados are particularly healthy choices.
  4. Cook a vegetarian meal at least one night a week. Build these meals around beans, whole grains, and vegetables.
  5. Include whole grains for breakfast. Start with oatmeal, quinoa, buckwheat, or barley. Then add some nuts or seeds along with fresh fruit.
  6. Go for greens. Try a variety of green leafy vegetables such as kale, collards, Swiss chard, spinach, and other greens each day. Steam, grill, braise, or stir-fry to preserve their flavor and nutrients. 
  7. Build a meal around a salad. Fill a bowl with salad greens such as romaine, spinach, Bibb, or red leafy greens. Add an assortment of other vegetables along with fresh herbs, beans, peas, or tofu.
  8. Eat fruit for dessert. A ripe, juicy peach, a refreshing slice of watermelon, or a crisp apple will satisfy your craving for a sweet bite after a meal.

Here’s my go-to salad dressing for fresh chopped kale, spinach and other greens. This is also delicious on any leftover vegetables you have from the night before.

Nurse Barb’s Lemon Garlic dressing:

In a jar mix together:

1/2 cup of Olive Oil

¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

Zest from one lemon

¼ cup champagne vinegar

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

2 cloves minced garlic

1 tablespoon fresh minced parsley or thyme

1 tablespoon mayonnaise

Salt and pepper to taste

Enjoy!

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