7 Tips for a Successful Plant-based Diet

Raise your hand if you made a New Year’s resolution to get in shape (again). I always start out the year enthusiastically and then fizzle out. If you’ve had the same experience, I suggest we take a different approach this year. Instead of struggling to shed pounds or firm flab, why don’t we try to improve our physical wellbeing by caring holistically for our health? A brilliant way to do that is to switch over to a whole, plant-based, chemical-free diet. 

This is one of the most important lessons I learned the year I lived at Srisa Asoke, an intentional Buddhist community in Thailand. With a whole, plant-based, chemical-free diet, we can energize ourselves while also benefiting other people and the planet. (This triple benefit is central to the Buddhist “interdependent self,” which is much broader than the Western “individual self”).

“Eat a whole, plant-based, chemical-free diet” is the first tip for Week 1 of INTENT 365, and it’s also the jumping off point for the rest of the month. The tips that follow over the next 4 weeks suggest ways to help us all shift toward a diet that is whole, plant-based, and chemical-free. With a total of 30 tips, even if you’re already well on your way, you’re bound to find something worth considering.

Tip #1: Eat food that is whole, plant-based, & chemical-free

That’s a mouthful. Let’s break it down: “whole” means food with minimal processing; “plant-based” means no animal meat or bi-products; and “chemical-free” means no synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (but also no chemical additives). Some folks use the terms vegan and organic, but beware: these terms come with baggage.

There’s substantial research now to support the benefits of a whole, plant-based chemical-free diet (see this post for starters), like lower rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity as well as greater potential for environmental sustainability and wellbeing. So all that’s left is to find ways to make the shift that work best for us. Bon appetit!

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Tip #2: Take stock of what’s in your fridge & pantry

When starting any new project, it’s helpful to take stock of resources to get clear on your starting point and what you need to be successful. The same applies to making dietary changes to provide better energy for our bodies and minds.

So let’s take a look at what’s in the fridge and pantry: Are there already many items that can contribute to whole, plant-based, chemical-free meals and snacks? Move those to the front. Are there packaged foods that have lots of ingredients that are unpronounceable or not so healthy? Consider replacing them. Is there anything noticeably missing from your healthy-food stores?

This is also a good time to do a SWOT analysis: look at the potential strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats for your energizing food project. Going beyond the tangible items, what are the needs of your family, where might you face acceptance or resistance, and where can you find support? Something to think about throughout this month.

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Tip #3: Pass on packaged food with more than 5 ingredients

We all buy processed food…it’s convenient and yummy. But it’s often not the healthiest choice. The tip to pass on packaged food with more than 5 ingredients comes from Michael Pollan (author of In Defense of Food), who advises us to “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.” By “food,” he means whole food, which by definition is a single ingredient. The limit of 5 ingredients is a quick way to identify less-processed packaged food. Pollan also suggests we shop around the perimeter of the grocery store (where more whole food is stocked) and avoid the center isles (where processed food is plentiful).

We may not realistically be able to follow this guideline to the letter. For example, the salsa I love has more than 5 ingredients…but I know what they all are (tomatoes, cilantro, garlic, etc). It’s perhaps more important to check for ingredients that we don’t recognize, can’t pronounce, or know to be potentially harmful or unhealthy, like partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, and chemical additives (like dyes).  I for one do not miss this stuff.

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Tip #4: Cook healthy at home & brown-bag it at work

Forgive me if I sound flippant, but one good thing about this global pandemic is that it has forced us to cook more at home. This scores big points for wellbeing and sustainability, so long as we’re leaning toward more whole, plant-based, chemical-free cooking.

Here’s why: restaurant food is typically higher in sodium, sugar, and saturated fat—tastes humans have evolved to find particularly appealing. Unfortunately what once helped us to survive is now the basis of an industrialized diet linked to the top 4 causes of death in the US—coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer. By industrialized diet, I mean processed foods and refined grains, chemicals on plants and animals in monoculture, super abundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat, and the narrowing of our diverse diet to corn, wheat, and soy…especially in North America. You may not see this spelled out on the menu, but this is what many restaurants serve up.

I personally like to know what I’m eating and have more control over what I consume. I don’t always make healthy choices, but I want that choice to be fully mine. So even after this pandemic has passed, I’ll opt to cook at home and brown-bag my lunches to go.

What are you cooking tonight?

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Tip #5: Aim for 10 fruit & veggies a day

For the longest time, we’ve been taught that a healthy diet includes 5 servings of fruit and vegetables per day. That’s easy enough, even for those who don’t have regular access to fresh produce (I always have frozen peas and canned artichokes on hand).

But now, the UK has doubled the dosage to 10 per day! A study led by the Imperial College of London found that consuming 10 servings of fruit and veg significantly reduces premature death, coronary heart disease, and cancer risk.

One might legitimately ask: how can I possibly consume 10 fruit and veg a day, everyday? Rather than counting compulsively, just fill half your plate with veggies each meal and snack on fruit or veggies in between.

The psychological benefit of eating more fruit and veg in your efforts to improve your diet is that you focus on what you canhave to eat rather than what you can’t.  It literally crowds out the less desirables. Bonus for the cold/flu season & COVID-19, you’ll get tons of immune-boosting benefits!

But now the real challenge: How do you get kids to eat more vegetables?

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Tip #6: Relax with advance food prep

One of the biggest obstacles to shifting to a whole, plant-based, chemical-free diet is the time it takes to make it. And frankly, even if I technically have the time on a weeknight to cook something super yummy and healthy, I might not have enough energy left. So I find that I am much more likely to serve a wholesome meal if I have prepped and pre-cooked the fixings.

Some things obviously take longer to make from scratch, like dried beans, roasted vegetables, whole grains, fresh sauces, and baked goods. But that’s what weekends are for! I’ve decided to modify my view on food prep from a chore to a meditation. Then my weekend relaxation in the kitchen turns into more relaxed weeknights, with versatile, ready-made ingredients to pop into quick curries, soups, burritos, and rice bowls. While you’re at it, make extra and freeze it!

Side note:  if you have the funds, you might invest in kitchen equipment to make your prep easier: I love my crockpot, rice cooker, and bread maker. Beyond that, I’m good with a knife and a potato peeler.

What tool tips the scale for you?

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Tip #7: Mix & match protein sources

A common concern about going totally plant-based is that it’s impossible to get enough protein. But it’s simply not true! There’s an incredible array of protein-packed plants. Most obvious are legumes (including lentils, pinto beans, chickpeas, split peas, black beans, etc.), soy products like tofu, and nuts & seeds. And perhaps you know that whole grains like quinoa are also high in protein. Spelt and teff fall in this category, too.

But here are some that might surprise you: spinach, artichokes, corn, avocados, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and kale all have protein, too! They range from 5.2 to 3.5 grams per cup (highest to lowest).

If you are ready to branch out, try recipes with nutritional yeast (adds a cheesy flavor) and hempseed (good for baked goods and smoothies alike).  For milk alternatives, your best bet in terms of protein is soymilk (just opt for organic since conventional soybean cultivation relies heavily on chemicals).

Really, our potential plant-based protein combinations are endless. What are your favorite combos?

Next week…

Tune in for 7 more tips to get better energy through a whole, plant-based, chemical-free diet, focusing on small ways to start making more changes (plus more reasons to do so). 

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