Tips for Turning to the Plant Side
Updated: May 4, 2020
This post isn't about convincing you to eat a plant-based diet. I wrote about my personal experience in a previous post about my Parkinson's Disease diet. Today, I want to skip the why and go straight to the what and how. Have you made the decision to embrace eggplants (just kidding, I'm personally not a fan) and ditch dead cows? Are you toying with the idea of leading a less cheesy lifestyle or maybe keeping your eggs out of the basket, let alone in one basket?
Let's assume you are interested in adding more plant-based foods to your diet, or eventually going 100% plant-based. What's the next step?
I said quick, and I mean it. What's new? I've increased my daily dose of ropinirole to 6 mg per day and feel much better. I'm looking forward to seeing my movement disorder specialist next week to see how my symptoms have changed, if at all. In a few weeks I may have the opportunity to meet with a local Parkinson's Disease support group to hike (with proper distancing measures in place). It will be my first time tapping into the community "in person." Last but not least, I started a personal 31-day burpee challenge and just finished my third week of daily burpees, plank holds, squats and push-ups! I've done over 400 burpees and will be doing 40 nonstop on my final day of the challenge. Please, don't wish me luck. Wish me fortitude!
So, about adopting a plant-based diet ...
Hierarchies are Cool
Not everyone has the will or desire to make an extreme change. I've found that many people find success with making small tweaks to their diet. It also doesn't have to be an "all-or-nothing" proposition. I am no longer a strict vegan. After learning about the importance of healthy fats for combating Parkinson's Disease and that the highest quality source is cold-water fish, I added them back in. I also allow eggs on occasion so I have an additional protein option.
My personal belief is that the spectrum of foods follows a hierarchy from least needed and most detrimental to most needed and least detrimental. This is solely my personal opinion and not something you'll find in a nutrition journal. Here is my hierarchy of healthy foods.
I've got some explaining to do, so let's walk down the hierarchy.
🐄 Dairy - ditch it. The majority of people I coached when I ran a health coaching business found tremendous benefits by ditching the dairy, from clear sinuses to lean faces (saying goodbye to "puffy cheeks") and there is plenty of research to suggest you will be much healthier without it.
🥩 Meat - take a look at the studies that compare mortality rates and disease risk between people who eat meat, and people who don't. Skipping meat is the clear victor. If this is a level you find hard to beat, consider restricting meats to lean poultry cuts and cold-water fish.
🥚 Eggs - in and of themselves, eggs are very nutritious. I'd even call them healthy. They are a good source of protein and healthy fats, and I think the concern over the saturated fat and cholesterol is misplaced (don't get me started on cholesterol ... maybe another blog post for another week). Studies show you're better off ditching the eggs to go entirely vegan, but if you want to keep them for convenience, I won't tell anyone.
🐟 Cold Water Fish - these are a quality source of omega-3 fatty acids, specifically eicosatetraenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). That makes them healthier than "not cold-water fish." Some people will ask, "what about flaxseed oil?" The problem with flaxseed oil is that it must be converted to EPA and DHA by your body, and not everyone's body has the genetic disposition to do so. I also have never been a fan of shellfish. There is a reason why God banned them in Leviticus 11. They absorb everything in their environment, which is a dirty ocean, and have no apparatus for filtering it out. You are what they eat.
🍟 Processed and Cooked Plants - I don't kick myself for having vegan ice cream or pizza, but it's important to know that just because corn chips or ruffled potato chips are vegan doesn't make them the healthiest choice. I use processed foods for convenience but know that the healthiest choices are the ones that remain closest to their natural form. Some plants, like spinach, are healthier cooked (I'm looking at you, oxalic acid).
🥕 Plants - yes. This is the base of healthy eating and has been since Genesis 1:29. Our salvation doesn't depend on eating a certain way, but doesn't it make sense that the best diet is the first one God personally recommended?
Now that we're on the same page that it's fine to take steps and remove a few things rather than completely switch to 100% plants, let's talk about some goal setting and perspective.
Don't Focus on Forever
It's hard to change habits and give up the things you love. Believe me, I know. Here is the catch though: if you haven't tried a different approach to your nutrition, you are trapped right now. You've been robbed of your freedom and just don't realize it. That's because you don't know what it feels like. There's a phrase I heard early in my fitness career that stuck with me:
"Nothing tastes as good as living healthy feels."
The problem is that we all know how it feels to cut out foods we love: miserable. That's why the idea of making a permanent change can be daunting. That's also why I never recommend you decide to "be vegetarian" or "be vegan." Try it out instead! You need to pick a period that is long enough to experience the benefits but short enough that you know you can tackle it.
For most people, I recommend a one-month commitment. Pick one item, like dairy, and cut it out for a month. Commit to that month like your life depends on it so you truly know you gave it your best shot. At the end of that month, re-evaluate. How was the return on investment? For many people, the benefits are noticeable. My first two weeks of going 100% plant-based were miserable and I thought for sure I would give it up. Then, about three weeks in, I realized I was sleeping soundly for the first time. I was doing the same weight training workouts I'd always done before, only now I wasn't getting sore and my strength was going up. My running pace improved. It felt great, so I stuck with it ... and here I am, over five years later.
On the other hand, there is also a return on aggravation. Maybe the inconvenience of making a change outweighs the benefits. That's something personal for everyone to decide: "Is it worth it?" If not, as long as you kept your commitment, at least you had the freedom to choose. And that's better than not knowing!
The last thing to consider is that it doesn't have to be all-or-nothing. I have friends that pick one day every week to focus on 100% plant-based foods. That's certainly an improvement over eating meat and cheese every day, and adds up quickly to over 50 days of vegan ⚡ power every year. I've also compromised. I decided that the health benefits of cold-water fish are significant enough that I added it back. Technically, I'm now a pescatarian, but I only have it once every week or two.
Covering your Bases
Contrary to popular belief, 100% plant-based doesn't mean eating twigs and dust. The most annoying response to, "Do you have vegan options?" is, "Sure, you can order the chopped salad without dressing." We need more than lettuce and bell peppers to survive. Here are some tips on how to ensure you're getting the right nutrition from plants.
This is probably the most common question I'm asked. "How do you get your protein?" That answer is: "Easy!" First, to dispel a few myths. It seems like restaurants think vegans expect their protein to be replaced with 🍆 eggplant or 🥑 avocado. Although I hate eggplant and love avocado, neither is a quality source of protein.
Here is a short list of easy-to-find plant-based sources of protein:
Chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
Edamame (and tofu, and tempeh)
"But Jeremy, none of those is a complete protein."
The myth of a complete protein is something the supplement industry loves to promote. After all, it sells protein shakes. "Don't you know that whey protein is the best protein because it's complete and absorbed well and so on and so forth?" Bodybuilders swear by it. Strange how ancient Roman and Greek athletes were able to build muscular physiques without drinking protein shakes. But I digress. Here are the facts:
There are nine essential amino acids (list here). They are essential because your body needs them and does not synthesize them so they must come from food.
Contrary to popular belief, most plants contain all essential amino acids. They just have them in different ratios. For example, you might hear claims that beans lack methionine when in fact it's just a smaller amount. Rice, on the other hand, is low in lysine.
It is a lie that you need a complete protein at every meal. This is another claim the supplement industry loves because it sells shakes. The reality is that your body has a tightly regulated amino acid pool that can be deposited to and withdrawn from throughout the day. As long as you eat a variety of sources throughout the day, you'll be fine.
Daily protein requirements are grossly exaggerated. The culprit is likely a combination of anecdotes from athletes on steroids and the supplement industry. If you are an elite athlete on anabolic steroids, you will benefit from higher protein intake. The rest of us don't need quite as much. » The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends about 15% calories from protein or a total of around 0.8 kilogram per gram of body weight per day. If I eat 2000 calories a day, that means 300 calories from protein or about 75 grams. Using the weight equation, at 215 pounds, or 97 kilograms, that translates to 78 grams for me. This is a far cry from the "one gram per pound of bodyweight" I hear thrown around all the time. » What if you're an athlete? Research suggests that endurance athletes may benefit from 1.2 gram per kilogram of body weight, and strength athletes can go up to 1.6 grams. For me, that's 115 - 155 grams daily.
Extra protein can turn into fat. Excess protein is de-aminated, which means it is stripped of the nitrogen portion of the molecule. The carbon skeleton can then be used for energy or, if you are taking in more calories than you expend, stored as fat. Although the process burns calories (this is called the thermic effect, so those 4 calories net to less) it also places additional strain on your kidneys.
So, what does plant-based protein look like? Here's a meal I ordered at the Seattle-Tacoma airport at my favorite restaurant there, Floret.
The 1/2 cup of black beans contains 8 grams of protein. The tofu scramble adds 24 grams. Round that out with another 5 grams from the corn and potatoes, and I'm at 37 grams. Three more meals like this takes me to over 100 grams for the day.
What about salad? Here's one I put together:
Adding beans and chick peas brings 15 grams of protein to the table.
For one last example, I usually have one cup of steel cut oats for breakfast. I add two tablespoons of sunflower butter and 1/4 cup of hemp seeds. That brings me a whopping 40 grams of protein in one meal!
So, where do those vegans get their protein, anyway? You know now! (Now know?)
Fiber is another important component of healthy eating. Most of the foods I consume daily are already loaded with fiber. The last time I tracked daily nutrient intakes, I was getting over 50 grams of fiber in a day! I believe this is the reason I don't suffer from a common Parkinson's Disease symptom: constipation. High fiber diets come with numerous benefits, including:
Improved gut health and motility
Slower digestion leading to controlled blood sugar levels and reduced risk of diabetes
Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and all cancers
(For more details check out the Mayo Clinic's article on the topic).
So why even mention this? For one simple reason. I want to caution you:
Don't be a junk food vegan!
It can be tempting to pick up processed convenience foods instead of focusing on whole, natural foods. I certainly like my splurges and have plant-based ice cream, donuts, and even chips, but I limit those indulgences to the weekends and have them in addition to my healthy foods, not instead of. You can stay 100% plant-based by eating nothing but chips and Oreo cookies, but I don't recommend it.
Vitamins and Minerals
Plants are absolutely loaded with healthy vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, bioflavonoids and other beneficial nutrients. However, it's important to be aware of what you might end up lacking. The two main things you typically don't get from a strict plant-based diet are Vitamin B12, heme iron and probiotics. Oh, wait, that's three. I already wrote about my approach to Parkinson's Disease Drugs and Supplements, and really the supplements are what I would take regardless of my diagnosis, so be sure to check that out for additional information.
When in Rome
Eating out and traveling are the two common challenges that can face anyone following a 100% plant-based diet. You might be surprised that a little up-front research can reveal vegan options most places around the world. Here's a few examples of what I've had on international trips.
On a recent trip to Todos Santos, Mexico, we visited Tequila Sunrise, home of world-famous "Dr. Margarita." They were quick to accommodate us with a meat-free and cheese-free fajita spread with vegetarian rice and beans. It was delicious ... and also the best margarita I've ever tasted.
While strolling through Rome, Italy with my wife to celebrate our 20-year anniversary, we came across a friendly restaurant named "Buddy." I had a cheese and charcuterie tray for the first time in years (all plant-based, don't ask me how) and we picked up their legendary vegan chocolate lava cake to go.
Any concerns about eating vegan on a trip to Dublin, Ireland were alleviated by some quick online research. There are dozens of vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants. Breakfast was fresh avocado slices, sourdough bread, beet and cabbage salad, tofu scramble and "blood sausage." Delicious!
Here's a few tips for eating around town:
Chinese menus usually have vegetable or tofu options and dishes with rice and stir fry.
Indian almost always has vegan choices. Call ahead but many places will dedicate a section of the buffet to vegan and vegetarian options and the kitchen usually can modify common dishes to leave out butter, cream, etc.
Mediterranean options include falafel (check to make sure they don't use egg), lentil soup and rice. For sauce, skip the tzatziki (dairy) and go for the tahini (sesame-based) instead.
Mexican is another great choice. Hold the cheese and meat, pile on the beans and rice. Just be sure to check that the beans are vegetarian (not made with lard) and that the rice isn't made with chicken broth.
Thai is my "go to" eat out option. Most restaurants have tofu for protein and the only trick is to ask which dishes can be made without fish oil. Some places may put butter in their curry but most use coconut cream.
Vietnamese is delicious. I love pho and just check to make sure there's a vegetarian broth.
In general, call ahead. Many restaurants have vegan options. Heck, even Burger King has the Impossible™ Whopper (just hold the mayonnaise). If you can find an all-vegan restaurant, you're in!
Another trick that helps me with travel is to pack plant-based protein bars and shake mix. That way, if I end up eating salad or am forced to have a breakfast with no decent protein options, I can pull out a bar or mix a shake in the hotel room. I often try to find rooms that can accommodate refrigerators so I am able to shop for vegan snacks and meals locally.
Disclosure: this article contains affiliate links and I may receive commissions. Anything I link to is a product or service I recommend because I've purchased and/or personally verified and used it.
Our favorite book of vegan recipes is actually an ultra-runner's autobiography. Scott Jurek is a plant-based legend who has broken many ultra-distance records. Mixed with his inspiring story are awesome recipes: Eat and Run.
I'm going to paraphrase this next one. It has a vulgar title and is not kid-friendly due to language scattered throughout (I doubt there is a single page free of colorful expletives), but the recipes are amazing. Here is my paraphrased title (click if you want to see the real deal): Thug Kitchen: Eat Like You ... [Don't Care].
A great place to pick up whole foods is, well, Whole Foods. They have a recipe book that isn't all vegan, but does contain some good vegan recipes: The Whole Foods Market Cookbook.
When we lived in Atlanta, we'd often go on dates to Cafe Sunflower. They have some very tasty and balanced dishes. They also had some of the best vegan desserts I've eaten anywhere. If you're in Atlanta, you have to try their carrot cake. They also have a Cafe Sunflower Cookbook.
Don't be fooled just because it's self-published and comes spiral bound. One of the first plant-based books I read was the Christian-focused God's Banquet Table. I must have owned it for a decade before I realized it was one book in a series (I haven't read the others). We still use many of the recipes to this day, and as a bonus it contains a lot of information about the health benefits of various foods.
If you need some help with meals, there are a number of services available that deliver groceries or even ready-made meals. We recently tried Hungryroot and so far are very pleased. You are shipped a box of groceries, but they come with very easy-to-follow recipes. So far, we've enjoyed dishes like "chickpea pasta with broccolini and vegan kale pesto", "grain bowl with rice, quinoa, peppers, onions, and cashew cheddar cheese sauce" and a "gluten-free flatbread (corn tortilla) with spicy beans and green chili sauce." Note: the first order is a leap of faith because you don't see the groceries until after you pay, but after that you have full control over the recipes, including swapping them out, adding groceries, and skipping deliveries.
If you're considering adding more spice (and plants) to your life, I hope you found this post valuable. Do you have questions? Is there a post you'd like to see me write? Feedback or tips of your own? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below!