From cereal to crackers to fast food meat, “plant-based” gets thrown on packaging and menus a lot these days. But, what exactly does it mean to take a plant-based approach to eating and how can you do it in a way that benefits your health?
There’s certainly no shortage of questions: what’s the difference between plant-based and vegetarian? Where does vegan fall into the mix? What’s the deal with supplementation needs? What about soy in plant-based foods and its effects on health?
In this episode of the Life Without Limits podcast, One Drop coaches, Danica, a registered dietitian, and Rukiyyah, a certified diabetes prevention specialist with certification in plant-based nutrition, break it down for us. They discuss how to shop for plant-based foods in a way that works for your time, your budget, and your health goals.
Listen below for all you need to know about plant-based eating.
Host: This is Life Without Limits, the One Drop Podcast that gives you the tools, inspiration and support to challenge your limits. We talk with experts across all areas of health to open up more possibilities for you. Lean on us, as you step outside your comfort zone, to work your way toward better overall health and a Life Without Limits.
Kim Constantinesco: Welcome back to the Life Without Limits Podcast, where we support you as you work toward your health goals. I’m your host Kim Constantinesco, and today we have One Drop coaches Danica and Rukiyya on to talk about plant-based eating. They are going to be busting some of the myths around this approach to nutrition. Welcome to the show Danica and Rukiyya.
Danica: Thanks for having me Kim.
Rukiyyah: So excited to be here.
Kim Constantinesco: So let’s jump right into it. Danica, if you want to start off and tell us exactly what plant-based eating is.
Danica: Plant-based eating has become more popular in recent years. But it can mean different things to different people. So I’m going to kind of talk about what some of those definitions might be, but the main principles of this eating pattern are including an abundance and a variety of whole plant-based foods. So plant-based foods would be things like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, including things like peas and soy products, nuts, seeds.
And the principle is to really just focus on whole foods over processed foods and generally limit animal products. So there’s a few different common variations that you might hear when you hear the term “plant-based eating.” Vegan would be the most exclusive as far as eliminating animal products entirely. So meat, fish, dairy, eggs and for many honey as well. And then there’s a vegetarian diet, which may be a little bit more familiar, which excludes meat and fish. In some cases there is also the pescatarian, which does include some fish. And so there may be also dairy or eggs included in the vegetarian diet.
And then there’s the flexitarian diet, which is vegetarian but may occasionally enjoy some meat and/or fish. And then there’s a plant forward diet that’s a little bit more of a newer trendy term. Which emphasizes plant-based foods, but is not limited to them. Meat may be included, but is typically not the main component of the meal. So it may be a side dish or kind of sprinkled in the dish, but not the main part of the meal. Those are just a few of the different variations that you may hear of. You hear the term plant-based, but it means different things to most everybody. It could vary there.
Kim Constantinesco: Okay, thanks for explaining that to us Danica. Now Rukiyya, what is the research telling us about this style of eating? Like I mean as Danica said, there are so many different variations to it. But let’s talk a little about the evidence-based research.
Rukiyyah: Absolutely. So there is a lot of research that exists when it come to plant-based diets. But there’s also a lot of research still to be done. On the forefront of research was the China Study, which was a 20 year study that was performed. It was one of the largest and most comprehensive studies performed, and it linked high rates of diseases, like diabetes, heart disease and cancer to diets that are high in saturated fats, animal proteins and processed foods.
And so when you look at the China Study there are correlations between eating these more Westernized diets and having these diseases at higher rates. Versus areas of China that they studied where people ate more plant-based. They had less arrays of those diseases. So it’s really important to kind of look at that correlation and then look at how our health is developing in our own country and see what are those correlations that we can trace. And I think it’s important for us to recognize that any diet that emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, beans, et cetera, are going to be healthier diets.
You might have heard of the Dash Diet or the Mediterranean Diet. Both are plant forward as Danica kind of alluded to, where there are meats included or some dairy products included. But they aren’t the main focus of the diet. So having a diet that’s mainly focused on plants is going to give you the nutrition you need, the fiber. It’s going to make sure you have a really healthy gut and is just going to be a balanced diet overall. So the research kind of shows in both the ADA and AHA recommend eating diets full of plants. So I think that’s where we can look when we say, plant-based diets in general are going to be healthy for most conditions.
Kim Constantinesco: So now both of you aren’t just sitting here talking about plant-based eating. You guys both live that kind of lifestyle and incorporate it into your own lives. So let me ask maybe Rukiyya if you want to answer first, why did you decide to lean into this style of eating, and how does it benefit your health?
Rukiyyah: When I first transitioned I was a mostly vegan eater, and I would say that mostly vegan meaning I was also eating processed vegan food. And I noticed that even though I felt a little bit better, I didn’t feel like I was doing exactly what my body needed it to be. And I started to say, okay, I need to put more plants into this diet. Because being vegan you can exclude animal products, but there are also a lot of unhealthy vegan ways of being. And so health was the main reason that I transitioned to being much more plant-based. Meaning on a daily basis I’m eating mostly fruits and vegetables, again, whole grains. And I’m making these combinations of foods that taste really good, but are also really filling.
And in my own body what I experienced was a reduction in digestive issues. So before, I felt like I was – never diagnosed, but I felt lactose intolerant. So any time I would eat dairy products my stomach would feel upset. I also noticed acne that I had as a result of eating dairy products or heavy meat products. And so when I started to cut back on those things and replace them with more plant foods, a lot of my health issues kind of cleared up and went away.
And so as I started to feel better and look better and notice those changes, I just stuck to it. So I’ve been vegan for about seven years and mostly plant-based for about the past three years. And for me just having that energy and feeling like what I know I’m supposed to feel like, makes it worth it to follow this more plant-based lifestyle.
Kim Constantinesco: Wow, so it sounds like you benefit, not only physically but mentally too. That’s fantastic. Danica, how about you?
Danica: So my family’s journey to becoming I would say predominantly plant-based is maybe a little bit unusual. My husband enjoys a good challenge, whether it’s physical or mental. Like, he’s the guy that will give up coffee for a month. He also does endurance sports. So he’s always up for a challenge. And about six or seven years ago he challenged both of us to go plant-based for the month of January. It was kind of like our little new years’ refresh, and we were kind of new into our marriage and just said, okay, let’s try this new challenge. We were already previously eating a pretty plant heavy diet. Enjoyed a lot of vegetarian meals. But we had not completely eliminated animal products.
So this was just kind of a fun challenge to try new recipes and explore different food products. I am someone who loves to cook. So it was kind of just a fun way to explore different things, different recipes that I had never tried before and just completely eliminated animal products for a month. And by the end of the month we were sold. We were convinced we just felt so great, and we loved this new style of eating and just decided to stick with it moving forward. So we over the years have become a little bit more, I would say flexible with it. We do opt to have some dairy from time to time. We get eggs from my mom’s chickens. And sometimes when we’re traveling we’re going to indulge in more local cuisine, like seafood and things like that.
So we’re definitely pretty flexible with it. Not as strict as we were when we first kind of jumped into it as that initial challenge. But we’ve just noticed as Rukiyya said, a lot of improvement in our digestive health and just great energy and sleep. And we’ve just felt really great and haven’t really looked back since then. And as a registered dietician I’m pretty conscious about getting adequate nutrients. So from the get go I’ve been pretty careful with the planning of meals and making sure I’m getting adequate sources of iron and just really trying to make sure that meals are nutritionally adequate. Throughout the entire day we’re getting plenty of the nutrients that we need. And during this time period I’ve had two healthy pregnancies and healthy babies, following a predominantly plant-based diet. And my husband’s had a lot of health benefits as well and has continued to be able to be an endurance athlete during this time. So we’ve really never looked back and have just felt great since we embarked on our plant-based journey.
Kim Constantinesco: Great, and how about you Rukiyya? What does plant-based eating look like for you a little more specifically?
Rukiyyah: Yeah, I am probably at, like, 97 to 98% plant-based. I don’t say 100% because I’m sure in the process of eating at a restaurant or being out and about like Danica says, I’ve probably consumed some animal products on accident. But at home I do consume plants. So my refrigerator is full of green veggies and all different types and varieties of fruits. My pantry is stocked with multiple types of beans and legumes, lentils. I’m a huge fan of brown and wild rice. So that’s usually the base of my meals, and I’ll pile my plate up with any other vegetable.
Right now of course the seasons are kind of changing, and it might be a little harder to get your hands on fresh fruits. So I also have a ton of frozen fruits. And so in the morning I'll make a bit smoothie of maybe two to three varieties of fruit together, some green veggies, blend it all up. And I love making huge ridiculous salads that have, like, 12 ingredients in them.
So I’m definitely just loading myself up with all the fiber and all the great nutrition on a daily basis. And when I am out and about I don’t consume as many whole foods because of course it gets a little more difficult, especially if you’re traveling. So when I am out and about I might eat something that is vegan but not as plant-based meaning, like vegan burger, for example. Or some type of tofu dish with some noodles or whatever, depending on where we eat. So it is possible to be plant-based and still enjoy being out and about with friends and family and finding those options that exist.
And then you’re at home, just being a lot more focused on those whole plant foods. So getting in those fruits and vegetables on a daily basis as much as possible. So that’s what my diet consists of.
Kim Constantinesco: So Danica and Rukiyya, you both – it sounds like both of you get so many great vitamins and nutrients in your approaches to eating. Rukiyya, is there any kind of other supplementation that’s necessary when eating this way?
Rukiyyah: Yes, there is one very important thing to supplement on a plant-based diet, which is B12. And so B12 is recommended to be supplemented because it is found in a specific bacteria that’s present in animal foods but not plant foods. And so it’s important to supplement this in a plant-based diet just because of how our society has kind of evolved. We’re a lot cleaner. Our hygiene is different. And so those bacteria that used to be present on fruits and vegetables is not present anymore but is still present in animal foods.
And so that has essentially eliminated the ability to get B12 from plants, and so supplementation is necessary. That supplementation can be found in fortified foods. So they’re foods like cereals, nutritional yeast and soy milks that have added B12, or you an take a simple B12 supplement that can be taken orally or sublingually. You can take it on a weekly basis, or there are some with smaller doses that you can take on a daily basis. And of course with B12 this is something to discuss with your physician as your physician will be able to test your levels of B12 and give you guidance on which type of supplementation would be best for you.
Kim Constantinesco: Okay, and I know one of the big questions that comes up is how do you get adequate protein on a plant-based diet? Danica, do you want to field this one?
Danica: So this is actually a very common misconception. Not only is there confusion about getting enough total protein in a day. But specifically that a plant-based diet lacks certain amino acids or you can’t get all of the amino acids that your body needs. So part of this theory comes from the fact that animal proteins are considered a complete protein because they contain all of the essential amino acids, the animals foods. But plant foods also contain all of the essential amino acids, just not all in one pack.
So it’s really important to get a variety of plant foods throughout the day. There was an old school theory, and this came from (sounds like: nutritionists) as well, that certain plant foods had to be paired together in order to get the right combination of amino acids at a meal. But that’s no longer the recommendation. For example, beans and rice were always paired together because they only gave complete protein based on the amino acid profile. But really now the suggestion is that if you’re getting a variety of plant foods throughout the day, essential amino acid requirements can be met.
So vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes and soy products as well all contain protein, and it’s much easier to meet the RDA, the recommended dietary allowance for protein than people realize. The RDA for protein is point eight grams per kilogram per day. So for someone who weights 150 pounds this would be about 55 grams of protein per day. So not as big of a number as one would maybe think. And so really there’s no evidence in the research that would suggest that there is a protein deficiency in vegetarians or those who follow a plant-based diet. So it’s very easy to meet the RDA for protein and also get all of the essential amino acids that your body needs.
Kim Constantinesco: Great, thank you so much for explaining that. Now it’s so easy to step into a grocery store and see packaging labeled as plant-based. But I know a lot of these foods tend to have a lot of processed ingredients listed on them. So talk about this and how we can avoid getting caught up in consuming ingredients that might not benefit our health in the ways that we want to. Rukiyya, do you want to go ahead and take this one?
Rukiyyah: Absolutely. So plant-based eating is popular right now. And so it is important to recognize that when things become popular you may also see those labels popping up in your grocery stores. Just because something is popular does not mean that it’s healthy. And I think that’s where we have to as consumers pay just a little bit more attention and focus in on the actual quality of ingredients rather than just that label.
We live in a time now where processed foods are a common part of our life, and that doesn’t mean that you can never eat a processed food, right. We want to ensure that we have a balance between eating whole foods and some processed foods. And then when we are eating processed foods, that we’re choosing things that are processed in a way that still keeps them as close to the whole ingredient as possible.
So one way to do this is to start your grocery shopping in the produce section. So if you are going to be crafting meals for your family, it’s important to think about what plant foods you can include. So maybe your green vegetable is the first place you start, and you choose three or four different greens that you’re going to incorporate into your meals throughout the week. At that time you can also add things like sweet potato, red potato, tomatoes, avocados, peppers, onions. Things that are going to give flavor, texture and bulk to your meals.
So filling most of your basket in that produce section ensures that you’re getting mostly whole foods. From there you might also want to take your buggy or your cart or your basket down to the whole grains aisle. So your family might enjoy something like oats or quinoa, brown rice, wild rice, different types of beans, lentils and whole grain pastas. So those are going to be your mostly carbohydrate foods. They’re going to fill you up and provide plenty of fiber.
You also want to choose processed foods that have a short ingredients list. So we’re thinking eight ingredients, and make sure that that list are ingredients that you can pronounce. A lot of the plant-based food brands may still have added chemicals and preservatives, and they won’t be the types of foods that you would want to feed your family. So be sure to flip it over, read that ingredients list and ensure that there are ingredients that you can pronounce. The simpler the ingredients list the better.
So if there is a veggie burger, for example, you might flip it over and see things like black beans, corn, peppers, onions, mushrooms. That veggie burger would be different than something that contains processed proteins and different oils and fats and preservatives. The one made with the whole foods is going to be your best bet when you’re still going to be eating processed foods. We can’t avoid processed foods because they’re convenient, and they help our family feel normal. But we want to be sure to really think critically about what’s in the foods that we’re putting into our bodies and what are those ingredients. And just taking a look at that ingredients list is going to be a skill that really helps you on this plant-based journey.
Kim Constantinesco: That makes a lot of sense. And my question for you Danica is, for plant-based eating being so popular, there still seems to be a lot of social stigma around it. Can you talk about why you think that might be?
Danica: Yeah, as I mentioned before, I think there is just a lot of misconceptions and some fear, particularly surrounding the potential for nutrition inadequacies of a plant-based diet. As Rukiyya mentioned, there is sometimes a need for (sounds like: supplementation), and I mentioned before the emphasis on protein and how many people believe that there’s not enough protein in a plant-based diet. So just a lot of kind of misinformation is out there and fears surrounding some of that misconception and confusion that’s going on. And in a culture that’s pretty neat and protein obsessed, going against that does make someone an outlier. And eating is a very social activity, and research shows that attitudes towards plant-based diet is a barrier to making dietary changes.
So rather than moving forward and eating a more plant-based diet, people have some fears around how that’s going to make them look. How they’re going to be fully accepted by their friends or family members. So that can definitely impact those food choices. And there is even other misconceptions, including the topic of soy. Soya can get a really bad wrap, and there’s a lot of fears around eating soy because of the connection that soy has had to estrogen. Soya does contain isoflavins that are known as phytoestrogens. Meaning that they’re structurally similar to estrogen, that our body naturally produces. And a lot of people think that soy is bad because of this.
But people have thought in the past that soy is linked to cancer. But in fact research shows that soy has cancer protective properties and even the American Institute for Cancer Research and Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation actually encouraged the consumption of soy. Soya’s relation to estrogen has also caused concern for the effects on testosterone and other sex hormones. But again, the research has shown no changes in these hormones following the intake of soy or soy products. So the studies even in the past may have been a little bit conflicting about things like soy. But this is largely due to how the intake of soy is studied and results of recent population studies suggests that soy has many benefits or has a neutral effect on health conditions.
So again, when you get down to the research, soy and other plant-based foods are very beneficial. But a lot of people don’t take the time to understand and dig into that research. So it can be a little bit easier to just go by what’s trending and what’s on social media. And if there are negative viewpoints about any diet, but particularly what we’re talking about here today is a plant-based diet, so if you’re not getting the whole information, you’re not getting the whole picture, it’s easy to draw whatever conclusions you want. So what I would encourage people to do is just to one, if you’re curious about a plant-based diet, do some research on your own. Feel comfortable about it.
And then also talk to your peers. Talk to your friends and family if you’re wanting to make some dietary changes so that you can get their buy in and support and not feel like an outsider if you’re going to family gatherings or out to dinner with friends. You should feel comfortable eating those food choices and not worry about the stigma or them thinking negatively of you or feeling like an outcast. Just be open to trying new things and trying to have that conversation with your family and friends. That way they are much more understanding and receptive to you making those changes and can be there to support you as you want to embark on a more plant-based journey.
Kim Constantinesco: Well, and I’m so glad you brought up the point of having those conversations with friends and family. And Rukiyya, I’d love to ask you, what advice would you give to people who are trying this style of eating and want to explain to their friends and family why they’re doing it or even how to turn down foods that don’t fit in with this approach.
Rukiyyah: Absolutely. I think what you said is probably the first thing, is understanding their “why.” So in any type of habit change, in any type of adaption of their lifestyle, it’s going to be important to have a deeper understanding of why do I want this for myself? And for a lot of people the argument against it, they come because the person isn’t clear or can’t really tell them why. And so just getting clear on your why. If you decide to go plant-based for health reasons, then it’s important to know how does a plant-based diet really impact your health? What are some of the studies that you might want to read up on so that when someone asks, you can present them with some data and some science and some places to send them so that they can also look into it.
I think also worth noting is the impact on the environment and also the impact on animals. So some people decide to go plant-based for multiple reasons. And understanding and being able to really talk about your why is really important. I think the second part of it is to understand that food is cultural. And so being around family, it can feel a little isolating or intense at times to not participate in those cultural things. I think the number one way to do it is to be inclusive.
So if your family is having a family gathering and you know you’re going to abstain from certain foods, you can bring dishes that also opens your family up to eating plant-based while you’re together. And bringing those plant-based dishes does not cancel out the foods that the family is eating and they’re partaking in. It just adds to the celebration, and it allows people to try something that maybe they wouldn’t normally try. I think it’s also great that nowadays there’s so many recipes. There’s so many ways to adapt homemade or home cooking to still feel the same and to have the same flavor profile. But just to include plant-based foods.
So it’s really important just to learn how to adapt and to put yourself in their shoes about how they might feel. But also to just bring plant-based eating into your family in a way that is not attacking anybody else, but is coming from a place within of, hey, I want to do this for me. I think the other piece of it is, you don’t have to say no to foods that are not plant-based because they’re not plant-based. So a lot of times people have this perception of, like, well, you think you’re better because you said no to my food. And a lot of times I’ll say things like, oh, I’ve already eaten. Or, I haven’t eaten that in a long time because I’ve changed my diet a little. And I just kind of explain it in a way that says no without saying, no, I don’t want that. I don’t eat that.
And I think it’s just really about approaching it with a kind heart and a kind spirit, with empathy for the other person who also is trying to serve you their food. And being okay with the fact that we can all share in this time together. We can share mealtime, and it doesn’t have to be tense. It can be something that we all get to enjoy, because you’re going to eat the foods you prefer, and I’m going to bring these foods and present them to everyone as well.
And I think it does take time. When I first transitioned, a lot of my family thought, well, what are you going to eat? Or why do you want to do this? Or you’re really not going to eat Grandma’s whatever? And over time as I learned to cook better I would just bring dishes and the family would enjoy. And so it might feel strange at first, but over time people do come around, and they do feel like we can make this a big happy family again. So don’t be scared on the front end. Be open. Be honest. And then on the back end, what you might see is that your family starts to adjust, adapt and change too.
And they might also start to adopt some of your habits. So they might see what’s happening to you and your health and feel, oh, I want to do that as well. So stay open minded and really just go for it.
Kim Constantinesco: That’s a great point. You could be setting an example for someone else in your family. So as we’ve learned, plant-based eating doesn’t have to be complicated or time consuming. You can make quick and tasty meals and snacks that fit with your health goals. And I think for this last question I’d love to get some examples from both of you in terms of some great plant-based meal ideas. So Rukiyya, can you start us off by giving us your favorite plant-based breakfast and lunch?
Rukiyyah: Absolutely. So my favorite plant-based breakfast is going to be baked oatmeal. So for me cooking daily isn’t something I love to do anymore. I stayed in the kitchen for a long time in food service. And so if I can prep something in advance and just have it there for the week, I love it. So baked oatmeal is pretty simple. You have oats, ground flax seeds, you can add peanut butter or almond butter. You can add different fruits or bananas. And you kind of just in a bowl with some plant milk, throw it into a baking dish and throw it in the oven. It comes out kind of like a mix between oatmeal, but also feels kind of like a cake when you’re eating it with a spoon. And it’s so delicious. Again, it can be made in advance, and I just love to throw some different ingredients in, whatever I have in the pantry and eat on that for my breakfast.
And for lunch, again, I’m a huge salad fan. So I would definitely throw whatever – again, whatever ingredients I have in the fridge into a salad. But I also like to switch it up and sometimes make it into a wrap. So I’ll take a huge whole grain tortilla, put some hummus in, some green vegetables, maybe some broccoli sprouts or alfalfa sprouts. Peppers and tomatoes and cucumbers and just roll it on up and eat it like a burrito. So I would say that those are my two quickest, easiest, go to meals that I would eat for a breakfast and a lunch.
Kim Constantinesco: Those sound delicious. How about you Danica? Can you give us your favorite dinner and snack idea?
Danica: Yes, so a favorite dinner in our household is what we call roasted veggie bowls. And basically I take whatever vegetables I have on hand. Typically the go to is sweet potato, broccoli and cauliflower. But this can certainly vary depending on what’s on sale, what I have on hand. But I add these to a baking sheet along with some chick peas, and then I season them with cumin, smoked paprika, garlic, salt and pepper. Sometimes I mix up those spices a little bit, depending on what mood I’m in. Sometimes I add some turmeric or some chili powder, make it a little bit more of a Mexican inspired dish. And then I roast that all in the oven for about a half an hour and then top it with some London tahini dressing that I usually make homemade.
And then have it with quinoa and then greens, like salad greens or spinach. But just make these huge bowls with all the roasted veggies. And it makes a great prep for the week ahead because I can always double up on the vegetables and have them – make that as a lunch or throw roasted veggies in a wrap or a salad throughout the week. So definitely one of our go to favorites.
And then snacks, I like to keep it pretty simple. Plant-based snacks don’t have to complicated, and they don’t have to be processed. You could just do fruit and nuts or nut butter. I do love a whole grain toast with peanut butter and bananas. It’s very classic. I’ll throw some hemp seeds and chia seeds on top for a little bit of a crunch. Also just love the classic hummus and crackers or hummus and veggies. It’s just a quick easy and filling snack option to have on hand any time.
Kim Constantinesco: Wow, those all sound delicious, and it’s almost lunchtime here and you’re making me very hungry. Well, thank you so much for joining us today Danica and Rukiyya. I hope to have you back again real soon.
Danica: I appreciate this opportunity to talk to you Kim about all things plant-based. It was fun.
Rukiyyah: Thank you so much Kim. I love talking about fruits and veggies. It is my favorite topic. So I appreciate you having me.
Kim Constantinesco: Stay tuned for more episodes and more health experts ready and willing to share their tips to help you achieve your health goals. We’re in this together.
Host: Thank you for listening to Life Without Limits. If you liked this episode, tell a friend. We’re here to help you take back your time, power and life so you can live to your fullest potential.