Venturing into a new world of eating plant foods without any animal products can be daunting. We are so used to basing our meals around meat while vegetables are often considered as a side.
Like many people at the beginning of their transition, we absolutely had no idea what to eat for a plant-based diet. We were also relatively new cooks so we didn’t have years of cooking experience to carry us through the process.
Feeling overwhelmed is an understatement. On one hand, it was exciting to start a new lifestyle and try out all these different plant-based meals. On the other, the transition brought upon cravings and new hunger pains at random times during the day. This was also on top of our general goals of eating healthy, staying lean and enjoying ourselves (which were challenging on their own already!).
A Wholesome Approach to Plant-Based Food
Ideally we wanted a wholesome way to tackle all these wonderful plant-based foods while keeping our goals, transition and mental health in mind. So we took a step back, reflected and refined our approach to food in the plant-based diet. In hindsight, it helped us tremendously in achieving all of the things above and that’s why we wanted to share it with everyone.
Of course, this is not a one-size fits all approach of what to eat and what not to eat. We all have different reasons for going plant-based and we live completely different lives; that’s the beauty of the community. Our main reason to go plant-based is health and wellbeing, thus we lean towards the side of whole-foods plant-based eating whilst balancing out quality of life and enjoyment.
We welcome you to take bits and pieces (or all!) of our approach and implement it to your plant-based eating. Our opinion may be a bit biased but we think it’s a healthy and wholesome way for both the body and mind to enjoy the plant-based diet!
Whole-Foods vs. Processed
First things first, there are two types of plant-based food: whole-foods and processed.
Whole-foods are minimally, if at all, processed, refined, free from additives and artificial substances. Think about all the colourful fruits and vegetables in the produce aisle at your local market. Grains, nuts and seeds are also whole-foods. All the weird and wonderful herbs, spices and powders make the cut too!
Processed foods include food that has been cooked, frozen, packaged, canned or changed in nutritional composition. We’ve been told that processed food isn’t all that great for our health. This is true, but to keep it real, we like to think of it like a spectrum. On one extreme, you have the greasiest, most processed burger ever made while on the other side, you have frozen vegetables and canned chickpeas.
At Embody Nourish, we encourage everyone to eat a whole-foods, plant-based diet. However, we know how difficult it is to be completely whole-foods fool-proof in this day and age. Certainly, we consider frozen vegetables, canned chickpeas and the likes to be on par with whole-foods. Fresh is always best but we’re not too fussed if it’s canned, frozen or sealed; it’s a matter of convenience and accessibility sometimes. However, there are some people who follow a stricter whole-foods lifestyle and prefer non-canned items. This is okay too.
Not All Processed Foods Are Bad
In terms of processed plant-based foods, there are some products that we believe should be part of a healthy and balanced diet.
One of them are plant-based milks! Plant-based milks are essential for coffee, vegan baking and cooking, especially for breakfasts and curries. Sometimes we like to make our own but for the most part, we find it more convenient to buy our milks. Also, store-bought ones are usually fortified with calcium and other vitamins that may be helpful to include in your diet.
For any vegan pantry, nutritional yeast is a staple. It’s flavour is distinct and wonderful in many dishes or as a garnish. We love using nutritional yeast to make our own vegan cheese rather than buying them (more on that below). Again, most brands also fortify their nutritional yeast especially with vitamin B12 which is a bonus for those of us who forget to take our supplements! Plus we don’t think there is a whole-foods version of this available!
We also love nut butters. Whether it is peanut or almond butter, there are so many uses for them both in cooking, baking or eating them straight from the jar. Peanut butter toast has been our saviour on so many occasions. Sometimes we make our own almond butter but we find it easier to buy them. We recommend choosing brands that are purely nut-based with no added extras.
Commercial Plant-Based Foods
Over the years, we have become spoilt with many vegan and plant-based options available at supermarkets and eateries.
Brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have revolutionised plant-based meats. It seems like nearly every single meat product has been plantified including vegan shrimp, duck and chicken nuggets! Fast food joints are starting to introduce their plant-based range like the Rebel Whopper at Burger King.
We welcome these innovations because it inspires people to go plant-based and offers more variety for everyone. However, we do encourage everyone to take note of the ingredients list and appreciate that it’s not a whole-food. Depending on the brand and product, it may have high amounts of sugar, salt and saturated fats. Food additives and preservatives are expected in these products too.
At the start of our transition, we found ourselves eating a lot of these plant-based meals. In hindsight, they were actually a really good transition tool. It bridged old cravings to the plant-based lifestyle; it looked like meat and tasted very similar (to an extent). Although expensive, they were easily accessible; when we were hungry, we’d just throw some vegan sausages on the grill for lunch without thinking much more about it. It was easier than sitting down and learning how to cook plant-based food. Plus, we could use them to indulge at gatherings with our non-vegan friends and family.
As we continued with our plant-based lifestyle, we gradually removed these plant-based meats from our meals. The main reason was because we wanted to eat less processed foods. The second reason was because our whole-food meals were way tastier. Using vegetables to mimic meat dishes is much healthier and our inner creativity gets to shine!
Our approach to vegan meat products is to minimise them in our diet. Personally, we don’t include these in our diets and daily routine anymore. However, we do enjoy them when eating out and at social gatherings, for example, at a friend’s barbecue! We also think they’re a great way to introduce someone to the plant-based diet and from there, they can make more thoughtful and goal-directed decisions.
Other processed vegan foods worth mentioning are vegan butter, cheese, yoghurt and ice-cream.
Similar to our take on vegan meats, we think that these vegan dairy products are great to use at the start of the transition period. The usual western diet consumes a lot of dairy and so these are great to satisfy cravings. Plus, we think the vegan versions taste quite similar to true dairy products (more so than the vegan meats).
However, since they’re processed and filled with lots of random ingredients, they can be unhealthy. So our approach on these vegan dairy products have changed over time.
Previously, we used to buy vegan butter and cheese as a staple because everyone needs them in the fridge right? However, we no longer buy them routinely because we’ve trended away from using them in our daily cooking. Now, we only buy them for some dessert recipes if we think omitting the butter will really mess with the taste or if we’re making dessert for a gathering, friends and the likes (pun maybe not intended!). For cheese, we like to make our own because it’s so expensive (!!!) and we think the ingredients list is way too long for what it should be!
In terms of vegan yoghurt, we do enjoy it occasionally and especially if they’re on special at our supermarket. Some easy and quick recipes call for vegan yoghurt as an ingredient so we sometimes use it for that too. However, they don’t make up a large portion of our diet (we’re not a huge fan of yoghurt in general) and if they did, we would try to make our own.
Ice-cream… how can anyone say no! They’re delicious because they’re packed full of sugar, oils and artificial sweeteners to lighten up our sweet-craving brains. Vegan ice-cream is no different. Honestly, we usually have a tub of vegan ice-cream in the freezer that we dig at over time. This is one of our indulgences that balances out our enjoyment and quality of life. Of course we also make our own ice-cream that is undoubtedly healthier too. But we also enjoy trying new flavours and appreciating what companies are doing to keep up with the plant-based movement.
As you can see, we pick our food battles. Our approach is still to eat more whole-foods but we balance it out with what we think is important. We discovered that we could live without using vegan butter in many of our recipes so we omitted it from our daily diet. However, if we’re baking for non-vegan friends and family, adding butter might make it a more positive vegan experience for everyone.
Let’s face it, we all love snacking. So how do we approach vegan snack food?
There are a lot of vegan snacks out there today. They are either accidentally vegan or intentionally sold as a plant-based product. Unfortunately, unless we’re talking about fruit and home-made vegetable crisps, many of these foods are processed. Since the goal is to provide us with something so delicious that we’ll continue buying it over and over again, they will most likely be high in sugar, salt, saturated fats, preservatives and additives. Some brands even use marketing strategies to appeal to our clean-eating and health-conscious decisions which is worrying (think cereal and muesli bars).
Like many of us have probably heard, just because Oreos and Coke are vegan, doesn’t mean they should be a main part of our plant-based diet. We believe that they can be enjoyed in small quantities infrequently. However, it is very easy to unknowingly over-indulge especially during the transition when cravings, hunger pains and motivation can waver. For example, in the first few weeks of going plant-based, we were always feeling hungry. Instead of trying to solve the root cause of the problem, we googled a list of vegan snack foods and stocked up on them. They ranged from carrot sticks to Veggie Chips to Oreos and of course, the Oreos were always the first ones to go.
Now, processed vegan snacks do not make up a majority of our daily diet. We believe there are healthier plant-based snacks that are equally as delicious such as fruit (especially berries), baked sweet potatoes and yummy dips. It’s also good to know that our taste palate changes over time to tune in with what we eat, so it definitely gets easier with time! However, we do enjoy the experience of trying newly released plant-based products once in a while. It brings excitement and novelty fun. But it’s also a matter of moderation, reading the labels carefully and deciding if they’re worth it to include in your daily diet.
What About Oil?
We will be posting a more in-depth article on this topic shortly.
Unfortunately, oil is not considered a whole-food. However it’s a product that is ingrained in our cooking culture; the majority of the world uses oil in their cooking. Even if we’re not talking about deep-frying, we still use oil in normal cooking, salad dressings and baking. Many people now also opt for ‘healthier’ oils such as coconut, avocado and rice-bran oils.
Our approach to this is to minimise our use of oils as often as we can. This includes the amount of any type of oil including the ones that have been touted as healthier in recent years. However, we understand and also struggle with how deeply embedded oil use is in cooking.
We’ve learnt that many recipes call for the unnecessary use of oils (and butter). Substituting oil with vegetable stock to sauté onions and garlic is one strategy that has helped us minimise oil in our diets. Also, the meals that we choose to cook are usually not destined to be fried; we opt for roasting, grilling or even air-frying when necessary. Adopting these strategies has not decreased our enjoyment of our food at all and it actually feels refreshing to not use oil in our meals.
That being said, oil is hard to fully eliminate. We go out to eat and inevitably it will be in our dishes. Greasy, oily, deep-fried foods are so utterly appealing to our senses. Everything is now coated in a delicious, bread-crumbed batter, destined to be fried. However, we don’t make a fuss out of this, rather, we take it as an incentive to eat even more whole-foods at home.
A Whole Lot of Whole-foods
As you can see, we pick out a lot of things to make our whole-foods, plant-based diet a successful journey. For it to be an ongoing and healthy adventure, we need it to make it realistic, fun and joyful. Not only are we looking after our bodies but also we have to look after our mental health.
Our recommendation on how to approach the plant-based diet is to eat a lot of whole-foods. It is easy to fall into the trap of eating a lot of vegan processed foods which may be quite appealing at first. However, during the early times of transition, these foods may be helpful with bridging cravings and making the process easier.
We also recommend finding an approach that works for you and your lifestyle. Start off with writing down your plant-based transition goals and also other goals such as weight gain or weight loss, build more muscle mass, eat less processed foods or enjoy Mum’s cooking more. Look at the type of meals you like to cook and eat on a daily basis. This way, you can start to approach the foods more carefully and align it with your goals.