Ed’s note: This post was written by guest editor M Pimentel of Project Female.
No doubt you’ve heard the saying, “What you sow is what you reap”. Or the modern version of “Garbage in, garbage out”. The premise is, if you put sub-par, toxic, artificial materials into whatever you’re making, you can’t expect top-notch quality products to come out the other end. You wouldn’t do that to your work, so why do it to your body?
We fill our bodies every day with some of the most rancid junk ever – fast food, instant meals, energy drinks with a little something-something – because that’s what keeps us on the fast track. We choose devoting time to work instead of scrounging up real food, but we’re cutting corners and missing the bigger picture.
The truth is if we took the time to fill our tanks with substance over shortcuts, we’d be able to think more clearly, stay focused for longer, and produce better-quality work.
Which brings us to plant-based eating.
Plant-based versus vegan
Let’s get that off the table right now: a plant-based diet does not equal a vegan diet. Vegans abstain from any and all animal products. The focus of veganism is more on living a life that excludes using animals for food. Technically speaking, a vegan diet could consist entirely of processed foods without including a single vegetable on the menu.
A plant-based diet doesn’t necessarily exclude animal products (some diets include small amounts of milk or fish, for example), but definitely focuses on the inclusion of whole, plant-based foods. There may be some overlap between the two kinds of diets, but they are not interchangeable.
That being said, let’s take a closer look at some staples in a plant-based diet.
Legumes, such as lentils, soybeans, chickpeas, kidney beans, and the like, are protein sources that are low in fat but high in fibre, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
They are a popular meat substitute, being high in protein and having about the same level of vitamin and minerals as meat, only cheaper and with less cholesterol. Also, consuming meat has been shown to increase levels of stress hormones (called cortisol), putting the body into a constant state of fight-or-flight. Substituting meat with legumes keeps your cortisol levels down, reducing stress and preventing heart disease.
Legumes also contain complex carbohydrates that are broken down by the body more slowly, making you feel full for longer (that’s why legumes are called a satiating food). This reduces the hankering for quick snacks in between meals, which often tend to be the too sweet or too salty kind.
A whole grain is a grain in which every part of the grain – bran, germ, and endosperm – are retained in the same proportions as when they were growing on the stalk. Examples of whole grains are barley, oats, quinoa, brown rice, wild rice, wheat, and corn.
They differ from refined grains like white rice, wherein the bran and germ are removed. Refined grains lose one-fourth of the protein content and more than half the nutrients they originally contained as whole grains.
Whole grains and legumes are complementary proteins – while on their own, neither legumes nor whole grains contain all nine of the essential amino acids, you’re able to get the complete set if you pair legumes and whole grains in one meal. Like legumes, whole grains are also satiating and will make you feel full longer, particularly oats or barley.
Whole grains are high in fibre, which improves the consistency of your stool and helps keep bowel movements regular. This establishes your body’s routine and helps you avoid constipation on the daily. You also reduce colon problems in the long run.
Organic fruits and veg
A large part of the fun in going plant-based is getting creative with the wide variety of fruits and vegetables that will now become the stars of your every meal. Max out your health points by going organic in your choice of fruits and vegetables, which aren’t exposed to pesticides and Frankenstein-like chemicals that negatively impact with the vitamins and minerals present in fruits and vegetables. Organic tomatoes for example, have higher vitamin C content compared to conventionally-grown tomatoes. Same goes for organic strawberries, though they have a higher fibre content on top of a higher vitamin C content, when compared to conventional strawberries. They also have higher antioxidant levels than non-organic crops. While the body naturally produces antioxidants to neutralise toxic waste products called free radicals, it’s still necessary to have a constant dietary source of antioxidants to maintain a healthy balance between the two.
The more dietary antioxidants you consume, the greater the benefits you reap, ranging from a stronger immune system, decreased cancer risk, and improved heart, eye, and mental health.
Specially formulated non-dairy milks are actually better for human nutrition than cow’s milk, because cow’s milk is optimised for cow nutrition and not human nutrition. About 80 per cent of the world’s population lacks the enzymes needed to digest the milk sugars in cow’s milk, and exhibits symptoms of lactose intolerance like bloating and diarrhoea precisely because of this.
The nutritional value of plant milks varies depending on the base used. For example, soy milk has the highest protein content and has the closest macronutrient content to cow’s milk, while rice milk is highest in carbohydrates compared to other plant milks (usually the milk of choice by those allergic to soy). Oat milk is rich in fibre, including a specific one called beta-glucan, which decreases bad cholesterol levels.
The thing is, once we hit adulthood, humans don’t really need milk. But if it’s a habit you grew up with or you’re looking for a constant source of protein, plant-based milks are better-suited to human digestion and are fortified with human nutrition in mind.
Sowing the seeds
Like all major lifestyle changes, the transition to going plant-based doesn’t happen overnight.
It’s best to start slow, lest you give yourself a shock and end up backsliding! Take your first steps by cutting meat out of your diet once a week, just like the Meatless Mondays movement. Then work up to gradually replacing meat with meat alternatives such as miso, tempeh and tofu (tip: buy organic soy products instead of commercial soy products).
Don’t think of it as a sacrifice – instead, get excited for your no-meat day by treating it as a chance to experiment and get inventive with plant-based recipes.
Over time, you’ll be able to slide down the scale from eating meat, to meat alternatives, to eventually kicking meat altogether and thriving on an entirely plant-based diet.
A study at the office of an insurance corporation involved inviting overweight or diabetic employees to participate and splitting them into two groups: one received no diet instructions, and one received weekly instructions on plant-based eating. Plant-based options were offered in the cafeteria menu, though the participants had to prepare their own plant-based meals at home.
The participants in the study who were assigned to the plant-based group ate no meat, dairy, eggs, and even junk food, and reported greater diet satisfaction compared to the group of participants who had no diet restrictions. The plant-based group participants also reported having increased energy, better digestion, sounder sleep, and improved physical and mental functioning – all of which they say subsequently led to increased productivity in the workplace.
That can be you too! You have nothing but advantages ahead of you when you put your health first.