Eating fewer animal products has become a popular way of life. Even fast-food chains are jumping on the bandwagon, offering veggie versions of their popular menu staples. Registered dietitians and food scientists alike have touted the perks of eating more plants and cutting back on meat. However, like most worthwhile things in life, switching to a plant-based diet takes work. But what are the problems with a plant based diet, and how can you work through them? Let’s take a closer look.
What Is a Plant-Based Diet?
There is no consensus on what defines a plant-based diet. The term often describes a variety of dietary patterns, including a vegan diet as well as a Mediterranean diet. All descriptions of a plant-based diet primarily focus on consuming healthy plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, pulses, nuts, and seeds.
Plant-based diets should be thought of as plant-forward eating or a “flexitarian” approach to meals that emphasizes eating healthy plant foods. While meat and dairy products are not necessarily avoided altogether in plant-based diets, their frequency and portions are reduced. Most of the nutrients come from plant-based sources.
What To Eat on A Plant-Based Diet
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to a plant-based diet because each individual has different needs, goals, genetics, health risks, allergies, and food sensitivities. That’s why it’s always recommended to consult a healthcare professional before embarking on a new diet. This helps to avoid/manage any potential problems with a plant based diet.
Still, vegetables, whole grains, fruits and plant-based protein sources are the building blocks of any plant-based diet. Here’s what you can expect:
- Vegetables like kale, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, squash, onions
- Whole grains like brown rice, oats, quinoa, barley
- Legumes like peas, chickpeas, lentils, peanuts, beans
- Plant-based protein like tofu or tempeh
- Nuts and nut butter
- Plant-based healthy fats like avocados and olives (+ the cold-pressed oils from these foods if not choosing to go oil-free)
- Natural spices and herbs like garlic, thyme, rosemary
- Unsweetened beverages like herbal and green teas, fresh juices, and smoothies
Choose low-fat, unsweetened dairy products and dairy alternatives to get sufficient magnesium, potassium, and calcium.
What To Avoid on A Plant-Based Diet
What you decide to avoid should be based on dietary advice from your doctor. However, you may consider eating less of the following foods to minimize problems with a plant based diet:
- Fast food
- Excess desserts, especially made with refined sugar and sweetened beverages
- Too many refined grains like white rice, white bread, refined pasta, etc.
- Lots of packaged foods like cookies, chips, sugary cereals, etc.
- Processed fake meats made with TVP, like veggie bacon, sausage, etc.
5 Problems With A Plant Based Diet
1. Requires meal planning and preparation
Following a plant-based diet means changing what and how you eat, and that’s easier said than done for many people.
Solution: When you have the proper guidelines and incorporate the dietary changes over time, switching to a plant-based diet is possible. One way I’d recommend doing this is by going through the 30-Day Jump Start. This plant-based nutrition program teaches you simple healthy habits you can incorporate into your lifestyle for healthier living. It includes recipes, menu plans, and a grocery shopping guide. There are also cookbooks, cooking apps, and instructional YouTube videos that can be of great help.
2. Assuming that all vegan or vegetarian products are healthy
Just because a food product is labeled “vegetarian” or “vegan” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthier. For example, store-bought veggie burgers, nuggets, and other meat alternatives are often highly processed with a long list of artificial ingredients.
Solution: Go for nutritious, whole foods. Alternatively, you can make your own plant-based recipes, like my very yummy yet nutrient-dense veggie burger recipe.
3. Experiencing fatigue
Fatigue can arise on a plant-based diet if you’re skimping on protein and minerals. An over-reliance on vegetables and starches—to the detriment of proteins and fats—can also cause fatigue. Sometimes you may not be eating enough because you’re not sure of what to eat.
Solution: First, eat more iron-rich foods, such as lentils, cooked spinach, dulse and blackstrap molasses. In addition, add more vitamin-C-rich foods to your plate to help improve absorption of plant-based iron. Foods rich in vitamin B12 should also feature regularly in your menus, like tempeh, nutritional yeast (unless you have Candida or yeast issues), algae/seaweed, and mushrooms. And you can also supplement with B12. Finally, eat enough plant-based protein and fats to keep you full and give your body the energy it needs.
4. Increased gas and bloating
When you’re eating a high-fiber, plant-based diet, you may find that you’re bloated or passing gas more than usual.
Solution: To help with excessive gas, try soaking legumes like beans before cooking them. Bloating can be caused by eating a large volume of food or neglecting to fully chew your dense plant-based foods. Digestive enzymes may help, and don't overdo it on the beans and whole grains if they are causing too much bloating. If your bloating is bothersome or accompanied by other symptoms like pain or diarrhea, consult your doctor.
5. Dealing with sugar cravings
Overconsuming refined carbohydrates like white toast and wheat pasta can cause major sugar cravings as they tend to cause blood sugar spikes. These foods lack a balance of fiber, protein, and fat that keep your blood sugars stable and your appetite calm.
Solution: A balanced plate can help control sugar cravings. If you’re not active, go for more vegetables, proteins, and healthy fats than starchy foods. Swap regular white bread for whole-grain alternatives. Eat whole intact grains like wheat berries, millet, and oats instead of buying pastries or crackers.
Frequently Asked Questions
What can you eat on a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet may differ from a vegan or vegetarian diet as it can be more inclusive. In other words, your diet centers around plant-based eating, but if you choose, you can still include foods like pastured eggs, wild fish, etc. Here are five major food categories you can enjoy on a plant-based diet: fruits including apples, bananas, strawberries, citrus fruits; vegetables like peppers, corn, lettuce, spinach, peas, etc.; root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, beets, etc.; whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice, millet, whole wheat, oats, etc.; legumes like beans, lentils, pulses, etc. You can also enjoy nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh, whole-grain flours and bread, and plant-based milk.
Can you eat bread on a plant based diet?
Yes, though it is recommended to eat less wheat and gluten. Though gluten-free breads are easily available (or you can make some yourself, like this easy pantry banana bread recipe), they may be hard to digest for some people. Fermented flatbreads like injera are a great gluten-free alternative. Chapati and sourdough bread are also great options if you can tolerate them. However, if you experience symptoms of yeast overgrowth, try avoiding all bread and consume limited amounts of gluten-free grains such as millet, quinoa, and buckwheat.
What is the best plant based diet?
The best plant-based diet is one customized to your tastes, needs, and lifestyle. Therefore, it is recommended to always consult with your doctor before starting a new diet. Choose foods that you’ll enjoy, will not cause digestive issues, and are fairly quick and easy to prepare. Be flexible and open to learning and trying new things. Your diet should be inclusive of new, healthier, ingredients and leave you feeling energized, satisfied, and happy. As you get used to healthier food choices, your cravings will eventually change and soon you won’t miss unhealthy foods like chips and soda.