How do you successfully become a plant-forward eater? The challenges and how to overcome them.
By Lauren Sedger
When you hear the term ‘plant-forward eating’, what immediately comes to mind? If you’re imagining activated almond milk in your coffee, smashed avo on toast, and that weird tofu scramble your vegan friend LOVES; you’re not wrong. Though, you’re not entirely right either.
The EAT Foundation and The Culinary Institute of America describe a plant-forward diet as “A style of cooking and eating that emphasises and celebrates, but is not limited to, plant-based foods—including fruits and vegetables; whole grains; beans, other legumes, and soy foods; nuts and seeds; plant oils; and herbs and spices—and that reflects evidence-based principles of health and sustainability.’
There are no rules when adopting a plant-forward diet, instead it’s helpful to be informed, curious, and playful. I mean, have you ever tried roasted eggplant glazed with white miso paste? It’s INCREDIBLE. Not only will your taste buds be singing when you make the move plant-side, but by reducing the amount of animal-based products you consume, you’ll be casting a vote for a more sustainable food system.
There are certain nutrients that are abundant in animal-based foods, and not-so-abundant in plant-based foods. Your body needs these nutrients to thrive. For example, protein has many important functions, but one that’s particularly useful is providing satiety, or the feeling of being full after a meal. As a result, plant-forward eating could leave you hungry if you’re not eating enough quality protein (or dietary fibre - but luckily for us, dietary fibre is abundant in many plant foods). There’s also the small issue of bioavailability, meaning that your body finds it easier to absorb certain nutrients like iron, when it’s found in animal foods, as opposed to plant foods.
To feel your best and prevent problems, let’s identify how to get the most of these nutrients in a plant-forward diet.
Good plant-based sources of protein include legumes such as lentils and chickpeas, soy products like tofu or tempeh, nuts, seeds and some hearty wholegrains (amaranth, oats, and quinoa). Aim for at least 2-3 servings of these kinds of food throughout the day, spread across meals and snacks. A standard serve is roughly 1 cup of cooked legumes, or 170g of tofu (the size of a deck of cards), or a handful of nuts (2 tablespoons of nut butter if you want to eat it by the spoonful).
Find iron in legumes such as kidney beans, green lentils and chickpeas, nuts like almonds and cashews, dried fruit, wholegrains such as oats, wholemeal pasta and brown rice, and green vegetables (spinach and broccoli). Include foods that are rich in vitamin C (citrus, capsicum) as they will naturally boost iron absorption. Additionally, the naturally-occurring tannins found in tea and coffee may reduce iron absorption, so for the most part avoid drinking tea and coffee with meals.
Potentially one of the more challenging nutrients to get enough of while following a plant-forward diet is B12. B12 is mainly found in animal foods such as seafood, red meat, poultry, milk and yoghurt. Some soy products, nut milks, and wholegrains are fortified with B12. Supplementation may be required for those consuming no animal-based foods (in this instance please see a GP, Registered Nutritionist or Accredited Practising Dietitian for advice).
Plant-based sources of calcium include fortified soy and nut milks, leafy green vegetables (broccoli, collards and spinach), nuts and seeds such as almonds, brazil nuts and sesame seeds, and tofu or tempeh.
As you can see, most of these nutrients can be found in a lot of the same foods. For example, you can get a good dose of protein, iron, and calcium if your lunchtime meal features a quinoa and chickpea salad, with baby spinach, chargrilled broccoli and sesame seed paste (tahini) dressing. Throw in a handful of roasted almonds and dried cranberries, and you’re coming out on top. Variety is key, and so is proper planning.
It pays to be organised
Finding the time to properly plan, shop for, and prepare plant-based meals can be a huge challenge of becoming a plant-forward eater. You may be able to fall back on a piece of grilled fish and seasonal veggies, or your favourite chicken ramen soup once or twice a week, but what about the rest of the time? Well, this where you need to dedicate some time and energy to getting a little creative each week, and play around with different flavours, textures and cooking methods. Simple swaps can also help to keep favourite meals on rotation. For example, substituting lentils for beef mince in spaghetti bolognese yields tasty results, and spicy, roasted cauliflower and chickpeas make for a delicious burrito or taco filling. Some of my favourite plant-forward meals are very basic, and include curry, pizza, and wraps; based on seasonal vegetables, legumes and whole grains. Batch cooking is also a friend to the plant-forward eater, as a few hours spent soaking, stewing or roasting on a Sunday can save a lot of time throughout the week.
Becoming a plant-forward eater may present a whole new set of challenges, because tweaking the way you eat can be tricky. Particularly if you’ve eaten a certain way your whole life. However, in this case, the benefits really do outweigh the costs. Rather than dive head-first into a plant-forward diet, just ease on in. Small changes are more realistic to achieve and maintain than large ones, so keep it simple. At least to begin with. You’ll want to be making that miso-glazed roasted eggplant eventually (trust me!), and it’s okay, you don’t have to like the tofu scramble.