How to Enjoy a Healthy Plant-Based Diet
If you've ever decided to stop eating animals or even minimize your animal products consumption, you know the struggle is real. From going out to eat at restaurants, having dinner with the family and learning how to properly get all your nutrients, not because it's especially hard, but because we have to change our mindset completely. Seriously, it's like learning how to cook all over again! But the hardest part, at least for me, is explaining to people why I don't eat animals. And let me be clear on this: Contrary to what most people think about vegans and vegetarians, 99.9% of the time I don't start this conversation. People want to know why/how and for some weird reason, they feel entitled to give me all types of unsolicited nutritional advice *alternative facts* on why I should eat meat, and if I debunk their theory, they give me their favorite comeback: But plants also suffer when they're killed! (Insert the annoyed gif of your preference here)
I decided to stop eating all types of meats back in September 2017 (yes, right when Hurricane Irma and María hit us) and I promised myself I was going to go easy on myself, just so I didn't fail as I did a few years back. I made a deal with myself that if I wanted to eat chicken one day, I would, if I wanted to drink a latte with cow's milk, I would and if I wanted to eat a cupcake with cream cheese frosting, I would enjoy it without regret. But little by little I stopped craving animal products and started craving real whole foods, mostly because of how great I felt from the inside out every time I ate this way. As I said before, I still eat the ocasional egg or cheese, but I gradually crave it less.
In a nutshell, I enjoy a plant-based diet because of health and ethical reasons. I feel amazing and my gut health is on point, if you know what I mean 💁🏻 and just as I only endorse exclusively cruelty-free beauty products, I don't want to contribute to the suffering of innocent animals just for my pleasure.
So after having so many questions about my new lifestyle, which had me actually questioning if I was doing the right thing, even though I have probably done the equivalent of research on the topic as a straight A student, I decided to interview the nutritionist Carla de La Torre from carlaminutricionista.com to know if the plant-based lifestyle is in fact, a healthy alternative. Here's the result:
Can you explain the main difference between a vegetarian and vegan?
Vegetarians exclude all meats, such as beef, pigs, fish and poultry, while vegans don't eat any of these, plus don't eat eggs nor dairy. You can be as strict or as flexible as you want, but obviously, the more strict you are, the more discipline and knowledge you need in terms of nutrition. You need to know how to complement your food so you don't have any nutritional deficiencies.
Instead of labeling ourselves as vegans, vegetarians, pescatarians, etc, I like to use the approach of eating "more vegetables and fewer animals". That way we can little by little diminish our animal product consumption.
Is the vegetarian/ vegan diet healthy?
Without a doubt you can be healthy while eating an strict vegan diet. My master's degree tesis is about the Nutritional Habits for Resistance Athletes in Recovery, where I researched how you can recover your muscles without depending on whey protein, steaks, eggs but instead achieving this with quinoa, soy, hemp seeds, peanut butter and other grains. My research concluded that you can be an strict vegan, be a resistance athlete and not have any nutritional deficiencies nor performance problems.
The only concern with the strictly vegan lifestyle would a B12 deficiency, since you can't find this vitamin in plants, but you can easily supplement it. Plus, even though you can get iron from plants, there is a risk of having an iron deficiency. That's why nutritionists give you the tools and strategies so you can have a healthy, delicious and cost effective plant based diet. I don't want you to only depend on super expensive and processed vegan foods!
What are the main reasons someone should consider a Plant based diet?
I have three main reasons:
- Health - There are many studies that prove that eating meats, processed foods and eating a diet high in saturated fats and cholesterol could cause obesity and can have a damaging effect in cardiovascular health and/or cause colon cancer.
- Ecology - Consuming animal products can significantly affect our carbon footprint. The amount of water and soil that is needed to satisfy our omnivorous diet is not sustainable.
- Animal Cruelty - A diet with more vegetables and fewer animals is obviously friendlier towards animals.
What is the best way to start a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle?
The best way to start a plant based diet is to take it little by little. It is already difficult to eliminate animal products in terms of shopping, changing your recipes, eating out and taking care of our nutrition at the same time. This is why I recommend to start by eliminating the animal products that are worst to our health and go from there. Here's an example:
- Processed Meats (hams, sausages, etc) - In nutritional terms, these foods are horrible and they are tightly linked to colon cancer.
- Beef and Pork - These meats are also associated with colon cancer as well as other types of cancer.
- Poultry - You want to avoid all the hormones induced into these birds.
Fish - I always recommend that you eat fish only two to three times a week and eat a mainly plant based diet every other day. If you stay here, you are considered a pescatarian.
Eggs and Dairy - If you eliminate these and all of the above, you are considered a vegan. If you only decide to eliminate these, you are a lacto vegetarian.
You can also become a flexitarian. Most people like to stay here because it is easier in social terms, especially when going out to dinner with friends and make it easier on their family members who still eat meats.
What If this elimination process doesn't work for someone?
Some people like more extreme or direct approaches towards a healthy lifestyle. In my website I have a section in which I divide a healthy and easy approach to each day of the week: Meatless Monday, No Sugar Tuesday, Colorful Wednesday, Fish Friday, Active Saturday and Delightful Sunday.
The great thing about this approach, specially Meatless Monday, is that it introduces veganism or vegetaniarism without intimidating people. Plus, by grocery shopping for each lifestyle, you will be little by little changing the way you cook and eat for yourself and your family.
There's also the term "Vegan 'til 5" in which your breakfast, lunch and snacks are vegan. But in the evening you let yourself eat animal products in order to be more flexible with your social life.
It's so hard to explain the plant-based diet to older generations. Why do you think this happens?
A lot of people associate this lifestyle with nutritional deficiencies or food shortage, so eating meat is sort of a symbol of wealth. Eliminating meats from our diet is like going back in time in some societies.
I see this a lot with mothers of teenagers that come to me because they don't approve of their son or daughter's decision of going vegetarian. I have to work with them and sort of re-program their excess of repeated wrong information from generations before. That's why I love to educate people.
Is it true that you don't need multivitamins if you have a balanced vegan lifestyle?
This is not a yes or no question, because we have to make some blood tests in order to really know. But in essence, in a well balanced plant based diet you shouldn't need anything more than a B12 supplement.
If someone has celiac disease, is it a good idea to go vegan?
Yes, if the condition is controlled in terms of vitamin absorption.
A lot of people think that being plant based means not eating gluten also. Why do you think this happens?
Gluten has nothing to do with the vegan or vegetarian diet. Most of the hype around gluten is due to a lot of miss-information from people who want a low carb diet.
Is it true that you should be careful with the oil intake in a vegan diet?
As long as they are healthy fats, such as avocado, coconut or olive oil, you should have no problem. You should also make sure the amount of fats your eating fit your daily macronutrients.
What do you think about fitness apps such as my fitness pal and macronutrients?
I would highly suggest you leave this task to your nutritionist, since a lot of times these apps overestimate or underestimate your portions. You want this process to be enjoyable! It is difficult enough to eliminate meats while eating out or going to the supermarket. It is just too much information to process.
When you go to a nutritionist, we will give you the right portions you should eat to enjoy a healthy lifestyle.
What do you think about all the food industry documentaries on Netflix?
I think that it is a great way to create awareness among people who don't have studies in nutrition and who have no clue about the pharmaceutical industry. But I do believe that sometimes they create hysteria around these topics, even though they are speaking a lot of the truth. This is why some people may develop orthorexia which is the obsession with eating healthy.
I think that they usually have a message of judging other people for eating the way they do and you have to be careful with this. I don't want people to feel excluded or rejected by the vegan community. I want them to feel welcomed and not intimidated by the movement.