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Natural Awakenings Fairfield County & Housatonic Valley CT

Transitioning to a Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet : What a Body Really Needs and How to Get It

Mar 03, 2018 01:12AM ● By Alexa and Andrew Lane

When we speak to people about moving toward a whole-food, plant-based diet, the response is often, “it makes sense, but the idea of it is overwhelming.” They ask how to get started or for recipes. They might ask how they get adequate nutrition, usually specifically concerned with protein or calcium. The truth is that we can put aside meat and dairy and get all of our nutritional needs met on a well-designed, whole-food, plant-based diet. In fact, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) states, “that plant based diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” The key to gaining all of the benefits of a plant-based diet is to consume a variety of whole, unprocessed plant-based foods.

Plant-Based Protein 

Protein is a macronutrient that is made up of amino acids and used to build and repair tissues. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t need nearly as much protein as we are led to believe. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. That translates to 8-10 percent of our daily calories.

To find specific requirements, divide body weight in pounds by 2.2 to convert it to kilograms, and then multiply by 0.8. 

Additionally, research conducted by medical doctors Neal Barnard, John McDougall and T. Colin Campbell—all leading authorities on plant-based nutrition—suggests that protein requirements may actually be less than the RDA. Further, excessive amounts of protein may tax the kidneys and cause calcium loss from the bones.

Getting protein needs met is very easy on a plant-based diet. The best protein sources are unprocessed and found in vegetables, beans, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. In general, soy and other plant concentrates are best limited in the diet or avoided altogether. These are often found in frozen “meat substitute” products. 

Plant Protein-Rich Meal Ideas

Beans are incredibly versatile. When we mash beans up, we change the texture and create a great base for plant-based burgers, patties and sauces. They are inexpensive and varied in both flavor and texture. Although concentrated proteins are to be avoided, tempeh, tofu and seitan (wheat gluten) are all lightly processed; they are very versatile protein and carbohydrate sources used in moderation.

Mushroom-Bean Balls Recipe


14-16 oz white or baby bella mushrooms, medium-fine chopped

One medium red onion and 2 cloves garlic (optional), finely chopped

One can (12-15 oz) of either red kidney or garbanzo beans (experiment with different beans)

1 Tbsp miso paste (brown or red)

1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar 

Vegetable stock

3 Tbsp nutritional yeast

1 Tbsp tomato paste

Half cup wheat gluten or brown rice flour (gluten-free)

Spice mixture according to taste: ½ tsp of oregano, thyme, basil, red pepper, salt, black pepper

Combine mushrooms, onion/garlic, vinegar, nutritional yeast, miso, tomato paste, spices and a few tablespoons of stock in a non-stick (ceramic) pan. On medium-high heat, cook down, stirring occasionally until mushrooms are reduced and onions become translucent. Set aside and allow mixture to cool for 15 minutes.

Drain can of beans and rinse with cold water. Combine in large bowl with ¼ cup vegetable stock. Hand mash, add cooled mixture and combine well.  Add wheat gluten (or brown rice if prefer gluten-free) and fold in until combined. The mixture firms up, so try not to overmix.

Scoop with tablespoon and form into balls about 1.5 inches in diameter (makes about 20-22 balls). Place on parchment paper on baking sheet. Cook in 375 degrees in preheated oven for 18 minutes. Turn each ball on the side and cook an additional 10 minutes. Turn once more and cook a final 10 minutes. Let sit 5 minutes before serving. Combine with favorite low/nonfat sauce. 

Plant-Based Calcium

Calcium is a nutrient that is important for bone health. Plant-based food sources rich in calcium are green leafy vegetables like kale, broccoli, spinach or collard greens, and beans. If calcium is a concern, it’s interesting to note that the absorption of calcium is higher in most leafy greens and plant foods than from dairy products, and without the added fat or potential allergens. For example, a quarter cup of raw green soybeans has as much calcium as about a half a cup of 2 percent milk.

Additionally, there are plant-based dairy alternatives that are fortified with calcium. Beyond nutrition, one of the best ways to build strong bones is through weight-bearing exercise, especially in adolescence.

Calcium-Rich Sautéed Greens 

• Remove the center stems from kale or collard greens. 

• Rinse and chop the leaves. 

• In a large pot, add chopped onions and/or garlic, and some vegetable stock. Cook on low heat until translucent or lightly browned. 

• If desired, add soy sauce, black pepper, lemon juice or vinegar, and red pepper flake.

• Add chopped greens, cover the pot, and simmer on medium heat until the greens break down. Add additional liquid if needed. 

• When ready to serve, add 2 Tbsp of flour (wheat or rice) and cook a few more minutes until thickened.

Complex Carbohydrates as a Foundation for Meals

Here is a myth buster: carbohydrates are not the enemy. They are a compound made up of simple sugars and are the main energy source of the body’s cells. However, not all carbohydrates are created equal. Complex carbohydrates are the healthiest choices and are found in grains, legumes, potatoes, fiber, fruits and starchy vegetables. Simple carbohydrates—such as fructose, table sugar, lactose and refined white grains—should be limited or avoided. Several gluten-free grains to try include amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, oats, quinoa, sorghum, teff and rice. There is even bean pasta.

When preparing a meal, let complex carbohydrates be the foundation of the dish. These foods will provide both satiety and the energy the body needs.

Low Fat Versus High Fat

Fat is a macronutrient and is needed in the diet. Currently, fat is such a hot topic in discussions regarding nutrition that there is a lot of confusion. Questions usually center on how much fat and what kind. Plant-based sources can provide all the fat the body needs.

In regards to how much fat, we advocate for a low-fat, whole-food approach. With that idea in mind, all oil and pure-fat products are man-made and have no nutritional value. For example, whole olives, soybeans and corn contain many nutrients, but the oil made from these foods is mostly fat. This means there is no nutritional benefit to adding oil to food beyond adding extra fat and calories. In general, a tablespoon of oil adds about 120 calories to meals. A suggestion is to consume the whole food and limit or exclude oil from dietary habits. 

In terms of the kinds of fats that are required for health, we need to consume two types of essential fatty acids, called omega-3 and omega-6. The body can synthesize all other types of fat, but our diets need to provide these two. Plant-based sources for omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids include flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, leafy vegetables and beans.

Keys to Transitioning to a Plant-Based Diet

If weight loss is a concern, limit fat intake. Avoid oils when cooking. Read food labels thoroughly to make sure there is little to no added oils. 

Avoid processed foods and “fake” processed soy products, such as isolated soy protein. When considering soy products, choose tempeh, edamame, miso or tofu.

To facilitate the sauté process without oil, use nonstick cookware. A ceramic-coated nonstick (or similar non PTFE or PFOA cookware) is recommended.

Dark leafy greens have an amazing nutritional profile; they are a great source of vitamins and minerals. They can be prepared alone or in combination with beans and/or any sauces.

Whenever possible, choose organic to avoid pesticides. 

Choose high-fiber foods, such as beans, vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Foods high in fiber will provide satiety and help maintain a steady blood sugar.

Alexa and Andrew Lane are health and wellness coaches, and the owners of Soma Samadhi Yoga and Dance in Norwalk. Alexa Lane studied plant-based nutrition at the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies. Andrew Lane is certified in plant-based nutrition by Dr. John McDougall. Connect at 203-939-9642 or [email protected] or

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