There is no “right” or “wrong” way to eat. Each of us are unique. Our dietary needs, caloric requirements, lifestyle, etc. are all highly individualized and can change depending on what you’re dealing with at the time.

It’s clear that we would all benefit from eating more veggies/fruits—more whole foods. For some people that means eating 100% plant based or vegan and for others that just means trying to get to your servings in a day. Whatever you are, there are a few issues when people transition into a more plant-based diet.

The goal is to help make it as easy as possible for you to incorporate more plants into your diet and find a balance that is realistic for you!

Note that these recommendations are also relevant if you aren’t plant-based but struggle with low energy and healthy eating.

Eating too many carbohydrates

What is important is the ratio of protein to carbohydrates, which makes a HUGE difference. Why? If your diet is very high in carbohydrates like grains, starches or sugar and very low in protein by comparison, it can lead to rises in your blood sugar levels which can really influence your cravings, your weight, and energy levels. Protein helps to balance your blood sugar levels and triggers hormones which suppress hunger, which leads to more stable energy and reduced cravings. You do need to make sure you’re getting enough protein, especially for your hormone health.

How do you know if your portion of carbohydrates to protein is enough without counting macronutrients?

  • If you have strong cravings for carbs and sweets, you may want to reduce your portion sizes of high carb foods (look at the sugar content especially) and incorporate more protein sources. A good rule of thumb is to make sure all your meals have a protein portion such as legumes/beans, tempeh, raw nuts, or raw seeds.
  • If since going plant based or more plant based, you have started to gain weight. This is a common complaint that is frustrating & confusing because it might feel like you’re eating “healthy”, but if your blood sugar isn’t balanced, then weight gain will happen

Eating too many processed vegan substitutes

While these foods can come in handy for a quick meal-they’re often highly processed! Think of these foods as junk food. ALWAYS look at the food labels/ingredients—you might be surprised by what you find. Remember that just because something is vegan, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Instead of using these processed substitutes, try jackfruit, which is a fruit that can be shredded and seasoned like pulled pork or tempeh, which is fermented soybeans that can be sliced and seasoned like bacon or broken up into small pieces like ground meat, or nutritional yeast and cashews which can substitute cheesy textures and tastes.

The Grains and Beans

Grains and beans become major staples when you start eating more plant based foods but not everyone has the digestive capacity to handle them in large amounts. Legumes and beans, and many plants for that matter, contain something called phytic acid which may be one of the properties that makes them so healthful, but also reduces their digestibility. Phytic acid can also bind to minerals in the digestive tract, such as iron, copper, zinc and manganese, reducing absorption. This can be problematic if you’re anemic or aren’t already getting enough iron.

These foods also have complex sugars and starches (like oligosaccharides) that the body cannot digest without help. Because they don’t break down, they ferment and produce gases and discomfort. Over time this can lead to a lot of inflammation in the gut that can lead to more serious digestive issues and bacterial imbalances.

You can increase their digestibility by rinsing then, soaking them, slowly cooking them and/or sprout and ferment them. My recommendation is to start small with these foods if you’re not used to eating a lot of legumes or whole grains, you may want to work your way up—so your digestive system adapts slowly. Don’t eat the same protein sources every day or at every meal. Always rinse them, soak them for 12-24 hours (if they’re dry) and cook them fully. If you’re buying plant-based protein powders especially, try to look for ones where the ingredients have been sprouted or fermented.

Confusion about food

I know it seems like there’s so much to pay attention to, but what it ultimately comes down to is getting most of your nutrition from real, whole foods, closet possible to its natural state-whether that includes animal products or not. Trust that your body will guide you towards a diet in which you thrive, and just know that if you haven’t been eating a very whole foods diet to date, it may take a little longer for you to learn to recognize the cues.

Carol Aguirre MS, RD/LDN